MWC early darling of bowl season

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We're only five games in, but the Mountain West has been the unquestioned darling of this bowl season thus far, improving to 3-0 with Utah's 37-27 Poinsettia Bowl win over Cal on Wednesday. Twenty-four hours earlier, BYU laid a 44-20 Las Vegas Bowl whipping on another Pac-10 team, Oregon State. Last Saturday, 6-6 Wyoming got things going with a 35-28 double-overtime upset of 8-4 Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl.

It's always dangerous to read too much into these early bowls, which often bear little resemblance to the participants' 12 games beforehand. Strange things happen, like Wyoming's previously anemic offense exploding for 438 yards; Oregon State star Jacquizz Rodgers fumbling for the first time in his career (and BYU returning it for a touchdown); or Utah scoring more points than it did in all but two games all season.

But when something happens year after year, it ceases to qualify as a fluke.

Utah (10-3), last year's Sugar Bowl champion, earned its ninth straight bowl victory Tuesday. TCU (12-0), which awaits its Fiesta Bowl showcase against 13-0 Boise State, has won four straight bowl games since joining the conference. BYU (11-2) has gone 3-2 against Pac-10 foes over a span of five straight Las Vegas bowls. All three will finish in the Top 25 for the second straight season. All three will likely be back next year.

The Utes' victory Wednesday night was a telling sign of just how well these programs have established themselves. Despite a near complete turnover of offensive personnel from last year's 13-0 season (including a season-ending injury to star running back Matt Asiata the fourth week of the season), Utah moved the ball with ease. Freshman quarterback Jordan Wynn shook off an early pick-six to pick apart Cal's defense to the tune of 339 yards and three touchdowns. After falling behind 14-0 early, the Utes ran off 27 unanswered points, and Robert Johnson and the defense pressured oft-maligned Bears quarterback Kevin Riley into three turnovers.

The night before, BYU's defense completely shut down an explosive Oregon State offense. Reported 40 mph winds probably played a factor in Beavers quarterback Sean Canfield's nightmarish night, but his Cougars counterpart, Max Hall, had no such difficulties. BYU suffered two blowout losses during the season to Florida State and TCU but opened and closed with upsets of ranked foes Oklahoma and Oregon State to finish with its third 11-win season in four years.

Critics will be quick to view these same results as an indictment against the Pac-10, but I'm not buying it. Last year's conference wasn't nearly as strong as its 5-0 bowl record indicated, nor do these early setbacks negate the legitimate depth of this year's league (which produced seven bowl teams). Oregon (against Ohio State), Stanford (against Oklahoma), Arizona (against Nebraska) and USC (against Boston College) still await their own postseason opportunities.

The Mountain West still has two tough bowl tests remaining -- in addition to the TCU-Boise Fiesta Bowl, 7-5 Air Force faces 10-3 Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl. Games like Air Force's and Wyoming's don't get nearly as much attention, but those teams will ultimately play an important role in the conference's ongoing quest to gain an automatic BCS berth.

It's pretty clear at this point that the Mountain West has three very strong, nationally competitive programs in TCU, BYU and Utah. The one thing it's yet to showcase is depth. The perceived drop-off after those "big three" is far greater than that of any AQ conference.

The league is nearing the halfway point of a four-year BCS review that measures its average number of Top 25 teams, the average annual ranking of each league's champ and average computer ranking of all eight teams. Right now it's looking pretty good in the first two departments but the third remains suspect.

Too bad bowl records aren't part of the formula.