The Muddled Mountain West Middle
All attention in the Mountain West is focused on the Boise State-TCU game coming up on Saturday. And the Notebook will as well, as part of our weekly Saturday TV preview feature (the game is on Versus at 3:30 PM ET). But the Mountain West also has an interesting middle class that's trying to sort itself out in a bowl picture that will see at least five conference teams get bids. In a league where Boise & TCU are clearly at the top, and UNVL & New Mexico are just as clearly at the bottom, let's take a look at the four teams in the muddled middle, Wyoming, San Diego State, Air Force and Colorado State and try and sort it all out.
Wyoming: The surprising Cowboys are 5-3 and with only one conference loss and a win at San Diego State, we do have to give them a courtesy nod for their chance to win the conference championship as long as Boise takes care of business on the blue turf. Wyoming still gets its own crack at the frontrunning Broncos. But that's just one part of a tough closing stretch, where the Cowboys still play Air Force on Saturday and close out at Colorado State. This is a nice team that's built around a solid defense and efficient quarterback play from Brett Smith, but they need more explosiveness to aspire to the top tier. But bowl eligibility is just around the corner and that's a nice achievement in Laramie.
San Diego State: I expected a little more from the Aztecs this year, although at 5-3 they still have plenty of opportunities to fulfill their promise. Ronnie Hillman is having a standout year running the ball, but I did think San Diego State would do a better job of creating opportunities for him catching the ball out of the backfield. Ryan Lindsey hasn't had the kind of year throwing the ball I expected, and as a result the Aztecs have lost to Wyoming, TCU and Michigan. If they sweep a trio of road games with Colorado State, UNLV and Fresno, that still gets them an eight-win season and they get the ultimate shot at redemption with a home game against Boise.
Air Force: Another team of whom more could have been expected this year, the Falcons are 5-4. While none of the losses–Notre Dame, Boise State, San Diego State and TCU are anything to be ashamed of, they also haven't been competitive in any of them either. Asher Clark has been respectable as the lead running back, but between he and quarterback Tim Jefferson, they haven't really taken over games in the triple option. With a manageable schedule left, there's still opportunity to do so, and with a defense that's subpar, they'll both need to if Air Force wants to be more than just an example fans cite of why there's too many bowl games.
Colorado State: It's really just a technicality that gets Colorado State on this list. At 3-5, they can win three of the last four and make a bowl game. But with no offense to speak of, a defense that's average at best and the remaining schedule being San Diego State, TCU, Wyoming and Air Force, where exactly are those three wins coming from?
The Mountain West has five bowl commitments, although if Boise State gets a BCS bid–which they will if they finish 12-0–,the conference would need Colorado State to make it and fill the quota. That this won't happen is a prime example of how the Mountain West Middle has been disappointing this season. That, and the inability of Air Force and San Diego State to make a bigger splash.
Regardless of whether the fifth bowl slot–the New Mexico Bowl against the seventh-place team from the Pac-12 (that is if the Pac-12 can also fill its slots with USC on probation) is filled by a Mountain West team, the conference certainly wants Boise to make it to the BCS. In addition to the money it brings to the league overall, a BCS game pulls everyone one slot up the ladder. The Las Vegas Bowl is tops on the list with a date against a mid-level Pac-12 team (e.g. Washington, UCLA or Arizona State) being the prize. TCU probably gets this bid regardless, either as conference champ if they upset Boise, or just taking Boise's spot if the Broncos are BCS bound. The Poinsettia Bowl is next in line and the opponent would be the WAC champ (currently Nevada). If you drop down below that, you get the Indepedence (vs ACC #7, probably Wake Forest) or the Armed Forces Bowl against Conference USA #3–any one of Houston, Tulsa or Southern Miss. The Independence bid doesn't look all that attractive, but any of the others are nice opportunity spots for the Mountain West Middle.