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Mountain West: The Nation's Sixth-Best Conference?

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Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The dust has settled – at least for a few months.

Following another offseason of upheaval and conference leapfrog, we find an FBS landscape which features 10 conferences (down from 11 after the breakup of the Western Athletic), and a record 126 schools (with Old Dominion and Georgia State making the jump from the FCS ranks), including seven playing as independents (with New Mexico State and Idaho failing to find new homes with the WAC disbanding).

So where does it all leave the Mountain West?

As you know by now, the MWC will feature a new look for the third straight season as the conference officially welcomes ex-WAC members Utah State and San Jose State to the fold this summer. More importantly, Boise State and San Diego State decided to stay put after their ill-advised dalliance with the Big East Conference, giving the MWC 12 members and a new two-division look.

It will enable the Mountain West to feature a football championship game for the first time in its 14-year history, but the conference still remains on the outside looking in when it comes to BCS automatic-qualifying status.

So, again, where exactly does MWC sit among the 10 conferences? More specifically, does the MWC now rank as the best conference outside of the top-five AQ leagues (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC)?

Let us debate:

The case for the MWC

Despite enduring a down 2012 season in terms of its non-conference (19-28, .404) and bowl records (1-4), it was the first time in the past six seasons that the Mountain West has posted a sub-.500 non-conference mark.

The conference did send five teams to bowls for the sixth straight season, and even with the 1-4 bowl showing – conference tri-champion Boise State recorded the MWC’s lone win in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl – the Mountain West still owns a 25-16 (.610) bowl record since 2004, which ranks as the second-best conference mark over that span, trailing only the mighty SEC (47-25, .653).

Even more impressive, the MWC is the only conference to capture the Bowl Challenge Cup – award going to the conference with the best single-season bowl record – four times since the Cup’s inception in 2002.

During the offseason, though, the MWC has only grown stronger with the addition of Utah State and San Jose State, the two top finishers in the 2012 WAC and a pair of bowl winners this winter. Both the Aggies and Spartans return experienced rosters, led by quarterbacks who ranked among the nation’s top 20 in passing efficiency.

In short, the Mountain West can boast quality and quantity with three 11-win programs and seven of its 12 schools having competed in bowl games a year ago.

The other conferences in this debate can’t say the same.

The Big East retains 2012 champion Louisville for one more season and is adding four of the top programs from Conference USA in Central Florida, Southern Methodist, Houston and Memphis – but is losing Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC and couldn’t hold on to Boise State and San Diego State.

It’s a push – at best – for the troubled league.

Conference USA, meanwhile, tried to offset its losses by adding a whopping six teams, including WAC powerhouse Louisiana Tech and Sun Belt second-place finisher Middle Tennessee, but the other additions, which include the likes of Florida International and Texas-San Antonio, aren’t going to register in anyone’s power rankings.

Meanwhile, the Mid-American Conference, headlined by 2012 champion and Discover Orange Bowl-participant Northern Illinois, managed to keep its 13-program roster intact, including seven 2012 bowl bowl teams, but that means it isn’t gaining anything, either.

The case against the MWC

How ugly was the Mountain West’s 19-28 non-conference showing in 2012?

Consider that it ranked 10th among the 11 FBS conferences – only Conference USA was worse at 16-36 (.308) – and included a 4-5 mark against WAC foes, a 1-3 showing against the aforementioned CUSA and three losses in nine games versus FCS opponents.

Only three 2012 MWC schools – Boise State, Nevada and New Mexico – were above .500 outside of league play, while four programs – Wyoming, Air Force, Colorado State and UNLV – finished 1-3 or worse in non-conference action.

Overall, it was the MWC’s second-worst single-season non-conference performance in its 14 years of existence.

Meanwhile, the Mountain West’s four bowl losses were its most for a single season, and three of the four setbacks weren’t even close with Fresno State getting routed by Southern Methodist, 43-10, in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, San Diego State losing, 23-6, to Brigham Young in its own San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl and Air Force getting thumped by Rice, 33-14, in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.

As a result, only one 2012 MWC squad (Boise State) finished among the top 25 in the final release of the Associated Press poll and BCS standings, trailing the top programs (Louisville, 13th in the AP poll and Northern Illinois, 15th in the BCS rankings) from other similar conferences.  

The verdict

A solid case can still be made for the Big East, but it keeps getting shakier by the season.

What gives the Mountain West the edge over its other competitors is the retention of San Diego State and Boise State – which, with 129 victories over the past 11 seasons, is the winningest FBS program since 2002 – and the solid additions of USU and SJSU, both of which joined the Broncos in the final 2012 AP top 25 and end-of-year BCS standings.

Of course, the teams will make the most definitive statements on the field this coming season, but until then, we’ll anoint the Mountain West the best conference apart from the top-five automatic qualifying leagues.