With three teams ranked in the Top 25 for the first time, the Mountain West Conference is enjoying unprecedented national attention and unprecedented success on the field as a whole. BYU (No. 11), Utah (No. 17) and TCU (No. 24) are all 4-0 while UNLV and Air Force have posted 3-1 records.

Are these the best of times for the MWC?

"Without question," said commissioner Craig Thompson. "When you've got, after one-third of the season has been played, six of the nine teams have only one loss (or less) and you have three undefeated teams and two others at 3-1, what we've done in the nonconference. particularly especially against (BCS teams), we're in pretty good company.

"There's no doubt this is, top-to-bottom, the strongest this league has ever been."

"It's great for the conference," TCU coach Gary Patterson said of having three ranked teams. "It shows that we're making progress. I've always known we have good football coaches and good players in our conference. We're strong and we're stronger than just a couple of football teams.

"It will keep getting better because I think the recruiting is getting better. I'm proud of everybody in our conference. Every year we keep just getting better."

And the conference's stock could rise even higher if TCU can upset No. 2 Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., on Saturday.

"Bottom line is, we're back in the Top 25, but we're playing the No. 2 team in the nation," Patterson said. "Oklahoma is very good on both sides of the ball. They've won a lot of championships.

"For us, we're excited about being where we're at. Before the season, we said that if we wanted to be 4-0 going into the Oklahoma game and just how it went and give them our best shot. And here we are."

It's unlikely the Sooners will be overlooking the Horned Frogs. TCU went into Norman in 2005 and defeated Oklahoma, 17-10.

"You've got to go play these games," Patterson said. "Had we not played them in 2005, and been fortunate, maybe we wouldn't sit, three years later, where we are as a program. These are the kind of games you've got to go play ... We knew when we scheduled this game that it would be a measuring stick game. They had a chance to be really good because they always are. We're excited about it ... We've got quite a task at hand."

REBEL YELL: One of the intriguing storylines this season in the MWC is the success of UNLV, a perennial conference bottom-feeder. Don't look now, but the Rebels are 3-1, with back-to-back overtime wins over BCS teams — Arizona State and Iowa State. It marks the first time in school history the Rebels have won two consecutive games against BCS opponents.

Coach Mike Sanford isn't surprised by his team's performance this season.

"I expect to win. I'm not surprised. I'm one of those that, I can't coach unless I expect to win every game," he said. "I expected to beat Utah (which handed UNLV its only loss). So I'm not surprised one bit that we're 3-1. People on the outside might be, but I'm not."

At the same time, Sanford realizes there are more obstacles to hurdle for his program.

"I feel like we have so much further to go. We're just touching the iceberg of what this thing can be, of what we can accomplish."

He credited his players for their efforts on and off the season.

"They've invested a lot. They've worked very hard in preparation for this season. We have really good leadership on this team. It's very demanding of the rest of the team. The other thing is, we've improved the quality of player in the program and the quality of character of the players in this program. You can count on them in critical situations and it shows in the way we're playing this year."

This week, the Rebels face in-state rival Nevada. UNLV has lost three straight games to the Wolf Pack.

DREAMING OF A NATIONAL TITLE: While having one of its teams break into a BCS game this season would be a huge deal for the MWC, what's the likelihood of an undefeated MWC team reaching the BCS title game?

"It would be a stretch," Thompson said. "But it is potentially possible if BYU, Utah or TCU run the table. If there are two (BCS) teams ahead of them that are also undefeated, they probably would not have a chance at playing for the national championship. But if there's only one undefeated team and everybody else has one loss, again, it's a stretch, but it's a possibility."

PORTERIE OUT: As if falling to Tulsa, 56-14, last week wasn't bad enough, New Mexico lost quarterback Donovan Porterie for the season. Porterie suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his knee in the first half of that game. Porterie's replacement is freshman Brad Gruner, who completed 7 of 12 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown along with three interceptions. A junior, Porterie has exhausted his redshirt year and he has already played too much this season to qualify for a medical hardship.


E-mail: jeborn@desnews.com