The Mountain West Conference had a lot to shout about in March of 2015.
The league put three teams into the NCAA tournament after getting only two Dance invites in 2014. Wyoming made its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002, showing other member schools that periods of struggle and postseason exile do not have the final say in any individual season — breakthroughs can always occur.
Yes, it stung commissioner Craig Thompson that Colorado State did not get invited to the 2015 NCAA Tournament. The Rams and Temple both deserved a bid more than UCLA and Ole Miss. (The Rebels deserved a bid more than UCLA, the one team which truly had no business being in the field.) All was not perfect in the Mountain West’s kingdom, but basketball enjoyed relatively good health last winter.
Of much greater significance in the 2014-2015 college sports cycle, the Mountain West soared in football. Boise State won the first Group of Five New Year’s Six bowl bid and then captured the 2014 Fiesta Bowl over Arizona. The revenue, the publicity, the acknowledgment of its place at the forefront of the Group of Five — the Mountain West had a lot going for it. Colorado State and Air Force flourished on the gridiron as well in the 2014 season. Quality and depth marked the league in both football and hoops.
Life could have been better (with Colorado State making the NCAAs in basketball), but it was still pretty good.
The 2015-2016 college sports cycle has marked — if not a 180-degree reversal — a 135-degree spin-out from a previous period of prosperity… all with added embarrassments along the way.
The Mountain West was naturally expecting Boise State to return to the center of the Group of Five conversation, but the Broncos watched their season turn sideways.
Beset by injuries and growing pains at quarterback, and also dogged by a propensity to commit turnovers in bunches, the Broncos imploded in prime-time games against Utah State and New Mexico. They were outplayed by Air Force, and they lost to BYU thanks to a Hail Mary from Tanner Mangum. It was a Murphy’s Law regular season for a team which crushed Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Boise State walked out of San Diego knowing it was still loaded with talent and potential — the future of the program is still very bright. In 2015, though, every imaginable plot twist happened to be a negative one. The Mountain West naturally lost its grip on the Group of Five. Such a reality shouldn’t be too much of a cause for concern, but the rise of another G-5 conference has reshaped the college football landscape for the Mountain West in a negative way.
After Colorado State’s magnificent 2014 season, Jim McElwain left to take the open job at Florida. This reminded longtime Mountain West watchers of Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley snagging a fella named Urban Meyer from Utah following the 2004 season. That move worked out well, and so it had to sting the MWC when McElwain won the SEC East in his first Gainesville go-round. Colorado State could become special under Mike Bobo, but that’s a wait-and-see situation in Fort Collins. The Mountain West simply wasn’t as strong or as deep in football in 2015.
While the MWC declined, The American stepped into the breach and took full control of the race for supremacy in college football’s underclass. Tom Herman stayed at Houston, where he’s poised to repeat as the G-5 champion in 2016. The infusion of coaching talent into the AAC leaves the Mountain West at a considerable deficit. The ground has shifted quite substantially in the Group of Five realm, and not to the Mountain West’s benefit.
As the sour cherry on top of a spoiled sundae, the conference title game — played in the early evening and not late at night in San Diego — was completely overshadowed by three power-conference championship games in the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC. The league should have slotted its title game — a competitive and entertaining contest pitting Air Force against San Diego State — at 10 Eastern, but the 7:30 kickoff limited exposure for the event.
Football was a Debbie Downer for the Mountain West.
Then came basketball.
Barring a string of six straight victories from San Diego State’s basketball team — plus a lot of continued help from the bubble, followed by an SDSU loss in the conference tournament final on March 11 in Las Vegas — the Mountain West will put only one team in the NCAA tournament this year. Should the MWC fail to put one at-large team in the field, it would mark the first such occurrence since 2001, when BYU was the lone team to represent the league in the Dance.
San Diego State — the champion of the league in football — is once again the class of the league in basketball. However, the Aztecs stubbed their toes on numerous occasions in non-conference play, losing to Arkansas-Little Rock, San Diego, and Grand Canyon. Those defeats overwhelmed a win over California and a generally strong non-conference schedule. SDSU has lost only one conference game, but with every other team in the league struggling, none of the Aztecs’ wins are needle movers. Moreover, any pursuing team trying to fatten up its resume with a win over San Diego State cannot derive that much of a benefit from beating Team Tenochtitlan in the coming weeks. Mountain West basketball is caught in a vicious cycle this year — the top team can’t profit off its wins versus the second- and third-place teams, and vice-versa. That’s how a one-bid season emerges.
New Mexico, a very strong program not that long ago, has unraveled. The Lobos got run out of the gym by Colorado State on Tuesday night, underlining their lack of magic in the present tense. UNLV fired head coach Dave Rice in the middle of the season and has to nail its next coaching hire. Boise State has underperformed in hoops, just as it did in football. Colorado State, jobbed last season by the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, has declined this season and won’t be a serious at-large candidate.
The BSU-CSU officiating fiasco — not helped or effectively addressed by the league office — heaped even more humiliation on the conference. This occurred after a late-game officiating mistake in the New Mexico-San Diego State game also played a large role in reshaping the outcome.
A steep decline in football.
No at-large berths in basketball.
Multiple officiating controversies, one of them poorly handled by the league after the initial incident.
Gee, other than that, everything’s been swell for the Mountain West since the start of the current college sports cycle in the late summer of 2015.