While that may seem preposterous enough --- none of the last five winners of the award has ranked higher than 11th nationally in interceptions and two didn't rank among the top 96 --- I'm certain the arguments against Fresno State's Philip Thomas taking home the honor in 2012 will be only slightly more inane.
Thomas, a semifinalist for the award, finished the regular season as the national leader in interceptions with eight, two more than any Thorpe Award winner over the past five seasons. His interception total was the most by a Fresno State player in 27 years and set a new Mountain West single-season record.
Thomas, who on Wednesday was named to the 2012 AFCA FBS Coaches' All-America Team, selected by American Football Coaches Association, returned three interceptions for touchdowns. His nine total takeaways (eight interceptions, one fumble recovery) are both tied for the FBS lead. His three interceptions for touchdowns set a school record, tied the Mountain West single-season record and rank one shy of the NCAA record.
Thomas' four forced fumbles are tied for the seventh-most in the nation. He led the Bulldogs this year with 82 tackles and his 12.0 tackles for a loss were the second-most in the MW.
In 2011 without Thomas, who suffered a broken leg and dislocated ankle during the offseason, Fresno State went 4-9 and tied for last nationally in turnovers gained (nine). This season, the Bulldogs went 9-3, claimed a share of their first conference title since 1999 and are currently tied for third nationally with 33 takeaways. Fresno State has registered the biggest turnover turnaround in the FBS this century in becoming the first team to record fewer than 10 takeaways the previous season before amassing more than 30 the following year.
While most consider Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks and Alabama's Dee Milliner to be Thomas' chief competition for the award, this race --- assuming the award is not limited to SEC membership --- is less of a leaning at the tape than a landslide.
Banks has enjoyed a standout career at Mississippi State, but his totals in 2012 include four interceptions (second on the team), 59 tackles (fifth), two tackles for loss and one fumble recovery. He was also part of a team whose defense surrendered an average of 38.5 points in the Bulldogs' four SEC losses.
Milliner, meanwhile, who will undoubtedly sway voters in that he toils for the top-ranked defense in the country (lest we conveniently forget this is an individual award), doesn't even measure up to Banks. Heading into this weekend's SEC title game against Georgia, Milliner's defensive totals include two interceptions (tied for third on team), 47 tackles (fifth), one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Of the past five Thorpe Award winners --- LSU's Morris Claiborne, LSU's Patrick Peterson, Tennessee's Eric Berry, Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins and Arizona's Antoine Cason --- Thomas returned as many interceptions for touchdowns in 2012 as those five players combined during the seasons in which they won the award. He also averaged four more interceptions, 21.2 more tackles and 3.3 more tackles for loss.
Dispense with the discussion. The polls are closed. Phillip Thomas is in a league of his own --- even if the so-called "Big Five" refuse to acknowledge the existence of other leagues.
A Sign of Things to Come
The Mountain West will be adding two of this season's most successful teams to its football lineup in 2013.
Utah State, currently ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press poll, No. 22 in the USA Today/Coaches' rankings and Harris Interactive poll and No. 24 in the latest BCS Standings, posted its first 10-win season in school history last week with a 45-9 win over Idaho its regular-season finale. The victory gave the WAC champion Aggies (10-2), who have accepted an invitation to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, their first outright league title since 1936.
"These kids have come so far," said fourth-year head coach Gary Andersen. "They put high expectations on themselves at the beginning of the year, starting January 7th. I'll never forget the day when they broke out of this room right here saying WAC champs. They've said it hundreds and hundreds of times since then and now it's true."
Meanwhile, San Jose State, under the direction of coach third-year head coach Mike MacIntyre, posted its first 10-win season since 1987 with a win over Louisiana Tech in the Spartans' regular-season finale. Ranked No. 25 in the latest BCS Standings, San Jose State (10-2) finished WAC play at 5-1, its lone loss coming against Utah State.
Both teams feature dynamic young quarterbacks in Utah State sophomore Chuckie Keaton and San Jose State junior David Fales. Keaton currently ranks 31st among FBS passers, while Fales is 13th.
"We are back on our way up," said MacIntyre, who inherited a team that finished 2-10 in 2009. "We have a lot to do and you can either get better or worse, so we will keep pushing along and keep going. We lose some great seniors this season but we have a good junior class and some redshirts coming in. Our footing is going the right way. We just have to keep going the same direction."
Should Boise State top Nevada in the regular-season finale for both teams on Saturday, it would mark just the second time in league history that tri-champions were crowned in the Mountain West. In the league's inaugural season of 1999, BYU, Colorado State and Utah shared the league crown with identical 5-2 records in MW play. Fresno State and San Diego State each claimed a share of the title last week, marking only the second time in the Conference's 14 years that multiple teams earned the MW championship.
For the first time in league history, six Mountain West running backs have eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark, including Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson (1,564), New Mexico's Kasey Carrier (1,469), Fresno State's Robbie Rouse (1,468), San Diego State's Adam Muema (1,355), UNLV's Tim Cornett (1,232) and Air Force's Cody Getz (1,213). The six 1,000-yard rushers breaks the previous MW single-season record of five set in 2001 (BYU's Luke Staley, San Diego State's Larry Ned, Utah's Dameon Hunter, Air Force's Keith Boyea and UNLV's Joe Haro). The league could have two more reach the 1,000-yard mark before the end of the season, as Boise State RB D.J. Harper currently has 935 rushing yards and Nevada QB Cody Fajardo has 900.
Five Mountain West teams, including Boise State (9-2), Fresno State (9-3), San Diego State (9-3), Nevada (7-4) and Air Force (6-6) have earned bowl eligibility. The MW has boasted five bowl-eligible teams in each of the past eight seasons and nine times overall. Since its inception in 1999, the MW has earned 51 bowl bids and holds a 31-20 (.608) all-time record.
Over the last eight seasons, the Mountain West has captured the Bowl Challenge Cup four times and owns the best win percentage in bowl games among the 11 FBS conferences with a mark of 24-12 (.667). The MW is the only conference to win the trophy four times since the award's inception in 2002-03.