While there are still many aspects of the new-look Bowl Championship Series that have yet to be worked out, one thing made clear last week is that 10 college football teams will earn the big paydays starting in 2006, rather than the eight previously.
That's potentially good news for Utah, BYU and the rest of the Mountain West Conference. The champions from the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC will continue to earn automatic berths, as before. But, in a small concession to the five "non-BCS" leagues, it means four at-large BCS bowl berths will be up for grabs, instead of two in the past.
The MWC is arguably the best of the five non-BCS Division I-A leagues and will get even stronger with the addition of Texas Christian prior to the 2005 football season. While details are still being worked out on the rating methods, it is expected that any MWC team that finishes in the top 12 of the BCS rankings will be offered a berth in a BCS game.
Still, just how realistic will it be for a MWC team to qualify for the BCS?
Well, even the league commissioner acknowledges that it won't be easy.
"Let's talk reality," said MWC commissioner Craig Thompson. "Can we get to a top 12? That's our goal. Will we get to the top 12? We haven't yet. But that doesn't mean that we won't."
Perhaps the biggest problem for the MWC over the years has been parity. While having all eight teams in the league relatively evenly matched makes for interesting games for fans, the conference needs one team to dominate if it is to get a team into a BCS bowl.
"The good news/bad news for us is that there is so much balance," said Thompson. "About the time we get a team 10-0, they get beat by some other conference member."
Since the MWC began five years ago, only BYU in 2001 came close to finishing the regular season with a top 12 BCS ranking.
"In 75 weeks of Mountain West football — 15-week seasons, times five years — we have had a team ranked in the top 12 in the BCS rankings exactly two weeks," Thompson points out.
Those two weeks were both by BYU in '01 after wins against Utah and Mississippi State gave the Cougars a 12-0 mark. But a regular-season-ending loss at Hawaii knocked the Cougars out of the top 12 of the BCS rankings.
TCU, which joins the MWC a year from now, got up to as high as No. 6 in the BCS rankings last season before losing to Southern Mississippi and dropping out of the top 12. While having the Horned Frogs in the mix will help the MWC's strength of schedule ratings, it will also mean another tough game for each team and perhaps even more parity in the league.
But Thompson isn't complaining.
"Would we like to have an automatic (BCS berth)? Hell, yeah," Thompson said. "But I think we're comfortable (with the changes in the BCS)."
Having four at-large BCS berths at least gives the MWC a fighting chance.
"I'm convinced that if we have a team at 11-0, we'll be in the top 12," he said.