For those who have been listening over the years, Mountain West men's basketball coaches have repeatedly reinforced the fact that there are no nights off in a league that has come to be defined as a grueling test of grit.
And if Wednesday night's results were a harbinger of things to come, those nights don't figure to include a great deal of sleep, either, particularly in 2012-13.
Know this: Teams simply do not wander onto Creighton's home floor and win by 13, as Boise State did. Teams simply do not stroll into UC Santa Barbara's Thunderdome and win by 28, as Wyoming did.
At the outset of the season, many were of the belief that the league was capable of potentially earning five bids to this year's NCAA Tournament. Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV, along with newcomer Nevada, were viewed as having the means to muscle their way through the MW maelstrom.
So what happens four weeks into the season? Boise State, which finished tied for last in the MW a year ago, merely knocks off the No. 11 team in the nation. Creighton, which was coming off a 14-point win over Arizona State after posting a 10-point win over Wisconsin, had won 93 straight home games when scoring 70 or more points. The Bluejays entered the contest having won 42 consecutive home games in November and 41 straight against unranked opponents.
Boise State had recorded one road win in program history against a ranked opponent, that coming when the Broncos prevailed at No. 24 Nevada in 2005.
Meanwhile, Wyoming, which is 7-0 for the first time since 1987-88, breezed to a 68-40 win against a UC Santa Barbara squad that in the last five-plus years had gone 54-16 at home. Keep in mind, this is the same Gauchos' team that has advanced to three straight Big West Conference Tournament title games, made three NCAA Tournament appearances in the past decade and whose three home losses last season came against San Diego State (overtime), UNLV (double overtime) and Long Beach State. All three earned bids to the NCAA Tournament.
Said Boise State coach Leon Rice, whose team nearly won at No. 15 Michigan State before falling 74-70 on Nov. 20: "We don't want to be defined by the win in November. Hey, it was a great win against the 11th-ranked team in the country and a tough place to play, and they played their tails off and I'm so proud of them. But we have to get a lot better to compete in our league."
Seven games remain on the Broncos' non-conference schedule, including a December 14 meeting at home against LSU, before opening a grueling Mountain West schedule January 9 at Wyoming.
Only once in the 26-year history of the Jim Thorpe Award has a player from a non-BCS school won the Jim Thorpe Award, annually presented to the nation's top defensive back. In fact, Colorado State's Greg Myers, who will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame next week, received the 1995 Thorpe Award to culminate a career that included 295 total tackles and 15 interceptions in a Ram uniform.
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.
There is no tie breaker for the Mountain West football championship. That means that there's a very real possibility that we could have a three-way tie for the Conference title by the time the final gun goes off in Reno on December 1st. Co-champs are also possibility, but head-to-head then enters into the discussion and a "top-seed" could then be determined.
Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State can each claim a share of the conference crown by winning their final game of the season. The Bulldogs have to take down bowl bound Air Force at home this week, while the rejuvenated Aztecs have a tough one at surging Wyoming. The Broncos will face Nevada on December 1st in one of those "what might have been" kind of games.
As far as co-champs and being able to stake a claim to the top spot via head-to-head results, Fresno State - which beat SDSU and lost to Boise State - needs help in the form of a Nevada win over the Broncos. A two-way tie with SDSU would give the Bulldogs the top spot. The Aztecs need a win in Laramie (no sure thing) and an Air Force win in Fresno to create a two-way tie with Boise State. SDSU holds the head-to-head edge in that one.
A co-championship would be welcomed in both San Diego and Fresno. Both were picked to finish in the upper half of the conference, but neither was thought to have the guns to win the title. For the Bulldogs, it would be quite a statement moving forward, coming in their first year in the league. For the Aztecs, a feather in their cap on the way out the door.
For Boise State, a win over Nevada would give them a 10-2 record - the best in the Conference overall - and a loss by the Aztecs in Laramie would create a two-way tie with a Fresno State team they defeated. But oh, what might have been for these Broncos.
It turns out that a season-opening loss at Michigan State would not have prevented the Broncos from going to a BCS bowl game after all. Even with that defeat, if Boise State had been able to roll through the conference unscathed, they would have been rated in the Top 16 (probably Top 12) of the BCS standings, been the highest rated non-BCS conference champion and gained an automatic BCS berth. Instead, SDSU's shocking win on the blue turf in Boise tossed the Broncos out of the rankings and into a three-way battle for a spot in the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas.
Boise State will still likely get that bid if they beat Nevada, based on overall record. But they were this close to something even better.
So now, when we look forward to the postseason, who will be going where?
We know Air Force is going to the Armed Forces Bowl, regardless of what happens in Fresno. That invite has been accepted already. It's also likely that Nevada will end up in the New Mexico Bowl, regardless of what happens against Boise State. The conference has five eligible teams for five bowl slots.
The three destinations in question are Las Vegas, San Diego's Poinsettia and the Sheraton Hawai‘i Bowl. No losers in that deal. Best bets right now? Boise State makes its last trip to Vegas, the Aztecs stay home in the Poinsettia, and Fresno State gets a nice trip to the Islands. A fitting way to cap off a crazy season - before welcoming in WAC champ Utah State and bowl-bound San Jose State for next season. Stay tuned.
To the surprise of no one, the powers that be in college football have decided that first season that features the new play-off, the 2014 season, will have a championship game that gets played at one of six rotating sites. While they teased us by floating the idea of a seventh major or "access" bowl designed for non-BCS conference schools, that's not going to happen. The original plan includes the same sites and games that currently make up the four "major" bowl games, plus Arlington (Dallas), Texas and Atlanta. Not going out on any limbs there. Any of the six cities can handle being the site of the college Super Bowl.
One of those four (soon to be six) "major" bowl games of course remains the Fiesta Bowl in suburban Phoenix, Arizona. The Fiesta Bowl has hosted several championship games and will do very well the next time it's called upon to host. But what happens to the Fiesta Bowl during the years when it's not hosting any sort of play-off or the title game?
We don't have all the answers yet, and the evolution of the play-off system is ongoing. The Rose Bowl still has its rock-solid tie in with the Big Ten and Pac 12 conferences, and the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference have set up a similar arrangement with the Sugar Bowl. The ACC locked in with the Orange Bowl. Is it just me, or does the Fiesta Bowl seem to be getting left out to some extent? Remember, most seasons the game will not part of the play-off.
A pair of at-large teams - BCS conference teams that are good but not in the mix for the national title - will play in the Fiesta Bowl. Chances are good that neither participant will have won a conference championship.
So just asking here, but why not have the champion of the Mountain West tied in with the Fiesta Bowl? Have the MW champ host one of those at-large teams.
We know the elitist arguments against this. It's the same nonsense that has kept the BCS intact for as long as it's existed. They don't think a non-BCS conference champ will be "worthy" year in and year out. Of course, the fact that the MW champ has badly outperformed the champs of the ACC and Big East over the past half dozen seasons doesn't dissuade the elitists, who have always had memory lapses at convenient times.
Here's how hollow their arguments are: One of the reasons they have decided against adding a seventh "access" bowl is, according to reports, the "difficulty of selling tickets for an annual bowl game featuring non-BCS conference teams." I guess the belief is that it will be easier to sell tickets - in Phoenix - to watch 9-3 Michigan vs. 9-3 Clemson than it would be to sell tickets to watch MW champ Air Force face the Wolverines.
Am I the only one who thinks that the Falcon fans would buy out their allotment - and then some - for that game a helluva lot faster than Clemson fans would? I could be wrong on this, but it seems logical that the MW champ would bring a monstrous contingent of fans to the Fiesta Bowl and that attendance at the game would be greatly improved by having a conference champ with a hint of geographic integrity serving as the host.
Not going to happen this way, of course. TV execs and the elitists who run the game still won't allow it. They figure they can placate followers of the non-BCS conferences by still allowing access to non-BCS conference champs the same way they've been doing.
These people are missing the boat - again. The MW is growing, and will have 10 teams by then. The conference has done very well during bowl season the past few years, including those seasons when they took on, and beat, teams from "power" conferences. That's the beauty of bowl season. Anything can happen when you tangle with the MW champ. Just ask Oklahoma, Alabama or Wisconsin. A couple of the best Fiesta Bowl's ever played featured MW teams. It would be best for the game to make it an every year occurrence.
Not too often does a game between two teams with a combined three wins generate high emotions on both sides, and a genuine sense of relief for the winner. Welcome to the 2012 Border War between Wyoming and Colorado State.
They play every year for the Bronze Boot, a traveling trophy with significance measured far beyond won-loss record. For the record, Wyoming won this year's game 45-31. Now both teams have two wins on the season. And Cowboy fans can exhale.
There were a lot of people - present company included - who thought Wyoming would be in the thick of the Mountain West championship race in 2012. Coming off a bowl season in 2011, and featuring outstanding young quarterback Brett Smith, the Cowboys were a trendy pick to give Boise State and newcomers Nevada and Fresno State a run for their money.
It hasn't turned out that way. A pair of concussions suffered by Smith - who was the MW Freshman of the Year last season and seemed poised to have an even bigger year this time around - effectively squelched the Cowboys hopes of having a really big year. As far as 2012, it became apparent very early that as Brett Smith goes, so go the Wyoming Cowboys.
After playing well in a loss at Texas in the opener, and locked in a tough battle with Toledo in week two, the Pokes saw the trigger man of their high powered spread offense leave the game with his first concussion mid-way through the fourth quarter. Smith had thrown for 339 yards and two scores before he was helped off the field, and the Pokes fell 34-31. Without Smith at all in game three, Wyoming dropped one to Cal Poly to fall to 0-3.
After beating Idaho and then resting up during a bye week, Smith returned for a highly anticipated match up at Nevada. He suffered a second concussion in what became an overtime loss to the Wolf Pack. After throwing three touchdown passes, the star QB's night ended early and the Pokes hopes of an upset fell short 35-28. Wyo fell to 1-4.
Smith was sidelined for the stomach-churning loss to Air Force. Then came a pair of blowout losses to a very good Fresno State team and even better Boise State squad, and suddenly, Wyoming was sitting there with a 1-7 record.
So the Border War game and all that came with it could not have come at a better time for the Pokes. Smith had returned against the Broncos but wasn't back to his pre-injury form quite yet. He showed early against CSU that he WAS finally 100% healthy, and having Smith at this best was plenty to help Christensen earn his fourth straight Bronze Boot. Wyoming was remarkable on third down, converting their first nine tries, including four "3rd-and-double digits." For the game they produced numbers most people expected them to produce all season: 228 yards rushing, 240 yards passing, 32 first downs, including an amazing 15-for-20 on third down. Smith threw for four scores and ran for another. It was a sparkling performance.
The bad news: It's too late to get bowl eligible again, and the Pokes have discovered the hard way that they probably didn't have a solid enough contingency plan going into the season in the case of an injury to their star quarterback. Consider it a lesson learned. They've begun playing talented back up Jason Thompson a series or two even in games that Smith is healthy, just to keep him ready. An experienced Thompson could be the remedy for what ails the Pokes offense when Smith (who has gotten more than one sideline lecture about the virtues of sliding or ducking out of bounds) misses time.
The good news: Smith will be back next season as a well healed and seasoned junior, when he and everyone in brown and gold will get a fresh start. Expect the Cowboys to be in the thick of the 2013 MW title chase.
Having reached the midpoint in the conference portion of the Mountain West football season, it's time to hand out the hardware, to date, in the following categories:
Offensive Player of the Year: Fresno State junior quarterback Derek Carr has been nothing short of masterful in directing the Bulldogs' newly-installed spread offense, ranking No. 2 (tied with West Virginia's Geno Smith) nationally in the category of touchdown passes (26), No. 5 in passing yards (2,766) and No. 7 in completions per game (27.9). Carr, who has completed 68.4 percent of his passes against just five interceptions (367 attempts), has posted two 400-yard games thus far, tying the MW record for most 400-yard games in a season. He has five games in which he has thrown three or more touchdown passes and has two of the four longest completions in the NCAA this season. His 97-yard scoring pass against Colorado on Sept. 15 is the longest in the FBS in 2012, while his 89-yard touchdown pass against New Mexico last week ranks fourth-longest.
Also considered: Nevada RB Stefphon Jefferson; New Mexico RB Kasey Carrier; AF RB Cody Getz
Defensive Player of the Year: One of 15 semifinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, presented annually to the nation's top defensive player, Fresno State senior safety Phillip Thomas leads the FBS in interceptions (seven) and total takeaways (eight). Thomas, who missed the 2011 season after suffering a severe leg injury, has returned three of his seven interceptions for touchdowns. His interception total, which ties the MW single-season record, is two more than any player in the FBS and the most by a Fresno State player in 27 years. He has also recovered a fumble, forced three fumbles, recorded seven tackles for loss and posted three sacks. His 56 tackles rank third among the Thorpe Award's 15 semifinalists and he is first in the categories of tackles for loss and sacks.
Also considered: Colorado State DE Lanston Tanyi; San Diego State CB Leon McFadden; Wyoming LB Ghaali Muhammad
Freshman of the Year: Fresno State wide receiver Davante Adams, who leads the MW in receptions per game (7.2) and receiving yards per game (90.4), is on the verge of becoming the first freshman in Bulldog history to amass 1,000 receiving yards in a season. With 814 yards heading into Week 10, Adams has already set a Fresno State freshman record with nine total touchdowns and has caught a touchdown pass in four straight games. He needs one touchdown to become just the seventh receiver in school history to catch 10 or more scoring passes in a season.
Also considered: Colorado State LB Cory James; UNLV DE Lenny Jones and QB Nick Sherry
Special Teams Player of the Year: Colorado State punter Pete Kontodiakos, a candidate for the Ray Guy Award, presented annually to the nation's top punter, ranks first in the MW and fourth in the nation with an average of 47.4 yards. In the Rams' win over Hawai'i last week, Kontodiakos eclipsed the MW single-game record by averaging 61.8 yards per punt on four attempts, tops in the nation this season by a punter with at least three attempts in a game. He recorded punts of 72, 60, 59 and 56 yards, breaking the previous MW single-game record of 58.0, set by BYU's Matt Payne against San Diego State in 2002. Kontodiakos is on pace to break Colorado State's all-time single-season record of 46.1, established by Mike Deutsch in 1976. His 73-yard punt at Air Force earlier this season is tied for fourth-longest in the nation in 2012 and he has produced four of the five longest punts in the league this season (73, 72, 72 and 69 yards).
Also considered: KR Mike Edwards, Hawai‘i; PK Nolan Kohorst, UNLV
Coach of the Year: First-year New Mexico coach Bob Davie, who inherited a team that had won just three of its previous 40 games, has led the Lobos to a mark of 4-5 heading into their Week 10 meeting with UNLV. Despite being presented with a roster that featured fewer than 60 scholarship players in spring drills, Davie's accomplishments to date include ending the Lobos' 24-game road losing streak (18 of them coming against MW opponents); guiding the team to multiple home wins for the first time since 2008; leading the Lobos to their first winning streak since 2008 and first road winning streak since 2007; and surpassing former UNM coaches Rocky Long (San Diego State) and Dennis Franchione (Texas State) for wins by a Lobo coach in his first season.
Also considered: Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State.
It was affectionately labeled, "the Year of the Upset" in college football. There's no doubt that 2007 - a mere five seasons ago - was the most unusual season in college football history. What started with Appalachian State upsetting mighty Michigan in the Big House ended with the first and only two-loss national champion (LSU) in the modern era. In between there were 59 occasions where an unranked or lower ranked team knocked off a favorite. A record setting 13 unranked teams defeated top five ranked teams during the regular season. The second-ranked team in the polls alone lost SEVEN times during the regular season.
2007 was also the season that saw the Hawai'i Warriors upset Boise State to win the conference title and advance to a BCS bowl game. Yes, Hawai'i went to a BCS game just five years ago. Led by record-setting quarterback Colt Brennan, the Warriors under head coach June Jones posted a perfect 12-0 regular season, the first undefeated regular season in school history. It was the school's first (and so far, only) outright conference title. Losing to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl did little to dampen the enthusiasm around Jones and the Hawai'i program.
Exactly how long ago does that seem today? "Like an eternity," said a Hawai'i staffer. It's a place the Warrior program longs to return to.
In 2007, Norm Chow, the renowned offensive coordinator who was part of national title teams at BYU and USC, was in his final season as the offensive coordinator of the NFL's Tennessee Titans. The Titans went 10-6 and made the AFC playoffs that season, but it was largely due to an excellent defense, with the offense ranking 21st overall. Chow left the NFL after that season and joined Rick Neuheisel's staff at UCLA before he eventually returned home - to his alma mater, Utah - to coach on Kyle Whittingham's staff as the Utes entered the Pac 12 in 2011.
Meanwhile, Jones left Hawai'i to take over at SMU after the 2008 season. At the time, one of the leading candidates to replace him was supposed to be Norm Chow. Except that Chow - who had interviewed for other head jobs and had already turned down the head job at the University of Kentucky - reportedly did not pursue the Hawai'i gig at the time. Instead, he opted to stay at UCLA for another season before moving back to the mountains. Along with playing his college ball at Utah, Chow first made a name for himself as an assistant coach at BYU. But the fact remained that Chow was a Hawaii native, and many people felt it was meant to be that the first head coaching gig for the venerable long time assistant would be back on the island. Those people were right.
It finally happened just before Christmas 2011. After nearly 40 years as an assistant coach, Chow accepted the opportunity to replace Greg McMackin and become the first Asian-American head coach of a major college football program - in a move that coincided with Hawai'i's move to the Mountain West Conference.
The good Chow inherited: A program that had been to seven bowl games the previous 10 seasons and posted three double-digit win seasons. The bad: A program that had losing seasons in two of the past three years. The difficult: Un-installing the Warriors well known and deeply rooted "run and shoot" offense and inserting Chow's tried and true pro-style system. It was a more dramatic change than most people would think.
"Ya, it was tough. We didn't have any tight ends or fullbacks on the roster. The receivers were all smaller, quicker guys, not pro set guys. We had to move some players over from linebacker and things like that," said former Warrior defensive lineman and current Hawai'i linebackers coach Tony Tuioti, who was the only holdover from McMakin's staff. "But it's going to be fine. Just need some time."
The warm and fuzzy feeling around the time of Chow's hiring is something that remains in place for these Warriors, whose fan base seems willing to give their native son a pass for this season, even after Hawai'i fell for the fifth straight time, losing to Colorado State 42-27 on Saturday. Confidence that Chow can return Hawai'i to the upper echelon of college football seems genuine. Aside from the normal grumbling about who's starting at QB - and every team that struggles hears that from the outside - the Warrior fan base remains firmly in behind their new coach.
We remember where Hawai'i was five seasons ago. The question now is where can the program be five years from now?
Things look a lot like most people thought they'd look in the Mountain West as we squeeze past the halfway point of the season. Pre-season favorite Boise State looks like the team to beat...but the race for second place? Seems more wide open than ever.
Make no mistake, that second place spot could be quite valuable by the time the final BCS standings are announced on December 2nd. As mentioned last week, Boise State's chances of gaining an automatic BCS bid remain strong, even if the talking heads on the four-letter network don't think so. The Broncos moved up just one spot to #21 in the most recent BCS Standings (even after three teams - including Big East member Cincinnati - ranked just ahead of them lost...go figure) but the prospects for eight more of the teams that stand between the Broncos and the coveted #12 spot in the final standings falling (several more than once) remain very good. And if the less than imposing Big East leaders, Rutgers and Louisville both stumble, all the Broncos have to do is reach #16 to get an automatic bid.
So if Boise State wins out, they have a great shot at getting into the BCS.
If that happens, then the league's second place team would get that nice trip to Las Vegas to serve as host for the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas. Not too shabby.
Who will it be? Everyone's smart money was on Nevada - then the Wolf Pack blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead and got ambushed by San Diego State in OT at home on Saturday night. Now Nevada has a conference loss (3-1 in MW play) and still has to play Boise State when they host the Broncos on December 1st. Meanwhile, the Aztecs at 3-1 in conference play also must play at Boise State as well as traveling to Air Force.
What about the Falcons? They found some way to overcome a record-setting 338 rushing yards from New Mexico's Kasey Carrier to hold off Bob Davie's Lobos and also move to 3-1 in conference play. Air Force hosts Nevada this week and still has trips to San Diego State and Fresno State on their flight plan, but they don't play Boise State this season.
Which brings us to Fresno State. The Bulldogs looked powerful in routing Wyoming on Saturday to join the group at 3-1 in the MW, and they've already beaten the Aztecs. Derek Carr and company can't look past New Mexico this weekend in Albuquerque, and they still have Air Force at home as well. That number two spot in the final standings could very well come down to the Fresno State at Nevada game on November 10th.
Including Las Vegas, the Mountain West has some excellent bowl destinations - like San Diego and Honolulu. There will be no "losers" when it comes time to go bowling. If Boise State is able to crack the BCS and give the MW an addition bowl spot, then six MW teams could get a post-season shot. Soon we could be trying to identify which conference teams are most likely to join the five we've already mentioned as a post-season participant. Keep this in mind: At 4-4, New Mexico - as downtrodden as a program could be the past few years - needs three wins in its final five games to get bowl eligible (the Lobos play 13 games this season so they need to win seven games.) Those final five games include dates at Colorado State and UNLV, as well as a home game with Wyoming.
Like we said last week, stay tuned. It's only going to get better.
It's the time of year when we start hearing that dirty little three letter word about a dozen times a day. Already sick of it? Take heart. The countdown has begun to the glorious and timely demise of the BCS following next season. But for now, we're still stuck with the cartel and its annual miscarriages of college football justice. It's just a matter of weeks until some team somewhere gets the shaft from the BCS. The good news? It really CAN'T be a Mountain West team(s) this time. The MW champ will either be in or out, automatically.
A season ago, a Boise State team ranked #7 in the country was bypassed in favor of teams ranked in the mid teens. The Broncos were just one of four top 10 teams to get passed over. (In fairness to the cartel, one of those teams was SEC member Arkansas, who was not eligible because two other SEC teams - Alabama and LSU - were playing in the title game.) This season, following a narrow, season-opening loss at Michigan State, the Broncos were written off for dead in terms of being this year's BCS buster. But is that still the case after the first week of October?
Maybe not. The first BCS standings have the Broncos at #22 - a full 10 spots below where they need to end up to qualify for a big bowl game. But they currently meet the criteria of being the highest ranked non-automatic-qualifying BCS team in the poll, and with half the season left to play, the chance to inch their way up the poll those 10 precious spots over the next month and a half seems to be reasonable.
The Broncos' convincing win over Fresno State - done the old fashioned way with a powerful running game and a stout defense - has placed Boise State back in the picture. The Bulldogs appeared to be a serious road block, but instead, the Broncos defense, led by Demarcus Lawrence , manhandled FS. It was the fourth straight game an opponent has failed to score a point in the first half against the Broncos defense.
Meanwhile, running backs D.J. Harper and Jay Ajayi were powering through what had previously been one of the tougher defenses around. Fresno State entered the game leading the country in turnover margin but walked off the blue turf holding nothing but regret.
So now Boise State's goal of winning their first Mountain West championship appears well within reach. There's still a big game with Nevada on December 1st - a game that will close the regular season, as well as five other league games with a least limited upset potential (remember the trip to New Mexico a couple of weeks ago?) If BSU does win the MW title, and finishes #12 or higher in the final BCS poll, they will automatically qualify for a BCS game. No bias or poll politics could keep them out.
According to the published BCS selection criteria: "The champion of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, the Sun Belt Conference, or the Western Athletic Conference will earn an automatic berth in a BCS bowl game if ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS Standings, or, if ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS Standings and its ranking in the final BCS Standings is higher than that of a champion of a conference that has an annual automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls."
The criteria also states: "No more than one such team from Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, the Sun Belt Conference, and the Western Athletic Conference shall earn an automatic berth in any year."
With WAC member Louisiana Tech's loss to Texas A&M, no other potential non-AQ BCS conference champ-to-be (outside of maybe Ohio) appears to have a legit shot at the BCS. What about the teams ranked ahead of 5-1 Boise State? It stands to reason that three Big East teams (Rutgers, Louisville and Cincinnati) will not all win the rest of their games, since they have to play each other. At least two of them will lose at some point, and probably all three (meaning the MW champ could finish ranked ahead of the Big East champ yet again. In that case, the Broncos would only need to reach #16 in the final BCS poll...)
It also stands to reason that 5-1 Texas A&M will not stay ranked ahead of the Broncos after they're finished going through the SEC gauntlet, and Texas Tech from the Big 12 still has several tough games in front of them. Stanford has two losses and still has to face Oregon and Oregon State. Mississippi State will drop at least three games before the season ends for the same reason as A&M.
So that's seven slots you can project the Broncos climbing without any real upsets occurring...again, assuming Boise State wins out and claims the MW title. (That remains a big assumption.) The chances of other surprises happening - in the form of Top 25 upsets - are about the same as the chances of snow falling in Laramie in October.
So ironically, in what is the second-to-last season of the BCS cartel, the conference they've worked so hard to keep out could be holding a defacto conference title game on December 1st in Reno with an automatic BCS bid on the line. Will the two teams play another epic as they did in 2010, when the Broncos chances at going to the BCS - even the BCS TITLE game - went wide right...and then wide left...in a heart wrenching overtime loss to Colin Kapernick and the Wolf Pack? It could be the kind of high quality drama that leagues with those automatic bids only wish they could have.
If the risk/reward facet of Robbie Rouse's football future had been based solely on first impression, Rick Jackson might have become the first head coach to give himself the boot.
Literally. Repeatedly. Unceasingly.
Instead, Jackson, as with any football coach worth the weight of the whistle around his neck, opted to rely on a scouting report. It came from his former defensive coordinator, who while overseeing a P.E. class at Madison High in San Diego took note of a newly-arrived freshman who appeared to loom slightly larger than a lawn gnome and bore roughly the bulk of his backpack.
"Robbie didn't play with us as a freshman, because that was a time when freshmen were still allowed to play Pop Warner," said Jackson, who also serves as the school's athletic director. "But after hearing what my defensive coordinator had told me about him, I just randomly called Robbie into my office one day to talk to him.
"I knew he had been a dynamo in youth football, but I'm sure there had also been people throughout his life who told him he couldn't do certain things because of his size. That only served to fuel the fire. He's probably the most competitive kid I've ever coached."
If Rouse's measurables redefined the meaning of meager, his athletic ability underscored the resolve of the underdog. Despite being 5-3 and weighing 130 pounds, he was fast, he was fiery and elusive as a whisper on the wind. He would play anything, and he played it to beat you, be it on a football field, a baseball diamond, a tartan track or a tennis court.
Although relegated to Madison's junior varsity team as a sophomore, Rouse proceeded to run roughshod through the school's record books in his final two seasons. After rushing for 2,055 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior, he finished ninth in California as a senior with 2,390 yards while scoring 39 touchdowns. Rarely playing in the second half of games, he averaged a staggering 12.92 yards per carry, the best per carry average of any of California's top 50 backs. He ranked eighth in the state with an average of 199.2 yards per game and topped the 200-yard mark in eight of his final 10 games.
With the second-guessers sufficiently silenced, Rouse drew the interest of former Fresno State coach Pat Hill, who knew well enough not to tarry over the "small" stuff. With a scholarship in hand and having acquired the moniker "Mighty Mouse," Rouse was on his way to play big-time college football. And at Fresno State, the mouse was about to bully his way into Bulldog lore.
"When I first got on campus, we had some great running backs like Ryan Mathews (a first-round pick of the San Diego Chargers) and Anthony Harding (a free-agent signee later released by Green Bay), and I was just hoping to come in and get some playing time and help the team win games," Rouse said. "I was fortunate enough to get a chance to play. I always worked hard during the offseason, and here we are today."
"Here" being 3,868 yards and 33 rushing touchdowns later. "Here" being Rouse's final run at Fresno State, where six games into his senior season he ranks 14th in the nation in rushing (118.5 yards per game) and will exit as the Bulldogs' all-time leading rusher, having eclipsed the school record in a 69-14 rout of Colorado in Week 3. Rouse, who erased the mark of 3,473 yards held by Ron Rivers (1991-93), did so in high style, scoring on school record-tying 94-yard run in a game in which he scored four touchdowns --- in the first half.
"Coming into the season, everybody kept asking me, "When are you going to break it? When are you going to break the record?" said Rouse, who entered the team's inaugural season in the Mountain West 317 yards shy of breaking Rivers' record. "I just had to stay focused on helping the team win. It was tough at times, but once I finished that (94-yard touchdown run) and broke the record, it was kind of a relief. At the same time, it was really a great feeling."
And further confirmation that being diminutive need not be linked to being discouraged.
"When I'm out on the field, I feel like I'm 6-2 until I look at the film and see the size difference," said Rouse, who is listed at 5-7, 190. "But when I'm out there, I feel bigger than anybody. I just love the game and I play with a lot of passion. I've always been a competitor and I like to compete at the highest level. I know (breaking the record) is looked at as a big accomplishment, but I'm always going to keep moving forward and give my team everything I've got."
That approach was particularly evident during the offseason, when after 15 seasons Fresno State parted ways with Hill and hired Tim DeRuyter, leaving Rouse to spend his final season under the direction of a new staff. Rather than grumble, however, Rouse encouraged teammates to embrace the transition, throwing his support squarely behind DeRuyter even though the former Air Force and Texas A&M defensive coordinator had never been a head coach.
"When I first met with the team back in December, I thought Robbie was an extremely high-character young man," DeRuyter said. "I just got a great sense from him that even though Coach Hill and his staff had recruited him he was willing to go all-in with this new era of Bulldog football. I really appreciated that. He's got such respect from our entire team, our coaching staff and our administration just because of the way he conducts himself. For someone like him to step up and say, "Guys, this is the new direction we're going," was huge in our transition.
"He's a guy that has an unbelievable heart. He's probably as hard of a worker as anyone we have on our team. He's got tremendous vision, balance and strength and it just happens to be packaged in a 5-foot-6 frame. He's a guy who doesn't mind mixing it up. He doesn't mind running between the tackles and he can make guys miss in space. It's amazing to see what someone with those kind of measurables can do.
"He runs like he's got a chip on his shoulder, like people have been telling him his whole life that he's too small. He's set out to prove everybody wrong and he's done a great job of doing it."
But time grows short, and Rouse, who posted his fifth 100-yard rushing game this season and the 17th of his career with 124 yards in Saturday's 28-7 win at Colorado State (he also caught a career-high nine passes), is acutely aware of the ticking of the clock. With the final season of his college career having reached the midway point, he'd like nothing more than to turn back time, to stave off that day when he'll ultimately bid farewell to Fresno State.
"Every season means a lot, but this one is special because I know these are going to be my last games as a Bulldog," he said. "You're always going to remember your first three years, but it's always your senior year that you look back on. I'll always remember walking on campus as a freshman, and now I'm already going into my (seventh) game as a senior.
"I've played football since the age of 6, so it was always a dream of mine to do what I've done and to be able to play as long as I could. There have always adjustments along the way, going from flag football to Mighty Mites, from Pop Warner to high school and from high school to college. I've just always found a way to adapt to that next level and adjust my game.
"But all I really wanted was the chance to play Division I football. Being smaller, who knows if any other Division I schools are going to be interested in you? But Coach Hill and his staff gave me that opportunity. All I've done is tried to make the most of it and help my team win."
Mick McGrane has covered the Mountain West since the league's inception in 1999. He spent 12 years at the San Diego Union-Tribune, where he served as the beat writer for San Diego State football and men's basketball. He currently represents the MW as a member of the Football Writers Association of America All-America Committee and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. McGrane serves as senior writer to the Mountain West, providing readers with exclusive, in-depth information about the Conference by highlighting its 10 member institutions and contributing feature stories on student-athletes that participate in the league's 18 sponsored sports.
Have a question for Mick? E-mail him at mick@TheMWC.com or check him out on Twitter @MWCMick.
Mark Knudson is a Colorado State journalism school graduate and a 12-year veteran of professional baseball. During his playing career, Mark pitched for three major league teams, including the Colorado Rockies, where he was the first Colorado native to play for the hometown team. He recorded wins over three of the four legendary pitchers who make up the 4,000 strikeout club: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. His win over Ryan came for the Milwaukee Brewers on Opening Day in 1991.
Since his retirement, Mark has been a feature writer and columnist for Mile High Sports, a radio talk show host and TV analyst for numerous sports media outlets. For the past six years, he was a columnist and baseball analyst for The Mtn., along with being one of Colorado's six Heisman Trophy voters.
Have a question for Mark? Visit him at ElevationSportsNetwork.com or check him out on Twitter @MarkKnudson41.