The Mountain West needs a banner year from all its teams in 2011 to meet the criteria laid out to become an automatic qualifier. Commissioner Craig Thompson confirmed as much in an interview Thursday. This upcoming season is absolutely critical because it is the final year in a four-year cycle of evaluation for non-AQ conferences that want to become automatic qualifying conferences for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons.
The top-half of the league has never been a problem. Despite Utah leaving, Boise State joins and the Mountain West gets to count its credentials dating to the first year of the cycle, 2008. TCU also counts because it will still be a member of the league when the evaluation takes place in December. That means the Mountain West has had three representatives in BCS games.
But what has been missing are quality teams top to bottom. As an example, he cited the ACC. The league had nine teams qualify for bowl games in 2011. Its weakest teams were 3-9. Meanwhile, the Mountain West had New Mexico finish at 1-11 and UNLV at 2-10, with Wyoming and Colorado State at 3-9.
"We’ve played in BCS games, but I read a recent Q&A with [Commissioner] John Swofford of the ACC," Thompson told me. "Their strength is 12. I am not badmouthing any of our teams, but we need to have our sixth, seventh and eighth finishing teams have better seasons, period."
What could really end up hurting the Mountain West is losing BYU from the calculations. In the final BCS standings, BYU finished No. 14 in 2009 and No. 16 in 2008. Aside from TCU and Boise State, no other team on the current MWC roster has finished with a Top 25 BCS ranking during this qualification period of 2008, 2009 and 2010. Only TCU, Boise State and Air Force have posted winning records in all three seasons.
As a refresher, here are the criteria. A conference becomes the seventh AQ if it:
Finishes among the top six conferences in the average ranking of its highest ranked team in the BCS standings.
Finishes among the top six in the average conference ranking as determined by the computers the BCS uses.
If its ranking in Top 25 performance is equal to or greater than 50 percent of the conference with the highest ranking.
The conference is solidly in the top 6 in criteria No. 1. According to Thompson, the Mountain West ranks No. 7 among the conferences in the average conference rankings. I asked him if there was a way to figure out what the Mountain West teams would have to do this season to meet the criteria and he said there was not because it all depends on how the other conferences perform.
Air Force and San Diego State each went 9-4 last season, so that helps. But San Diego State was also 6-18 in 2008 and 2009. Wyoming, New Mexico, UNLV and Colorado State are going to have to pick it up. Here are their combined records in the last three years:
Wyoming: 14-23. Lone winning season, 2009 at 7-6.
Colorado State: 13-24. Lone winning season, 2008 at 7-6.
New Mexico: 6-30, including two back-to-back 1-11 campaigns.
Of the four teams listed above, I think Colorado State has the best chance of at least getting to a bowl game. The Rams have 15 starters returning, including quarterback Pete Thomas, who showed plenty of promise as a true freshman last season. New Mexico is in disarray; UNLV needs more time to rebuild; and Wyoming needs a new quarterback. It would certainly help if San Diego State or Air Force became a third ranked team, but it is overall conference strength where the Mountain West needs a boost.
The Mountain West would still need to meet certain criteria in order to apply to the Presidential Oversight Committee. If that happens, Thompson said he had no idea what the chances would be of getting an exemption and becoming AQ.
"I would hate to speculate," he said. "It’s now encouraging that every conference has a presidential oversight board seat. At least we’re at the table and able to state a case as necessary."