June 18, 2010

Weakened Athletic Conference

With the departure of standard-bearer Boise State, the Western Athletic Conference has a lot of questions to answer.

The overarching question: Can the WAC ever be relevant again?

On June 11, Boise State University accepted an invitation to join the Mountain West Conference, which membership is set to begin on July 1, 2011.

I can only imagine the look on WAC commissioner Karl Benson's face.

When the Mountain West Conference began operations in 1999 as 8 WAC schools defected to create their own conference, the WAC was left without any of its premier programs.  The five schools who had appeared in the three WAC championship games after the WAC expanded to 16 teams (Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, and Wyoming) were all leaving for the MWC, along with Utah, San Diego State, and UNLV (who had played host to the WAC championship games).

About to fade into oblivion, the WAC added Nevada and Louisiana Tech, as well as the Boise State Broncos, a program that had only been competing in Division I football for 5 years.

The Broncos immediately lifted the league.  Besides finishing 2nd place at 8-4 in their first year in the WAC, and in 2nd in 2007 when Hawaii went undefeated, Boise has won the WAC title in 7 of its 9 years in the conference.

Not only was Boise simply winning the conference, they were barely losing any games. Boise racked up a 44-7 record in its first 4 years in the WAC.  Boise attracted enough attention that the WAC signed a TV deal with ESPN, and most WAC games over the years that ESPN carried featured Boise State.

Then in 2006, Boise hit it big with an undefeated season and an unforgettable victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.  Head coach Chris Petersen, who took over the team in that year, has now amassed 2 undefeated seasons and BCS bowl victories and a 49-4 record in 4 seasons.  With top-10 finishes and such incredible exposure, the WAC became the conference of Boise State, and everyone else.

Then the summer of 2010 hit.  With rumors flying around most major conferences about realignment and expansion, the MWC finally made a long-rumored grab at Boise State.

Now the WAC is left to pick up the pieces.

Not to say that every school in the WAC is a complete train wreck.  Pat Hill has Fresno State battling the big boys year in and year out with relative success, willing to play BCS teams anywhere at anytime.  Nevada is seeming to solidify their upstart program and set an NCAA record in 2009 by becoming the first team with three 1,000-yard rushers.

But, beyond that, the picture looks grim.  The WAC has played 5 seasons since 2005 when they became as currently constituted by adding Utah State, New Mexico State, and Idaho.  In those 5 seasons, all WAC teams other than Boise State have gone an atrocious 66-108 in non-conference games.

People have speculated where the WAC will go from here to salvage what respectability is left.  Reports are that Louisiana Tech would like to leave the WAC to join a conference more geographically suiting (and you can't blame them, can you imagine taking a trip from Louisiana to Hawaii just to play 1 game?)

Currently at 8 teams and maybe shrinking to 7, what should the WAC do?  Some have looked north to Montana and North Dakota State, teams that have had much success in football's lower divisions.  But reports from Montana are that Montana State would have to come in a package deal, something any FBS commissioner should balk at.  The Bobcats are nowhere near ready for FBS football play, and probably never will be.

Can the WAC add teams from other conferences like Conference USA or the Sun Belt?  This seems very unlikely as well, unless Louisiana Tech sticks around and the WAC could create some sort of Southeastern division.  But this is also a very unlikely possibility, as teams in those conferences would have little to gain except longer travel times by joining the WAC.

Luckily, MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said yesterday that the MWC is going to stay at 9 teams, so a complete raid of the WAC is stayed for now (unless the MWC has plans to kick out its ... well, "undesirables" and upgrade for a couple WAC teams like Fresno or Nevada, in which case the WAC would pick up the MWC rejects but become weaker still ... also a very unlikely scenario).

Standing to lose its TV contract upon its expiration and with little more than regional appeal, the WAC looks to be in some serious trouble.  With Utah State and Nevada, it appears that the WAC may became a "basketball conference," with football mattering little.

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