This is the kind of discussion topic which inevitably creates polarization, frustration, expectation, and many other iterations of “-ation” which aren’t comfortable to absorb.
Which teams have to do better to improve a conference’s standing in major college football?
Mention one, and other fan bases might think their program isn’t worthy of great expectations. Mention another, and some fans might think that a different program is hurting the larger cause.
Conversations are often inconvenient. This is not meant to be a search for truth — it’s an opinion piece — but certain truths still hurt. With that in mind, which programs can lift the Mountain West to a higher plane?
The Mountain West endured a miserable 2015 season, documented here. Every school other than San Diego State failed to do its part — let’s allow that point of emphasis to sink in. Boise State wasn’t Boise State last season. A league-wide improvement certainly wouldn’t hurt the standing of a conference.
Yet, in much the same way that the Miami Hurricanes have failed to do their part in ACC football, and both Penn State and Nebraska have encountered tough sledding in the Big Ten — thereby detracting from the depth of that conference — a few teams stand out in the Mountain West. They could be good — one could even say they should be good — but they’re mediocre at best. If they became their best selves, national observers would view the Mountain West in a noticeably different light.
The “winners” of this (dubious-yet-hope-filled) distinction: Fresno State in the West Division, and Colorado State in the Mountain Division.
Let’s start with a process of elimination before returning to the Bulldogs and Rams.
Wyoming and Hawaii own geographically and demographically limited situations which make it unfair to expect them to carry more weight in the Mountain West.
Nevada had a local legend, Chris Ault, at the helm for a long time. It seems unreasonable to expect the Wolf Pack to match Ault’s standard in a relatively short time frame.
Air Force, as a service academy, will always be constrained in terms of its ability to recruit. (Moreover, when the Falcons tried to push beyond those constraints, they embarrassed themselves.)
San Diego State, as defending champion, and Boise State — the national program in the conference — have done their part, so they’re excluded from the conversation for a happy reason, not a negative one.
San Jose State will always fight for scraps in Silicon Valley, not too far from Stanford and Berkeley. Utah State has to fight with Utah and BYU in Ogden, which is not a natural magnet for recruits.
New Mexico is a basketball school with a relatively small stadium. One could say that same thing about UNLV, a program whose closer proximity to California makes it hard to elevate New Mexico over the Rebels in terms of bearing added responsibility for the standing of the Mountain West. UNLV could be seen as the program which has to do more in the MWC — relative to everyone not named Boise State or SDSU. If you wanted to make a case for the Rebels, you could assemble some convincing claims.
However, a few items lift Colorado State and Fresno State above the pack:
1) Proximity to markets or fertile recruiting grounds (or both);
2) They’re football schools, or at the very least, they don’t have overly robust basketball brands to the extent that basketball is more culturally important;
3) It has recently been shown that 10 or more wins are quite attainable at each school (within the last three seasons);
4) Unlike San Jose State and Utah State, CSU and FSU aren’t in direct competition with two nearby schools that are clearly better in football — Colorado is not a healthier program than CSU, and Fresno is located in an area which is removed from both Los Angeles and the Bay Area. It can claim its own territory to a certain extent, although that’s a debatable point.
Yes, UNLV could become a magnet for recruits with the right coach, but one must wonder why the Rebels turned to a high-school coach as their current boss. The inability to get higher-end coaching talent in Vegas remains a mystery when viewed through a certain lens.
Fresno State has pulled in quality coaches over a long period of time. Jim Sweeney preceded Pat Hill — both men led FSU to the precipice of heightened achievement. Tim DeRuyter is currently struggling, but he did coach the Bulldogs within a win of a BCS bowl in 2013.
Colorado State had Sonny Lubick and more recently hired Jim McElwain, who needed only three years to whip the Rams into shape. The current CSU crew, under Mike Bobo, could have won nine games last year, maybe even 10, had it been able to take better care of the ball.
If a Sun Belt head coach or a Power Five coordinator wants to take the next step up in his coaching career, and DeRuyter is fired in Fresno this December, the Bulldogs would make a very attractive destination. Mike Bobo — an SEC offensive coordinator — is trying to make the same journey McElwain made a few years ago.
If Fresno State didn’t threaten to do big things every now and then — remember its 2005 loss to USC — and Colorado State didn’t offer a pipeline to Power Five head coaching jobs, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect more of these Mountain West programs … but FSU is dangerous, and Colorado State can be a career catapult.
Sorry, Bulldogs and Rams, but you should be doing more.
Cheer up, Bulldogs and Rams — you can do more. Let’s allow that last sentence to represent the proper point of emphasis in this discussion.