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by | CBSSports.com Columnist

Does the diluted Mountain West pass test for AQ-status?

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Our friends in the Mountain West Conference have taken a pretty good hit since this time last year.

In the all-out firefight that was conference realignment, the MWC saw three of its heavy hitters to seek a change in venue. Utah, which made it to a couple of BCS bowls since 2004, jumped to the newly formed Pac-12 for the promise of television payouts that will grow from $1.3 million last season to well more than $20 million in 2013-14.

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Brigham Young and its vast resources decided that football independence was the way to go, both competitively and financially.

TCU, one of the most consistent programs in college football under Gary Patterson, won the Rose Bowl last January. But the 2011 season will be TCU's last as a member of the Mountain West as the Horned Frogs will move on to the Big East.

Commissioner Craig Thompson countered by dipping into the WAC and adding Boise State for this season. In 2012, Hawaii, Nevada, and Fresno State will come aboard.

"To say there have been challenges would be a big understatement," Thompson recently told me. "But moving forward, we really like the group of teams that we have."

The irony of TCU's final year in the MWC is that if the Horned Frogs can put together another big season (despite the loss of quarterback Andy Dalton) they could potentially help their former conference earn quite a going-away present: An automatic bid to the BCS in 2012 and 2013.

Brent Schrotenboer of the San Diego Union-Tribune recently brought these numbers to light and they tell us that the Mountain West's pursuit of AQ status could be extremely tense on the field and politically charged off the field. Specifically:

There is a system in place that allows one of the non-AQ conferences (MWC, WAC, Conference USA, Sun Belt, Mid-American) to earn an automatic BCS bid for 2012 and 2013, the last two years of the current contract. Over a four-year evaluation period (which ends after his season), that conference must meet three bench marks.

 The average rank of the highest-ranked team in the conference. Thanks to the success of Utah and TCU in this cycle, the MWC's best team has posted an average rank of 5.3. That's fourth-best behind the SEC (1.3), Big 12 (3.3), Pac-12 (4.7). The MWC must finish in the top six.

 The number of teams in the conference which have been ranked at least once in the Top 25. On this list the MWC is 72.9 percent and is fifth behind the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12. If the Mountain West maintains those numbers through this season the conference will meet those two criteria. But it's the third benchmark that will be a problem:

 The average computer ranking for ALL the teams in the conference. The MWC would have to be in the top six to qualify. Going into this season the MWC is seventh with a conference wide average of (63.1). New Mexico (1-11), UNLV (2-11), Colorado State (3-9), and Wyoming (3-9) bring the overall average down.

The MWC could hope to improve those numbers this season, but with Utah and BYU gone, the odds are against it.

"Right now that is our focus," Thompson told me. "We want to earn our way by doing what we have to do on the field."

But there is another way. If the Mountain West meets two of the criteria but comes up a little short of a third to get an automatic bid in 2012 and 2013, it can appeal its case to the 12-member BCS Presidential Oversight Committee. This committee has the power to basically say, "OK, close enough" and award the automatic bid to the MWC for those two seasons. If the MWC has another good season in 2011, it can make the case that over the four-year period it has consistently performed at the level of the ACC and Big East, conferences with automatic bids. In fact, it has outperformed the ACC and Big East in two of the three categories. If the presidents say no by the letter of the law, though, this becomes a question of fairness. Given the income disparity between the six AQs and the rest of Division I-A football, it is simply the right thing to do, the argument will go.

In the past seven seasons the non-AQs have placed a total of seven teams in BCS bowls. All this ruling would do is guarantee that the Mountain West champ would get a bid in the last two years of the contract.

"There may come a time when we have to make that case but, as I said, that is not our focus now," said Thompson. "Should we get to that point it will be up to us to share our feelings about the current system. We will do it at the appropriate time."

This has a chance to create some really interesting political theater.

The Presidential Oversight Committee consists of one president from each of the 11 Division I-A conferences plus Rev. John Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame. So the AQ conferences have six votes and the non-AQs have five.

Do the presidents take a hard line and deny the appeal?

The rationale for saying no: They would be giving an automatic bid to a conference that has lost the three teams (TCU, BYU, Utah) that put it in a position to earn the bid in the first place. In short, the Mountain West Conference that earned the automatic bid really won't exist anymore.

Or will the presidents, who are risk-averse people by nature, decide they want to bypass the political and media firestorm that surely will follow if the Mountain West does not get AQ status? There will be a bunch of stories pointing out how the MWC has outperformed the ACC and the Big East but that the big boys want to keep all the money, etc., etc. It would be yet another big load of bad press for the BCS.

My (very unsolicited) advice?

If TCU and Boise State (now a member of the MWC) are really good again (like top-10 good) ...

If the Mountain West fields five winning teams (as it did last season) ...

If the Mountain West meets two of the three criteria and is reasonably in the ball park on the third ...

It might be wise to grant them AQ status for two years. First of all, they've earned it. Second of all, the big boys still likely will get the three remaining at-large bids, so the money distribution will stay where it has been for seven years now. And the six AQ conferences avoid a PR fight that they really don't need right now. You don't want to give Christine Varney at the Department of Justice another reason to be looking under the tent.

Now we won't know about any of this until after the 2011 season and all the numbers are in. But knowing that this is on the line (a BCS AQ bid is worth $24.7 million), you’ll understand why Thompson will be a tad nervous on Sept. 3 when his newest member, Boise State, travels to Atlanta to open the season with Georgia.

"Huge game," he said. "Monster game."

The BCS gets criticized for a lot and some of it is deserved. But you gotta admit, it does create some drama.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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