The tenor and vision of how the Mountain West football race bleeds out will be shown right out of the chute when TCU and New Mexico kickoff their seasons by facing one another in Albuquerque Aug. 30.

It may not be fair for either team, but that's the hand dealt these two clubs.

You can see it now, TCU or UNM is No. 1 and everyone else is chasing them.

"One of us is going to be really, really happy and the other one will be really, really sad," said Lobo coach Rocky Long.

The winner will sit atop the MWC standings for most of September. The loser will remain at the bottom of the list while league brothers sort out their nonconference schedules.

"It wasn't our choice," said Long.

"We asked to play Thanksgiving Day, and TCU didn't want to play on Thanksgiving. Now, we'll play 12 straight weeks. I'd have liked to have had a week off. If TCU wasn't the opener, I'd be very happy playing Texas A&M and Arizona right off the bat. It would show us where we really are."

Aside from this scheduling oddity, the conference race should ultimately go down to a BYU-Utah showdown — if both quarterbacks and their key running backs stay healthy. The rest of the league will be chasing them once the winner of the TCU-UNM game enjoys a September perch in first place.

BYU and Utah have veteran offenses. They've got the league's best O-line talent and depth.

Both return defensive systems that have proven to cause opponents a ton of problems, Utah against the pass and the Cougars against the run. BYU is picked to win it all, but the Utes are a 1-A or, as voters would have it, No. 2.

Both could end up with high rankings and BCS consideration by the end of November.

You could break down the league and how it'll run out with a list of first to last, but that's irrelevant: It's simple. It will be BYU and Utah, then TCU and New Mexico — the rest will battle for a bowl game or end up in the lower tier of league standings.

TCU hopes folks underestimate them.

"I think some people might count us out, which is great," TCU center Blake Schlueter told reporters in Las Vegas in July. "I hope everybody thinks that we're not any good because then we'll get the opportunity to go show them. We've typically done well in the underdog role because we go out there hungrier, I guess."

Still, it's BYU, Utah and then the other guys.

The Cougars are enjoying a lot of preseason attention, call it hype if you want. Bronco Mendenhall's story has caught the imagination of the media nationwide because of the turn-around from the dip during the post-LaVell Edwards era.

Long explains why.

"BYU is one of those storied programs that you knew would never stay down," explained Long. "They have too many resources, too much tradition and history. They had a couple of bad years, but then Bronco is an excellent coach and he has all those other things. The tradition and history is as much a part of it as the financial.

" If you go to BYU, you are expected to win the conference championship, and the kids who go there understand that.

At our place, you have to teach them, hey, guess what, you can play with those guys. Now we know we can play, guess what, it's not good enough to finish fourth or fifth.

"We haven't got over that hump yet. At our place, we've been to more bowl games in the last seven years than in the history up to that time. But our guys are still saying, 'We're doing pretty good.' And I say, 'No we're not' (no conference title) and that's a pretty hard mindset to change."

The Utes? The last two losses to the Cougars provides Kyle Whittingham and his staff enough fuel to stoke up what they have shown they do best: Play the "Us Against the World Card."

He can make a case his teams in 2006 and 2007 should have gone 2-0 against the Cougars, but strange plays let wins get away.

It's a realistic painting he can etch and frame.

"There is no difference," he can argue to troops. Whittingham proved last year, through some hellish injuries, that he could rally a team from the dead after UNLV. Can the ammo from two heartbreaking injuries be the platform for clipping the Cougars in Rice Eccles Stadium in 2008?

Maybe.

Let this two-team race begin.


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com