LAS VEGAS -- Conference media days are traditional rites of optimistic passage, annual homages to positive thinking that are inherently tied to every program being undefeated. But at last week’s Mountain West media days in Las Vegas, the league that authored some of the most indelible and important teams of the BCS era -- 2004 Utah (Fiesta Bowl champion), ‘08 Utah (Sugar) and ‘10 TCU (Rose) -- adopted a pragmatically pessimistic view of college football’s rapidly changing landscape. The expanding gap between college football’s upper class and middle class, both in recruiting perception and fiscal reality, raised a poignant question: Is Cinderella dead?
“They’re trying to kill her,” Nevada coach Brian Polian said.
In theory, the expansion of the national title race from two to four teams with the inaugural College Football Playoff this season would offer more access to outsider conferences. But with the looming vote to give the Power Five leagues autonomy, the gap between the sport’s haves and have-nots is expected to increase exponentially. That has raised concern that one of college football’s defining storylines of the last decade -- the plucky underdog attempting to crash the national championship picture -- may disappear entirely.
“If that’s not a possibility, then college football’s not going to be nearly as exciting as it is,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “If all you’re talking about is five conferences that can do it, to me that will hurt our sport more than anything.”
Teams either currently (Boise State and Hawaii) or formerly (TCU and Utah) in the Mountain West finished in the top 10 of the BCS standings 11 times since 2004. From Utah’s thumping of Alabama in the ‘09 Sugar Bowl to TCU’s victory over Wisconsin in the ‘11 Rose Bowl, Mountain West teams delivered definitive victories over blue-blood programs on the biggest stages. But Utah fled to the Pac-12 in '11 and TCU to the Big 12 in ‘12, greener pastures both in metaphor and money: The Pac-12 and Big 12 pay their members more than $20 million annually; the Mountain West pays an average of roughly $2.7 million.
While the Mountain West’s historical success would make potential inclusion the College Football Playoff realistic, the new system has dimmed those chances. When asked about the conference’s prospects for playing for the national title, Hawaii coach Norm Chow said, “Gone. Long gone.” He added: “It’s frightening to think what’s going to happen.”
Colorado State coach Jim McElwain said he has already lost recruits because of the perception that comes with playing in an outsider league. Chow said that if the cost of attendance measure is passed in the Power Five leagues, players who previously might have gone to Hawaii for the opportunity to play right away could now elect to sit on the bench at a power-conference school and cash their checks. “What choice do you have?” Chow said.
Boise State annually beat out lower-tier Pac-12 schools for recruits, as the Broncos’ winning tradition made it more attractive to some players than schools such as Washington State and Oregon State. There’s a fear among Mountain West programs that the possibility of cost of attendance scholarships and the perception associated with playing at a lower level will eliminate many such recruiting wins.
“We signed five kids in a class of 25 who had BCS offers,” Polian said. “I’m sure people like Boise and Utah State have a higher number than that. My fear is that in two or three years you are going to lose them on finances alone. That’s going to hurt our league.”
Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson compares the plight of his league to its state in 1999, when it initially formed. It took the conference until 2004 to assemble enough quality depth and defining wins to crash a major bowl game. Urban Meyer’s Utah team did that with an undefeated campaign, which featured victories over Texas A&M and North Carolina and a thumping of Pittsburgh in the ‘05 Fiesta Bowl.
Thompson projects it will take a similar length of time for the league to rebuild to where it could potentially produce a national title contender. One of the Mountain West’s problems these next few years will be strength of schedule; an unbeaten squad likely won’t face high-caliber conference competition -- like Utah did against TCU in 2008 -- to gain national credibility after September’s nonconference slate.
Thompson said the league’s immediate goal is to consistently place teams in the New Year’s Eve bowl that will pit the top-ranked team from the Group of Five (Mountain West, American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Sun Belt and MAC) against a power-conference foe. He has spoken with AAC commissioner Mike Aresco about scheduling more games between teams from the two leagues, to offer comparative data about which is better.
As for competing for one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff field, Thompson views that as something the league needs to build toward to eventually convince the selection committee to pick a Group of Five member over a power-conference school. “I don’t know if Cinderella is dead,” Thompson said. “But it’s going to be difficult to compare the 12-0 Mountain West champion versus an 11-1 team [from the Power Five].”
The Mountain West certainly won’t be the only league impacted by the new postseason format. The AAC, which is composed of many former Big East teams, includes schools like Central Florida, Connecticut and Cincinnati, all of which have played in BCS bowls in the past. Marshall (from Conference USA) and Bowling Green (from the MAC) return a slew of quality starters and could finish in the Top 25. Can any of them crash the top four?
“It can happen,” Bowling Green coach Dino Babers said at MAC media days. “David got Goliath with five flat rocks from the riverbed. Give me a sling, brother. Let me take a shot. You better put your helmet on.”
When the season kicks off in late August, that optimism will meet reality. The underdogs will soon find out if the increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots off the field will prove equally substantial on it.