Mountain West's glory days 

End Zone

If you feel any affection for the Mountain West Conference, enjoy the next six weeks or so as much as you can.

First, you can look to the future on Friday night, as Boise State travels to Reno for a showdown against Nevada to decide the Western Athletic Conference championship (8:15 p.m., ESPN). Boise, hoping for its third Bowl Championship Series berth, will join the Mountain West in 2011, with Nevada coming to the MWC in 2012 along with Fresno State.

Saturday, you can catch Texas Christian University wrapping up its 12-0 season against New Mexico (2 p.m., Versus), although there are better TV games if you prefer drama to blowouts. Only a huge injustice would keep TCU out of the BCS, and hopefully the bowl powers will avoid a TCU-Boise rematch (Boise won that pairing last year in the Fiesta). Come 2011, though, TCU and Boise will be Mountain West rivals, playing the league's new, annual marquee game after Brigham Young and Utah leave.

Ah yes, BYU and Utah. Those two play their final conference game Saturday (1:30 p.m., the Mtn.) with both heading for second-tier bowls. Later (6 p.m., the Mtn.), San Diego State faces Nevada-Las Vegas in a matchup of the league's most promising programs for 2011 and beyond, thanks to head coaches Brady Hoke (SDSU) and Bobby Hauck (UNLV).

Then comes the bowl season, with Mountain West teams of now and tomorrow dotting the schedule and even affecting each other.

This is where Air Force (done for the regular season at 8-4) comes into play. All along, speculation has put the Falcons into the Independence Bowl, Dec. 27 at Shreveport, La., against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent, now likely Georgia Tech or Clemson. Either would be a formidable test for Air Force.

But a different scenario is taking shape. Apparently the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 22 wants Notre Dame, even if the Fighting Irish finish 6-6 with a loss Saturday at Southern Cal. If Notre Dame wins that game, it might have a better bowl option. But if the Irish do head for Vegas, that would mean the bowl spurning Utah, which already has played and lost to Notre Dame.

The solution for that? Air Force vs. Notre Dame in Vegas, and Utah sliding to the Independence. Or, if BYU knocks off Utah, Vegas (with first choice of Mountain West teams after the BCS is set) might go for BYU-Notre Dame to guarantee a big crowd. Then the folks in Shreveport might decide between Air Force and Utah, with the loser in that pick falling to the New Mexico Bowl against a Mid-American Conference team like Ohio or Toledo.

San Diego State looks set to play a bowl home game in the Poinsettia (San Diego's second bowl, before the Holiday) against Navy.

We're not done. Hawaii, now shaping up as a likely Mountain West member in 2012, should finish 9-3 and host the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24.

Finally, of course, will come those BCS games, with rumors pointing Boise State or TCU toward the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin, and the other likely returning to the Fiesta against the Big 12 champion (Nebraska, Oklahoma or Oklahoma State).

For a conference that still hasn't reached the BCS inner circle, it never will get better than this. But whether the Mountain West can parlay all of its recent successes — and its adaptability, pulling in Boise and others to fill the void left by Utah and BYU — into more prominence might depend on 2011.

Next year, Boise State and TCU will shift to "reload" mode, with TCU more likely to start higher in the polls. Then again, Boise will open the 2011 season playing in Atlanta against Georgia, which could vault the Broncos back onto center stage. San Diego State will become a preseason contender, as will Air Force, with such playmakers as quarterback Tim Jefferson, halfback Asher Clark and receiver Jonathan Warzeka returning. TCU will have to play at Air Force, though the Falcons likely will travel to Boise.

As promising as 2011 looks, though, the Mountain West has to be looking at this next month as, well, the top of the mountain.



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