NCF Nation: Mountain West

Could top conference be out of title game?

December, 2, 2013
Heading into the final week before the bowls are announced, the SEC leads ESPN Stats and Info’s Conference Power Rankings by a wide margin.

The SEC has seven teams ranked in the AP Top 25, including three of the top five teams in the country in Auburn, Alabama and Missouri.

The SEC’s strong out-of-conference record has a lot to do with its success in the polls; the SEC is 47-9 in nonconference games, including 3-1 last Saturday against the ACC.

Vanderbilt, Georgia and South Carolina all defeated their ACC rivals on Saturday, and the SEC’s only out-of-conference loss this past weekend came at the hands of then-No. 2 Florida State.

However, the biggest debate heading into conference championship weekend is whether the SEC deserves a spot in the BCS National Championship to defend its seven straight titles.

If the season ended today, the top team in the ACC would face off against the top team in the Big Ten. According to ESPN Stats and Info’s Conference Power Rankings, the ACC and Big Ten are the lowest-ranked conferences among the five major ones, and the SEC is by far the top conference in the country.

However, the debate is not necessarily which conference is the best, but which team is the most deserving.

When looking at ESPN’s Championship Drive Ratings – a system that determines the most deserving teams in the country -- Ohio State and Florida State are both ranked higher than the top team in the SEC.

Looking deeper by using ESPN’s Football Power Index – a predictor of future strength -- Ohio State should be favored by three points over Auburn and six points over Missouri on a neutral field.

It appears the Pac-12 and Big 12 will be on the outside looking in on the national title debate despite ranking second and third, respectively, in ESPN’s Conference Power Rankings. Both conferences have depth, but their biggest issue is that there is no “elite” team at the top.

Keep an eye on the bowl matchups announced next Sunday to see how conference strength plays into bowl selections. In the last three seasons, the SEC has the best record in bowl games among the five major conferences (17-11) while the Big Ten has the worst record (9-16).

Utes, Buffs share disappointing seasons

November, 23, 2012
The most disappointed Pac-12 teams as 2012 winds down, other than USC, are the conference's newest members: Colorado and Utah. While both came into the season with very different expectations, both fell well short of their hopes.

So their meeting Friday at Colorado is a bit of a Deflated Bowl.

Utah welcomed back 18 starters -- 16 position players -- from a team that went 8-5 overall and 4-5 in Year 1 of Pac-12 play and won the Sun Bowl over Georgia Tech. At 4-7, the Utes are going to finish with their first losing season since 2002. They began the year expecting to be USC's top challenger in what was supposed to be a weak South Division.

[+] EnlargeKyle Whittingham
Russ Isabella/US PresswireKyle Whittingham and the Utes were expected to be contenders in the South Division, but they're buried at the bottom of the standings with the Buffaloes.
Colorado was a different story. It welcomed back just nine position players from a team that went 3-10 overall and 2-7 in conference play. The Buffaloes, while they didn't actively volunteer it, knew that they might take a step (or two) backwards in Year 2 under Jon Embree. Their biggest hope was pinned on an easy early schedule, but that ended up being fool's gold when even that proved too much for the Buffs.

"Both of us started the season with different goals and different mindsets of what we wanted our season to be," Embree said. "It hasn't gone the way either one of us has wanted."

Both coaches admit the Pac-12 has been a bit too much to handle, a big step up from their former leagues, the Mountain West Conference (Utah) and Big 12 (Colorado). A team needs depth and across-the-board speed in the Pac-12. And it needs a consistent quarterback, which neither team has had this season.

"When that position is playing well, it gives you a lot of confidence," Embree said.

Utah, however, took its biggest step back on defense. Last year, Utah ranked No. 1 in the conference in scoring defense (19.7 points per game). This year, it ranks sixth (24.2 ppg).

The secondary often has struggled and the linebackers are young and often banged up.

"Linebackers, there's been a learning curve there," coach Kyle Whittingham said.

Things likely will get even more challenging for the Utes next year. For one, they lose several key starters, including defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and running back John White. Second, the conference schedule gets much tougher with the addition of a visit from Stanford and a road game at Oregon, teams the Utes missed in their first two seasons of conference play.

Colorado was lousy in 2011 with a veteran team, so it's not surprising it was completely overmatched with a youthful one. Colorado only has eight seniors on the roster, and 13 true freshmen are in the regular rotation, with 51 starts by true freshmen leading the nation. In fact, the Buffs use 18 first-year starters.

And all that youth showed. Colorado ranked last in both scoring offense and scoring defense in the conference for a second consecutive year, only they were more last this year. In 2011, they averaged 19.8 points per game. This season, it has been 16.3. Last year, the defense yielded 36.5 points per game. This year, it has been an eye-popping 46.4.

The solution is simple: Both teams need better players.

"We need to keep recruiting, that's apparent," Whittingham said.

Whittingham also added that playmaking is an issue. When the screws tightened this year, his team didn't convert.

"We've got to start making more of those plays that are tipping points in games," he said.

As for these new Pac-12 "rivals," there's still something to play for. Turning to offseason concerns is always easier after a win, even after a disappointing season.

Said Embree, "Everyone wants to win that last game."

Where might the chips fall?

December, 4, 2011
What we now know: Oregon will play Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

I love that matchup, by the way. Two teams that were just outside the national title discussion with tons of offensive star power who do things differently.

Then what?

Stanford is likely headed to the Fiesta Bowl. But who will it play? It looked like the winner of the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game until the Cowboys opened up a can of whup-butt in a 44-10 beatdown of their rival Sooners.

Now Alabama adherents are scurrying around telling folks not to do what their eyes and brains are saying to do: Put Oklahoma State opposite LSU, the most dominant No. 1 team of the BCS area, in the national title game and see what happens.

But that's another fight (and, yeah, if I were a coach, I'd rather play the Cowboys than the Crimson Tide).

The Pac-12 issue is if the Cowboys get promoted, who might play opposite Stanford? Likely the No. 2 team in the Big 12: Kansas State.

But there is a potential fly in the ointment, well-described here by Jon Wilner.
However, there is a remote chance that Stanford could get knocked out of the BCS. As the No. 4 team in the BCS standings, the Cardinal would be guaranteed a berth in all scenarios except one — the one that could become reality Sunday.

If Oklahoma State jumps Alabama, then the Crimson Tide would fall into the No. 3 spot and receive BCS protection as an at-large team.

In that case, Stanford would not be guaranteed a berth, and the Fiesta, under the letter of the BCS law, could invite someone else (best bet: Michigan). But would it? It seems highly unlikely that the Fiesta would pass on the No. 4 team in order to take a team ranked 8-10 spots lower. Never in the 13-year history of the BCS has the No. 4 team been left out.

Wilner also points out that the Fiesta Bowl's new executive director, Robert Shelton, is a Stanford graduate.

So let's assume a bowl that needs to do the right thing does so -- prioritizing merit -- and picks Stanford. Then with those two spots secure -- and the extra $6 million-plus it means for the conference -- there's the trickle down.

Washington is likely headed to the Alamo Bowl against an uncertain Big 12 opponent. First, we need to know what happens with Oklahoma State. Potential foes include Oklahoma, Baylor or Kansas State.

Then our guess is California goes to the Holiday Bowl (selected over Utah because they have the same conference record and Cal beat the Utes head-to-head). The Bears could face Baylor, Oklahoma or even Missouri or Iowa State.

Utah heads to the Sun Bowl (vs. Georgia Tech?), Arizona State goes to Las Vegas for Dennis Erickson's last game (TCU if it doesn't get a bounced into a BCS at-large berth, or Boise State if it does), and UCLA -- armed with its NCAA bowl waiver for a 6-7 record -- gets an invite to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against ... hmm... Illinois? Wyoming?

There would be an obvious angle, of course, for a UCLA-Illinois matchup.

We'll, of course, have more later on the bowls. I assume you knew that, though.

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 14

November, 27, 2011
It now appears that the Pac-12 will produce two BCS bowl teams and two empty bowl contracts.

I don't expect UCLA to ask the Pac-12 to apply for a bowl waiver if the Bruins finish 6-7 after a loss Friday at Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. The Bruins are almost certain to be looking for a new coach. It would be extremely awkward to deal with that during bowl preparations. Further, a likely trip to the Bay Area for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl would be expensive. Probably not worth the, er, glory.

And I'm not sure the waiver would get rubber stamped, anyway. There will be more deserving teams available for the Kraft and New Mexico bowls. Heck, 10 Big Ten teams are bowl eligible.

By the way, expect some tough matchups. If Oklahoma loses to Oklahoma State this weekend, the Sooners are a likely foe for Washington in the Alamo Bowl. Arizona State, with or without Dennis Erickson, probably would get TCU in Las Vegas.

Rose Bowl Game: Oregon vs. Big Ten
Tostitos Fiesta Bowl: Stanford vs. Big 12
Valero Alamo: Washington vs. Big 12
Bridgepoint Education Holiday: California vs. Big 12
Hyundai Sun: Utah vs. ACC
MAACO Las Vegas: Arizona State vs. Mountain West
Kraft Fight Hunger: No team vs. ACC or Army
Gildan New Mexico: No team vs. Mountain West

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 13

November, 20, 2011
Things stay the same at the top with the Pac-12 bowl projections, but that's a change, because it seemed reasonable to start to look at Oregon's national title chances on Friday night when Oklahoma State lost.

No longer. The Ducks lost at home to USC, so their best possible destination now is the Rose Bowl.

The big mover is Utah. The Utes would close the season with five consecutive wins if they take care of business at home against Colorado on Saturday. That makes them the hottest and most compelling team after Oregon and Stanford. San Antonio likely will lure plenty of Utes to town, too.

After Utah, the other four bowl-eligible teams mostly arrive with a thud. No bowl wants to deal with a team that might fire its coach.

Rose Bowl Game: Oregon vs. Big Ten
Tostitos Fiesta Bowl: Stanford vs. Big 12
Valero Alamo: Utah vs. Big 12
Bridgepoint Education Holiday: Washington vs. Big 12
Hyundai Sun: California vs. ACC
MAACO Las Vegas: UCLA vs. Mountain West
Kraft Fight Hunger: Arizona State vs. ACC or Army
Gildan New Mexico: No team vs. Mountain West

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 12

November, 13, 2011
Projecting the bowls based on the 11 weeks of games.

Rose Bowl Game: Oregon vs. Big Ten
Tostitos Fiesta Bowl: Stanford vs. Big 12
Valero Alamo: Washington vs. Big 12
Bridgepoint Education Holiday: Arizona State vs. Big 12
Hyundai Sun: Utah vs. ACC
MAACO Las Vegas: California vs. Mountain West
Kraft Fight Hunger: UCLA vs. ACC or Army
Gildan New Mexico: No team vs. Mountain West

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 11

November, 6, 2011
Projecting the bowls based on the 10 weeks of games.

Allstate BCS National Championship Game: Stanford vs. BCS team

Rose Bowl Game: Oregon vs. Big Ten

Valero Alamo: Arizona State vs. Big 12

Bridgepoint Education Holiday: Washington vs. Big 12

Hyundai Sun: Utah vs. ACC

MAACO Las Vegas: UCLA vs. Mountain West

Kraft Fight Hunger: California vs. ACC or Army

Gildan New Mexico: No team vs. Mountain West

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 6

October, 9, 2011
Projecting the bowls based on the sixth week of games.

Rose Bowl Game: Stanford vs. Big Ten
Valero Alamo: Oregon vs. Big 12
Bridgepoint Education Holiday: Arizona State vs. Big 12
Hyundai Sun: Washington vs. ACC
MAACO Las Vegas: California vs. Mountain West
Kraft Fight Hunger: UCLA vs. ACC or Army
Gildan New Mexico: Utah vs. Big 12

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 5

October, 2, 2011
Projecting the bowls based on the fifth week.

Rose Bowl Game: Stanford vs. Big Ten
Valero Alamo: Oregon vs. Big 12
Bridgepoint Education Holiday: Arizona State vs. Big 12
Hyundai Sun: Washington vs. ACC
MAACO Las Vegas: Utah vs. Mountain West
Kraft Fight Hunger: California vs. ACC or Army
Gildan New Mexico: Washington State vs. Big 12

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 4

September, 25, 2011
Projecting the bowls based on the fourth week.

Rose Bowl Game: Stanford vs. Big Ten
Valero Alamo: Oregon vs. Big 12
Bridgepoint Education Holiday: Arizona State vs. Big 12
Hyundai Sun: Washington vs. ACC
MAACO Las Vegas: Utah vs. Mountain West
Kraft Fight Hunger: California vs. ACC or Army
Gildan New Mexico: no team vs. Big 12

Pac-12 bowl projections

August, 20, 2011
Projecting bowl games before any games are played? Heck, why not?

Here's our way, way too early prediction on how things may stack up.

And yes, if Oregon beats LSU in Cowboys Stadium on Sept. 3, we will immediately shake things up. And add a bowl game.

Rose Bowl Game: Stanford vs. Big Ten
Valero Alamo: Oregon vs. Big 12
Bridgepoint Education Holiday: Arizona State vs. Big 12
Hyundai Sun: Washington vs. ACC
MAACO Las Vegas: Utah vs. Mountain West
Kraft Fight Hunger: Arizona vs. ACC or Army
Gildan New Mexico: UCLA vs. Big 12

Note: These don't exactly correspond to our Power Rankings, which will be released later.
For the 17th straight year, Stanford finished No. 1 in the Division I Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup standings.

The Pac-12 featured six teams in the top-21 and eight in the top-30.

California finished third behind Ohio State. UCLA was 11th, USC 14th, Arizona 16th and Washington 21st.

Competing in the Big 12, Colorado was 66th overall. Competing in the Mountain West, Utah was 71st.

The Directors' Cup was developed as a joint effort between the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) and USA Today. Points are awarded based on each institution's finish in up to 20 sports - 10 women's and 10 men's.

Here's how the Pac-12 finished.

1. Stanford
3. California
11. UCLA
14. USC
16. Arizona
21. Washington
27. Arizona State
30. Oregon
66. Colorado
69. Oregon State
71. Utah
135. Washington State
It's been a year of big stories in the Pac-12, starting with expansion and continuing with Oregon falling just short of the program's first national title.

The biggest story this spring? Again, it didn't happen on the field. It happened in the boardroom: It was announced on Wednesday that the conference had signed the richest TV contract in college sports history, one that will pay the conference an average of $250 million annually over the next 12 years.

That monumental announcement came after all the spring games had been played. But what happened on the field?

" Three schools entered spring practices with intrigue at quarterback, and only one emerged with few answers: UCLA, where a battle remains among Kevin Prince, who missed spring practice with a knee injury, Richard Brehaut and true freshman Brett Hundley.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireWashington's Keith Price beat out Nick Montana for the starting quarterback job this spring.
There's no such indecision at Washington, which went so far as to announce Keith Price as its No. 1 quarterback over Nick Montana. California provided no such announcement, but Zach Maynard emerged as a clear leader over Brock Mansion and Allan Bridgford.

Oregon and Stanford have no such quarterback issues, and they began spring practices as the clear leaders in the conference based on what they did last season and what they have coming back. Both figure to be ranked in the national preseason top 10, perhaps in the top five. Both will play next fall in the conference's North Division, which means at least one can't play for the Pac-12 championship.

"Everybody on the West Coast knows that you have to beat Oregon if you want to do anything out here," Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck said.

" Big questions for Oregon and Stanford: The Ducks have issues on their offensive line, the Cardinal on their defensive line.

" Luck is playing for the only new coach in the old Pac-10. David Shaw replaces Jim Harbaugh, who bolted for the San Francisco 49ers. One session of spring practices won't be enough to reveal the big-picture meaning of that transition, particularly with Shaw continuing to hold closed practices.

"There will be subtle differences," Shaw said. "But the biggest thing is the mentality is not going to change. We played with an attitude, a mentality, a certain amount of toughness and physicality. That's not going to change. Coach Harbaugh and I are different personalities. But when it comes down to it, we are ball coaches who believe in tough, hard-nosed, physical football. We believe that's what's going to win and what Stanford football should be known for."

" As for the two new teams, Colorado and Utah, the Buffaloes fired Dan Hawkins and hired Jon Embree, who led a physically demanding spring session intended to show his players that a new sheriff was in town. But the transition from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 doesn't figure to be too dramatic, other than giving fans much better road trips. Over in Salt Lake City, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham considered the transition from the non-automatic-qualifying Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12, which will be an interesting measuring stick in the fall.

"The week-in and week-out level of competition is ratcheted up," Whittingham said. "There are some excellent football teams in the Mountain West Conference -- TCU last year. Not to downplay or disrespect anything that's going on in the Mountain West, but we're convinced the weekly challenges will be much more difficult than they have been in years past for us."

" A big change at Utah? The arrival of offensive coordinator Norm Chow after he fell out of favor at UCLA. But that didn't yield much fruit for the Utes this spring, in large part because quarterback Jordan Wynn was sidelined with a shoulder injury.

" Injuries were an issue on many campuses. USC, for one, was missing 12 players from its two-deep depth chart for all or some of the spring. Still, the Trojans might have lucked out. Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State and UCLA saw injuries to their potential starting players that will jeopardize all or at least a portion of their 2011 seasons. The Beavers, for example, don't know whether receiver James Rodgers will be able to play after a serious knee injury last fall.

" On the noninjury, off-the-field side: Oregon's potential starting middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso, who was projected to replace Casey Matthews, was suspended indefinitely after he was arrested the day after the spring game. It's his second suspension in as many seasons.

Ultimately, every team heads into the offseason with the same hopeful mindset.

Said Luck, "The mindset is still very, very hungry. The price never decreases in football."

Lunchtime Links

September, 30, 2010
If you haven't had enough of expansion talk, you have come to the right place.

TCU and the Big East have had talks, the Dallas Morning News reports, citing sources.

The Mountain West grabbed Fresno State and Nevada as a matter of survival, commissioner Craig Thompson told the Idaho Statesman in an extensive interview.

The Friday night game with BYU is a huge deal for Utah State.

BYU receiver Cody Hoffman is a big deal in his small hometown.

More bad news on the injury front for Fresno State -- running back A.J. Ellis is most likely out six to eight weeks with a sprained toe.

This is the final showdown between Air Force QB Tim Jefferson and Navy QB Ricky Dobbs.

Rice is hoping for a turnaround now that conference play begins.

FIU linebacker Larvez "Pooh Bear" Mars will either play Saturday against Pittsburgh or redshirt after breaking his ankle in a car accident this summer.

Nevada is good for WAC, Mountain West

September, 29, 2010
You can imagine what WAC commissioner Karl Benson must be feeling these days.

On the one hand, he has got to feel pride, seeing Boise State and Nevada in the Top 25 -- the first time the WAC has had two teams ranked since Sept. 28, 2008. On the other, he has to feel incredible disappointment, knowing those two schools and Fresno State are ditching his league for the Mountain West.

Benson refused comment when asked about the dichotomy earlier this week, saying only, “I’m not going to go down that path.”

Strange as it may sound, what is good for the WAC is good for the Mountain West this season.

If Nevada keeps winning, the Wolf Pack help out Boise State in the BCS computer rankings and perhaps in national perception. It also would help fill the void that BYU is leaving in the Mountain West’s quest to become an automatic qualifying conference. The same could be said of Fresno State, which is off to a 2-1 start but reeling after a loss at Ole Miss.

The quest for AQ status is three-pronged. Results from the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons will be evaluated to determine whether the Mountain West qualifies. Here is the evaluation process, for those who need a refresher:
1. The ranking of the highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings each year.

2. The final regular-season rankings of all conference teams in the computer rankings the BCS uses.

3. The number of teams in the Top 25 of the final BCS standings each year, with adjustments to account for the size of league membership.

The Mountain West would have to finish among the top six conferences in No. 1 and No. 2 and have a ranking equal to or greater than 50 percent of the conference with the highest ranking in criteria No. 3. If the Mountain West fails to meet these standards, it can apply to the Presidential Oversight Committee for an exemption.

The calculations will be made based on conference membership on Dec. 4, 2011. That is why it is so critical for the Mountain West to get Fresno State and Nevada on board for the start of the 2011 season. They are currently embroiled in a legal fight with the WAC, which maintains those schools must remain through 2011-12. Boise State will begin play in the Mountain West in 2011.

As it stands now, the Mountain West would fall short of AQ status.

If Fresno State and Nevada are able to join for the 2011 season, both are going to have to turn it up to bolster the chances of the Mountain West. Utah leaving for the Pac-10 is negated with the addition of Boise State, which has been ranked in the top 10 of the BCS standings in 2008 and 2009. TCU remains.

The problem here is replacing BYU, which is going independent. The Cougars finished No. 16 in the final BCS standings in 2008 and No. 14 in 2009. Neither Fresno State nor Nevada finished in the Top 25. That is why their performance this season is so critical.

Nevada must keep winning, for the WAC and the MWC. Look at what happened in 2008. Fresno State was ranked No. 22 after a 3-1 start, but dropped from the rankings after a 32-29 overtime loss to Hawaii. The Bulldogs ended up losing four more games that season and finished 7-6.

Nevada is now in at No. 25, its first ranking ever in the coaches’ poll. Fresno State coach Pat Hill, familiar with the expectations that come with rankings, said, “I think it’s good, but you have to keep winning to stay there,” Hill said. “We live in such a day of hype and everything else you have to keep playing.”

Nevada coach Chris Ault seems to understand the ramifications.

“I do think it’s a great motivator for our football team to get recognized and understand you’re playing that well that people are appreciating it,” Ault said. “The bottom line is you still have to line up. We’ve got a long ways to go.”