Mountain West closing the gap

By By Tony Pizza

By Tony Pizza

The Pacific-10 is the premiere conference on the West Coast-and the only BCS conference east of the Rocky Mountains. Except for Boise State and Fresno State, the only other teams outside of the Pac-10 that appear on the national radar out west come from the Mountain West Conference. But no matter how much success the MWC enjoys, it never seems to gain ground on the Pac-10 in the public eye.

One thing that has helped level the playing field over the years is the Title IX Education Amendment, which limits Division-I football programs to 85 scholarships per team.

“When we went to 85 scholarships a few years back, it really leveled the playing field,” said U head coach Kyle Whittingham. “The more guys that the Pac-10 would have taken, they can’t take now.”

The Pac-10 can still point to many facts that justify its claim to supremacy out West. First and foremost, the facilities and budget that each Pac-10 school has to spend on the football team far outweighs those of the Mountain West.

“The gap has shrunk, (but) the Pac-10 is still much more financially well off than we are in the Mountain West, with the BCS money and so forth and, so, we’re at a slight disadvantage there,” Whittingham said.

With the money Pac-10 schools bring in, each school is able to build better facilities that bring in better athletes and the money helps make the players healthier, faster and stronger overall compared with Mountain West schools.

USC stands atop the conference, and the past three years it has been either the first- or second-best team in the country, which brings clout to the entire conference and brings in more money every time the Trojans make BCS bowl games. The Pac-10 can also point to the rankings every year. Since 2003, the Pac-10 has averaged 3.5 teams in the nation’s Top 30 in both the AP and USA Today polls.

Just to dispel the argument that pre-rankings mean absolutely nothing, the Pac-10 also averages more than three teams finishing in the top 25 at the end of every year. In the last four years, the Mountain West only averages one team in the top 30 before the season and one team after. Only once in the past four years have two current Mountain West teams finished in the top 25 in both major polls. The year was 2003, and TCU, which finished No. 19 in both polls, had yet to join the Mountain West.

If the polls don’t tell the story, then the head-to-head record of the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences does. Since 2002, the Pac-10 owns a 21-8 record over the Mountain West. Utah has been the most successful over the Pac-10 during that span, combining for a 4-1 record, including a win against a ranked Oregon Ducks team in 2003. Air Force is the only other MWC team with a winning record in that span going 2-1. Not surprisingly, San Diego State and New Mexico have struggled against the Pac-10 since 2002, but shockingly, BYU has also gone 0-5 during that stretch.

It is clear why the Pac-10 is considered to be the better conference, but the Mountain West is narrowing the gap.

The overall records can be a deceiving statistic. San Diego State is perpetually a lower-echelon MWC football team, typically finishing around 3-4 in the conference and 5-6 overall. Located in California, the Aztecs make a perfect Pac-10 opponent, because it isn’t a long distance road trip for either team. Also, because San Diego State is usually athletic, but not a top-tier MWC contender, it ends up being a good tune up for any Pac-10 team. New Mexico is a tougher opponent for the Pac-10 because the Lobos always present a viable offense.

The Pac-10 has squeaked out three regular-season games against New Mexico in the past four years, and the Pac-10 has also faced New Mexico in two recent bowl games, winning both.

BYU has possibly the most deceiving recent record against the Pac-10. BYU lost two of the games during 2003, which is one of the two worst seasons BYU has had since the MWC was created. In 2004, BYU lost a very close game to Stanford in Palo Alto, then came back to Provo and lost to the eventual national champion USC Trojans.

With the U’s BCS bowl run of 2004 and the Mountain West adding TCU a year later, the MWC has closed the gap considerably. Utah raised the bar in the Mountain West in 2004 by going undefeated and beating a BCS school in a BCS bowl. The other eight teams in the conference will have to rise to Utah’s level to start competing for a conference championship. TCU entering the conference might be the only thing better than Utah’s Fiesta Bowl victory.

TCU brought an excellent track record into the Mountain West. In 2002, the Frogs went 10-2 and, the next year, topped that record by going 11-2. The year before, it entered the Mountain West and went a measly 5-6, but made an immediate statement by going 11-1, including a perfect 8-0 in conference play.

To be a competitive conference like the Pac-10, the MWC needs to have three viable teams that have the potential to make noise during the college football season. Even more pressing is that the league needs to have at least two of those teams fulfill expectations and play good football all year long. The Mountain West will also try to find the most competitive non-conference schedule. Nearly every Pac-10 school can count on two to three ranked teams per year, and if the Mountain West can’t find enough teams at that caliber, it will have to go outside the conference to ensure that the best teams are getting the best possible challenge they can hope for.

One of the biggest reasons the Pac-10 can stay at such a high level is that ranked Pac-10 teams are playing other ranked Pac-10 teams. Not only are these high-profile games that have a better chance of getting seen nationally, but also, when one ranked team loses to another ranked team, the drop in rankings or in stature is not nearly as significant as if, for example, a top-15 TCU team gets beaten by an unranked and lowly regarded BYU team.

Nearly every team in the Mountain West faces an important non-conference game. Air Force vs. Notre Dame, TCU at Texas Tech, Utah at UCLA, Utah vs. Boise State, Wyoming at Virginia and BYU at Arizona are important games for the Mountain West to compete in this year. The MWC can’t expect to win all of these games but competing in all of them gives substance to the conference.

BYU, Utah and TCU are all expected to compete in the conference this year. If two of these teams can make strong runs through the year and make it to higher profile bowls, the Mountain West will get a large lift toward further closing the gap between itself and the Pac-10 Conference.