The biggest loser in the Not-So-Great Conference Shakeup of 2010 may be the Mountain West, who got screwed through no real fault of their own whatsoever.
Yay, the Pac-10 may singlehandedly destroy the Big 12! We could wind up with the Kansas schools or even more, and then the BCS would HAVE to let us in to the party! Oh wait, they called off the dogs – well, at least we got Boise State out of the deal, although now that’s a wash because the Pac-10 is adding Utah to complement Colorado and become the Pac-12. Oh well, at least it’s a wash…
…except BYU has just lost its biggest link to the Mountain West and wants to go independent in football and join the WAC in other sports! But wait, we’re adding Nevada and Fresno State to effectively destroy the WAC! But wait, BYU is STILL leaving, only they’re joining the West Coast Conference in other sports instead of the WAC! Nooooooooo!!!!!!!!!
(Incidentially, the one underplayed angle in all this is the surely-salivating-to-ESPN-execs-tongues prospect of regular BYU-Gonzaga games in the West Coast Conference. Though BYU is rarely if ever the best team in the Mountain West, it is one of the Mountain West’s stronger teams in basketball, and Gonzaga has to like the prospect of having a legitimate playing partner other than St. Mary’s.)
The Mountain West is left with 10 teams, one more than before, but only two BCS-caliber programs instead of the present three: TCU and Boise State. Nevada and Fresno State are good teams in football, by non-Boise WAC standards, but at best they’re on the level of an Air Force: they’ll sneak into the Top 25 sometimes, but they’ll rarely make true national headlines. (Air Force knocking off BYU being an exception.) That won’t help the Mountain West’s case for becoming a BCS conference or dissolving the system. In fact, BYU’s move by itself could make the system stronger than ever, especially if they get a BCS auto bid (which could be a smarter move than you might think precisely for that reason).
But why would BYU make the move? Notre Dame is under heavy pressure to join a conference at some point, so BYU is bucking the trend by leaving one. Of course they weren’t getting much help getting into the BCS by staying in the Mountain West. But the big thing BYU is banking on is its status as the Mormon university. They are banking on becoming the new Notre Dame, Notre Dame West, with every game getting national coverage and a truly national following. They want to leverage their BYU network and turn it into a national powerhouse. (It’s unlikely any football games would air on BYU TV, but the mtn. deal prevents even non-football sports from airing on BYU TV.)
The success of BYU’s declaration of independence depends heavily on whether or not BYU can put together a schedule at least as good as what they had in the Mountain West, and the outlook is staggering. If you’re going to set yourselves up to be the new Notre Dame or Notre Dame West, it makes sense to set up a rivalry with the real Notre Dame. Throw in Texas, Oregon State, and Utah, and that’s four games against teams in BCS conferences, with an eye for more. Good luck getting that in the Mountain West. And BYU has signed a deal with ESPN, which means the full ESPN hype machine will be in full effect and BYU games will regularly be on a platform with wider availability than Versus. All that’s left is recruiting.
If BYU can continue to recruit and play at the same level that they have been in the Mountain West, and regularly play in BCS games, independence will suddenly look like a viable prospect and Notre Dame can start saying “I told you so”. This could be the move that ultimately sets up the next great conference shakeup and finishes off the Big 12. The Pac-10 and Big 10 are too tightly-knit to lose any teams to independence, but they and the SEC may be the only reasonably invulnerable conferences, and even then Nebraska and Penn State have to consider the possibility (though the Big Ten Network revenues may be too much to resist).
(USC will definitely be tempted if probation and Lane Kiffin don’t prevent the program from maintaining its Carroll-era heights, especially compared to the rest of the Pac-10 – and if a team that lost its upperclassmen and can’t go to a bowl is still ranked in the polls and that ranking is warranted, I guarantee USC will win a national championship the first year off probation.)
If Texas decides the outlook is right, they could jump to independence in a heartbeat (just look at how much more money it makes in all sports than the next non-Big 10, non-SEC, non-Notre Dame school), with Oklahoma following (though the Big 12 could stay together after all if enough other teams follow suit). Other teams that were once both independent and powerhouses before the 90s shakeup – Florida State, Miami (FL) – could bolt as well, which is bad news for the ACC. With ten members, the ACC could stay alive, if not taken very seriously and looking like the new Big East (though Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Boston College, and a few others are good teams), but the Big 12 would be down to eight pissed-off members, who might start looking at other conferences or at independence themselves.
But that’s trying to predict the unpredictable. Right now the future involves the impending destruction of the WAC, which is down to six teams and couldn’t even field a conference if Hawaii leaves. If the WAC can keep Hawaii in the fold they will try to replenish their numbers, probably with potential playing partners for Louisiana Tech from Conference USA and possibly the Sun Belt, but if it can’t a lot depends on what the Mountain West decides to do next, and whether they want to go straight to a football championship game or wait for better options than the WAC’s castoffs (like the Kansas schools should BYU’s defection eventually cause the Big 12 to implode).
If they do decide to go for a championship game, they will and should take Utah State and New Mexico State (the former is already rumored to be Mountain West-bound). Both, along with MWC-bound Nevada, are among the WAC’s best teams in basketball (when all is said and done the Mountain West’s new lineup would have had five teams in the NCAA Tournament last year), New Mexico State brings New Mexico’s in-state rival in-house, and while Utah State’s potential playing partners are both gone it does re-establish the Mountain West’s foothold in the sizable Utah market. That leaves Idaho, San Jose State, and Louisiana Tech. LA Tech likely joins Conference USA; Idaho and San Jose State, two of the worst college football programs in the nation, may have no choice but to go to FCS or shutter their football programs entirely. Perhaps the Big Sky or Summit League will take Idaho (although most of the Summit’s schools don’t play football so if Idaho keeps the football program the Big Sky may be the only option). The Big West may be the only geographic and cultural fit for San Jose State, and most if not all of their schools don’t play football, so their football program may be screwed unless they or Idaho want to go to the Great West.
Then begins the process of keeping a close eye on how BYU does financially and athletically over the next decade, as the future of college football may lie in their hands.