By Andy Staples
April 23, 2010

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It turns out the overlords of the BCS aren't, as many of us suspected, like the producers of Lost. They haven't been making this stuff up as they've gone along.

Since 2004, a formula has existed that could turn a non-automatic qualifying conference such as the Mountain West into an automatic qualifying gorilla entitled to a cut of the postseason pie on par with the ones doled out to the cabal of six conferences that originally created the BCS. For years, that formula was shrouded in secrecy. Even some of the conference commissioners weren't exactly sure how it worked.

An early guess at the contents yielded this potential route to BCS bliss:

• Step one: The coach of the conference team with the highest average ranking for the past four seasons must pass the "Breath of God" test, which can be conquered only by a penitent man.

• Step two: The coach of the conference team with the lowest average ranking for the past four seasons must spell out the name of God using stones. If he spells wrong, he'll plummet into a giant chasm.

• Step three: The conference commissioner must pass the "Leap of Faith" test, in which he must traverse a deep gorge on a bridge invisible to the naked eye.

OK, so that was the plot of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but until Thursday, that was as good a guess as any. Thankfully, BCS executive director Bill Hancock released the magic formula on a double-sided sheet of copy paper following the final session of this week's BCS meetings. Why did it take so long to do so? "This is one of those ships that doesn't turn quickly," Hancock joked. "The ship finished its turn during this meeting."

Using the formula, plus a little archived data, we can see exactly where the Mountain West, the best of the five non-AQ conferences, stands in its bid to crack the Old Boy Network. But before we do, here's a little background: Under the terms of the agreement, the BCS uses four-season evaluation cycles to determine whether a non-AQ has the chops to earn an automatic bid. We're at the halfway point of such a cycle, meaning the non-AQs' performance from 2008-11 will determine whether any can earn an automatic bid for the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Can one of the big six get deep-sixed for poor performance? Alas, that cannot happen. This isn't the English Premier League. No one will get relegated, because the big six conferences observed the Golden Rule when they drew up the BCS contracts: He who has the gold makes the rules.

So where does the Mountain West stand? At the moment, it meets two of the three criteria required to become an AQ conference. Those are:

1. The conference must finish among the top six in a listing of the average of each conference's highest ranked team at the end of each regular season.

2. The conference must finish among the top six in a listing of the average computer rankings of every conference's full roster of teams at the end of each regular season.

3. The conference must accumulate a score of at least 50 percent of the highest ranking conference's score in the Adjusted Top-25 Performance Ranking, which measures how many teams each conference placed in the BCS top 25 and adjusts for conference size.

In the first two seasons of this evaluation cycle, the Mountain West meets No. 1 and No. 3. It does not meet No. 2.

Here are the numbers for each prong of the formula for 2008-09. The Average Conference Ranking numbers in Prong 2 were provided by Jerry Palm, the author of the essential, who -- fortunately for the rest of us -- kept a record of all the computer rankings at the end of each regular season. The chart does not include Conference USA, the MAC or the Sun Belt, because those three conferences have yet to produce a BCS at-large team.

Feel free to pound your chest or hang your head in shame depending on which league you back in the my-conference-is-better-than-your-conference pride-measuring contest. Of greater importance: These numbers mean Utah, TCU, BYU, and, to a lesser extent, Air Force, have done their jobs for the Mountain West. Coaches Kyle Whittingham, Gary Patterson, Bronco Mendenhall and Troy Calhoun have recruited well and trained their players to execute on the field. The top half of the league is excellent.

Unfortunately, the bottom half ranges from mediocre to downright awful. Wyoming, UNLV, New Mexico, Colorado State and San Diego State will have to carry some weight for the league by winning some out-of-conference games these next two seasons, because a 58.61 average ranking won't get it done. So where have you gone, New Mexico coach Mike Locksley? Your conference turns its lonely eyes to you -- and begs you to improve on a season in which your Lobos finished ranked No. 115 out of 120 FBS teams in the Anderson and Hester computer rankings and No. 136 in the Sagarin ratings, which also include FCS teams.

The numbers should provide some comfort to the power-conference folks who have complained all along that the non-AQ teams have it too easy in the regular season and don't deserve an automatic bid in the first place. A great example is the SEC, where Kentucky rarely is a threat to win the conference title. While they have played well the past few seasons, the Wildcats are still considered cannon fodder for the conference's elite teams. But Kentucky would still steamroll any of the bottom five in the Mountain West, and that's the difference.

Of course, the numbers should serve only as a signpost. Remember, this is a moving target dependent on the performance of every conference. If the Big Ten and ACC put teams in the BCS title game each of the next two seasons or the Mountain West fails to put any teams in BCS bowls, the Mountain West could be out of luck. Or, if TCU runs the table again this regular season and Locksley and San Diego State's Brady Hoke whip their teams into shape, the Mountain West could cruise in by a relatively comfortable margin. The good news is that the day after the conference championship games, we can check again to see where the Mountain West stands with one year to go.

And if the top of the Mountain West remains excellent and the bottom half gets better, the league will earn an automatic bid -- assuming, of course, that conference expansion doesn't blow up the current arrangement before the Mountain West can enjoy its spoils in the 2012 season.

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