Christopher Smith

Good Start To Bowl Season For MWC

Created on Dec. 22, 2013 9:08 PM EST

Let's get this out of the way: Mountain West Conference champion Fresno State and two-time MWC player of the year Derek Carr didn't fare well against USC.

Still, Saturday's three pack of bowl games involving conference members can only be classified as a success.

Playing in a frigid Boise, Idaho, San Diego State, not Buffalo, looked like the team built for cold weather. The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl featured a MWC and a MAC team that each finished second in their respective divisions. Before the game, the line fluctuated on either side of pick 'em, settling on Buffalo at minus one.

The Bulls by far featured the best player on the field from a talent standpoint in linebacker Kahlil Mack, a surefire first-round pick, but Aztecs running back Adam Muema demolished Buffalo's defense. Muema, expected to enter the NFL draft, perhaps as a fringe draft pick, did his best to generate buzz, cutting through the cold for 229 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Instead of a dramatic second half, SDSU put the game away less than two minutes after halftime and claimed a 42-10 lead midway through the third quarter, a drubbing that plays well for the MWC's continued status as the top non-BCS conference.

They may even have an argument ahead of this year's American Athletic Conference, which features UCF in the Fiesta Bowl and a one-loss Louisville team that's headed to the ACC after this season.

The defection of Utah to the Pac-12 and BYU as an independent hurt. Then San Diego State briefly and inexplicably joined the Big East before returning. Boise State appeared poised to strike out on its own, but the MWC agreed to a sweet TV deal that pours money into the Broncos' coffers to keep them as its flagship program.

Instead, the Broncos, which averaged 11.7 wins per season for the last 11 years, slipped to 8-4 and lost long-time coordinator-turned-head-coach Chris Petersen to Washington. Boise State also sent maligned starting quarterback Joe Southwick home from Hawaii for a violation of team rules and will try its own luck against a Pac-12 team (Oregon State) on Christmas Eve.

Utah State and San Jose State are a dropoff from Utah and BYU, but the two fit well and add depth to a solid conference. 

The Aggies made it to the inaugural conference championship game despite losing star quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who shredded his left knee in early October. The Spartans (6-6) lost Mike MacIntyre to Colorado, struggled to match its 11-2 mark in the final year of the MAC and became the only bowl-eligible MWC team left at home, but still provided a pseudo-rival for Carr in quarterback David Fales.

Back to Saturday. Carr played his worst game of the year, averaging 4.0 yards per attempt against the Trojans. USC represented the best defense he faced all season. Fresno State relied on Carr much the same way that Johnny Manziel propped up a weak Texas A&M defense in 2013, and with its pass offense sputtering, the Bulldogs fell hard, 45-20.

Still, it's not a total embarrassment to have the conference champion lose to a Pac-12 team that finished the season 7-2, including a win against then-No. 4 Stanford.

Worse than that was Washington State's numbing loss to Colorado State. By comparison, Mike Leach's coaching and the Cougars' late-game execution made Nick Saban and Alabama look downright solid in the "Kick Bama Kick" Iron Bowl collapse.

To lose the game in regulation, Washington State managed to allow 18 points in the final 2:52, punctuated by three lost fumbles — one of which was overturned by replay review. We all get into the dangerous game of "best ever" or "worst ever" too often, but the Cougars have a legitimate case for worst bowl game collapse in college football history.

It was a great win for the Rams, though, as Jim McElwain, a Saban disciple, transformed a team that went 3-9 in 2011 under Steve Fairchild into an eight-win squad that should challenge in the MWC in coming years.

The conference got a lot of publicity this year for its abundance of good quarterbacks — others not even mentioned yet include Wyoming's Brett Smith and Nevada's Cody Fajardo — but Muema and Colorado State running back Kapri Bibbs proved the conference can move the ball the old-fashioned way as well.

Bibbs, nursing turf toe, still managed to rush for 169 yards and three touchdowns and played a crucial role in CSU's comeback.

And Shaquil Barrett, the MWC defensive player of the year, finally got some national attention. His back-to-back strips, one of which was overturned, gave the Rams a chance at the game-tying possession when Washington State was set to drain all but 30 seconds or so from the game clock. With no timeouts and presumably needing to drive the length of the field, it seems highly unlikely CSU would've sent the game into overtime, much less won, without Barrett's forced fumble.

The Mountain West's stock has a chance to fluctuate with three more bowl games. Boise State, in the middle of a coaching transition on an island with plenty of distractions, is a three-point underdog against a struggling Oregon State. Conference USA's North Texas is nearly a touchdown favorite against UNLV.

But the most crucial matchup features Utah State against another MAC team in Northern Illinois. The Huskies feature a Heisman finalist in Jordan Lynch, whom many fans in the conference believe is inferior to Carr, and a team that hasn't lost a regular season game since Sept. 1, 2012. (NIU fell to Florida State in last year's Orange Bowl and Bowling Green in this year's MAC championship.)

It's tough to gauge bowl motivation sometimes. Will NIU be as interested in this one after losing a shot at back-to-back BCS bowls? Who knows, but despite pick 'em odds, most of the general public is much more familiar with the second-tier Huskies than the second-tier Aggies. A Utah State win Thursday in the Poinsettia Bowl would give the conference two big public relations boosts in less than a week.

The conference didn't sweep Saturday. Fresno State was a six-point dog, but became a trendy play closer to kickoff and got smashed. But 2-for-3 was enough.

The Mountain West put itself in position to be one of the big winners in this year's bowl season, and can claim that status if either Boise State or Utah State can knock off a team with greater national acclaim.

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