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Blogger debate: Big East vs. Mountain West

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson and Brian Bennett

After the success of the 2008 season, the Mountain West made its case for inclusion into the BCS or at the very least a change in the current system. The Mountain West's argument? That it's starting to surpass some of the conferences that currently hold BCS automatic bids.

The Big East is one conference that continues to be under fire for its middling performance during the past year.

At the end of the season, the Mountain West finished with three teams ranked in the Top 25, including two in the top 10. In the recently released coaches' poll, three Mountain West teams were ranked and none appeared from the Big East.

It's clear that the Mountain West is enjoying a major upswing while the Big East is in a down cycle, but is it enough to warrant the changing of the automatic bid?

Yes, under current BCS rules the Big East could keep its automatic bid and the Mountain West could earn one for the 2014 season. But what if there were only one bid remaining and the two conferences, with their 2009 rosters, had to play for it? A knockdown, drag-out playoff for the automatic bid. Who would win?

Big East blogger Brian Bennett and Mountain West blogger Graham Watson debate.

If the top three teams in the Mountain West -- TCU, BYU and Utah -- faced the top three teams from the Big East -- Pitt, West Virginia, Cincinnati -- who would win?

OK, let's play it out. TCU against Pitt, make your case:

Bennett: Wow, this would be a hard-hitting, bloody battle between two strong defensive teams. I'd pay to watch Jerry Hughes and Greg Romeus play. TCU has a little more coming back on offense here, but give me Dave Wannstedt and Pitt in a low-scoring struggle.

Watson: I'd love to see Hughes, who led the nation in sacks, against a team that ranked 101st in sacks allowed last year. That would be fun. And I'm not sure Pitt's going to be able to get much done on the ground. I agree that it's going to be a great defensive battle, but I think TCU has too much offense this year, especially if the Frogs' passing game is as good as their running game has been the past couple of years.

Bennett: OK, I concede. TCU's got a little too much for Pitt to handle.

Winner: TCU

BYU against West Virginia; who wins that game?

Watson: I'm in "prove-it" mode with BYU this year. After coming into the season with a lot of hype last year and destroying teams that the Cougars rightfully should have destroyed, they tanked in their biggest games of the season. Max Hall hasn't shown that he has the mental fortitude to lead BYU in a big game and until he shows that he can do it, it's hard to give this team a vote of confidence against a team like West Virginia.

Bennett: This probably depends on where and when this was played. Assuming a neutral field and that West Virginia has time to work out the kinks, I like the Mountaineers because of their huge speed advantage. Does BYU have players who can catch Noel Devine and Jock Sanders or corral Jarrett Brown? West Virginia's defense is good enough to slow down Hall & Co. just enough. Plus, the Mountaineers always salvage Big East pride in big nonconference tests (see: Georgia, Oklahoma, Auburn, North Carolina, etc.).

Watson: I agree. Speed is the one thing BYU is not known for, especially in the front seven. I'm not sure there's anyone on BYU who can catch Devine (heck, few people across the country could catch him last year). The BYU secondary wasn't very good last year, either, and the Cougars are iffy against mobile quarterbacks.

Winner: West Virginia

And lastly, what about a matchup between Cincinnati and Utah?

Bennett: Fun matchup between two of the hottest names in the coaching profession, Kyle Whittingham and Brian Kelly. Both teams lost a lot to graduation, but Cincinnati has a proven quarterback in Tony Pike and a star receiver with Mardy Gilyard. Kelly outwits Whittingham in a shootout.

Watson: Utah might have lost a lot of star talent, but its defensive line might be one of the best in the country. Alabama found out the hard way that speed tends to trump size and the Utes have quick ends in Koa Misi and Derrick Shelby. The secondary might be a little suspect this year with a lot of new faces, but I'm not sure Pike gets a lot of time to throw. Utes win on the strength of their defense.

Bennett: I like Cincinnati, but I guess Utah has earned the respect with their performance. You can have this one.

Winner: Utah

Yes, the top of the Mountain West is strong, but what about the bottom? How would the bottom of the Mountain West fair against the bottom of the Big East?

Bennett: And here's where the Big East has a big, big edge. Outside of the possible exception of Air Force, there's no one else in the Mountain West who could finish in the top five or even top six of the Big East. The Big East might not have an elite team, but it's not nearly as top heavy as the Mountain West. Louisville and Syracuse are down, but I'd still take either one all day over the likes of Wyoming, New Mexico and San Diego State. And if you're giving me Rutgers vs. Air Force or South Florida against UNLV, well, I'd bet the house on the Big East.

Watson: I agree that this is where the Mountain West loses all of its steam. Yes, every year one or two of the teams in the Mountain West's lower half finds a way to win a game over an automatic qualifying conference team, but oftentimes that AQ team ends up being a quality name in the midst of a poor season. I will say that the Mountain West's bottom half is getting better, and with the addition of high-level coaches at Wyoming, New Mexico and San Diego State, should be better in time. But if the playoff were held today, I agree that the Mountain West would thrive at the top and struggle at the bottom.

So with all that, what's your conclusion? Which conference deserves the automatic bid?

Watson: Let's be honest, the Mountain West is top heavy in football and tends to live on the strength of Utah, BYU and TCU, which have won every conference title since 2003. And yes, the bottom half of the conference has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to even up to the bottom halves of some of the other AQ conferences. But I think it's important to note that the Mountain West teams have had success with fewer resources than the Big East. The Mountain West isn't getting large sums of money from the BCS and its stadiums cater to smaller crowds, but the conference is still breaking into the Top 25, making waves in the BCS and ultimately the Mountain West will probably be responsible for the change in the way the nation picks its national champion.

Maybe the Mountain West isn't ready -- top to bottom -- to be an automatic qualifying conference, but at least it's moving in the right direction, unlike the Big East.

Bennett: The Mountain West has had some nice performances of late (althou
gh I think in some ways the league's reputation is built primarily on two great years by Utah). The Big East may be in a down cycle right now. Still, if you look at overall depth, attendance figures, media markets, recruiting bases, tradition and commitment to football, the Big East wins hands down in every category. And let's not get caught up in one year's worth of results; the Big East had won three straight BCS games prior to last season, and is 83-44 against nonconference opponents since 2005. The Mountain West's record in those games in that same time period: 58-60. Look, if the Mountain West continues to win big games and gets some improvement from its bottom half, I'll gladly support it getting a seat at the BCS table. Just don't tell me it should come at the Big East's expense.

Don't let us monopolize the conversation. Have your own debate, determine the merits of both conferences and decide which conference should be an automatic qualifier.