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Breaking down BYU bowl opponent candidates (+conference championship picks)

By Sunday, Utah and BYU will know their bowl opponents. While the Utes must wait for a destination and a matchup, the Cougars have been making travel plans to San Diego for weeks.

For BYU, its opponent will be left up to guys in colored jackets and the pecking order of the Mountain West bowl after the league champion is crowned late Saturday on the high plains.

Regardless of where the winner of the Mountain West Conference championship game in Laramie goes, the Cougars are sure to face a talented ball carrier.

San Diego State and Wyoming square off Saturday night in a game that features two of the best runners those two programs have ever produced.

SDSU’s Donnel Pumphrey is about to become the NCAA’s first athlete to rush for 6,000 yards and have 1,000 yards receiving. He’s replaced Marshall Faulk as the school’s all-time leading rusher.

Wyoming features Brian Hill, an athletic, physical load of muscle who ranks among the four best rushers in college this year. He’s erasing Wyoming rush records that have stood for 40 years and 1674 yards on the season.

BYU could face either Pumphrey or Hill.

Or the Cougars could get a rematch with Boise State and face Jeremy McNichols. You may remember McNichols, who ranks behind Hill and Pumphrey in MWC and NCAA rush rankings.

All McNichols did against the Cougars in Boise was gain 256 yards of total offense, 147 on the ground, and 5 catches for 109 yards, the longest of which was a 76-yard TD catch.

Then there is Air Force still lurking. The Falcons are fresh off a 27-20 win over Boise State in Colorado Springs and the Poinsettia Bowl folks could be in line to invite the Falcons.

Air Force ranks No. 4 nationally in rushing with 322.8 yards per game, including 3,873 yards and 35 touchdowns.

The Poinsettia Bowl is waiting to see the result in Laramie, then the Mountain West's ties with the Las Vegas Bowl will play a part in selections.

The MWC is an interesting league this season. USU was down, Wyoming used a new coaching staff and philosophy to climb to the top. Boise State kind of slipped and New Mexico and Air Force played spoilers.

How crazy did it get?

In the final week of regular season play, the league had two ranked teams in line to make a College Playoff upper tier bowl, looking to battle other nonpower 5 combatants Western Michigan, Navy and Houston.

But what happened a week ago was then No. 20 Boise State lost to Air Force and No. 24 San Diego State got spanked in first-class fashion by Colorado State 63-21.

The Mountain West probably had as much parity than it’s shown since the days of TCU, Utah and BYU.

The MWC bowl protocol is as follows:

“After a first selection by the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, where the MW will face a team from the Pac-12 each season, the Mountain West will collaborate with its bowl partners to determine the annual placement of teams, with an emphasis on geographic proximity, avoiding repeat trips by any one institution and creation of the most compelling matchups for each market.”

BSU is 10-2, AFA is 9-3, SDSU stands 9-3 and Wyoming is 8-4 but hosting the league title game.

Boise State would be a fun rematch for BYU but the Broncos were in the Poinsettia Bowl last year.

If Wyoming loses to SDSU, the Cowboys would love San Diego in winter and they do have a robust travel reputation.

If the Aztecs lost to Wyoming, the folks in San Diego would love to have the home team go against the Cougars. The San Diego media could talk about Chad Bunn again.

Moving on, here are my conference playoff picks:

American Athletic Conference: Navy 37, Temple 31 because… Navy beat Memphis 42-28 and Memphis beat Temple 34-27.

Conference USA: Western Kentucky 28, Louisiana Tech 24 because… WKU beat Middle Tennessee State 44-43 and MTSU beat Louisiana Tech 38-34.

Big 12: Oklahoma 34, Oklahoma State 31 because… Oklahoma beat Baylor 45-24 and Baylor beat Oklahoma State 35-24.

SEC: Alabama 42, Florida 28 because… the Crimson Tide beat Arkansas 49-30 and Arkansas beat Florida 31-10.

Mountain West: Wyoming 24, San Diego State 21 because… this game is in Laramie and SDSU is a beach coastal city and the Cowboys beat SDSU earlier 34-33.

ACC: Clemson 38, Virginia Tech 31 because… Clemson beat Georgia Tech 26-7 and Georgia Tech beat Virginia Tech 30-20.

Big Ten: Wisconsin 28, Penn State 27 because… Wisconsin beat Iowa 17-9 and Iowa beat Michigan 14-13 and Michigan beat Penn State 49-10.

Last week 8-3; Overall 99-57 (.634).

EMAIL: dharmon@deseretnews.com.

TWITTER: Harmonwrites