Is the Mountain West this season’s surprise conference? With an overall record of 26-14, two top 15 teams, including eighth ranked BYU, it is apparent that while the adjective “surprise” still may be up for debate, “darkhorse” was thrown out weeks ago.
Joining the ranks of MWC teams having early success this season are CSU and UNLV, who were picked to finish eighth and ninth, respectively, in the conference’s preseason poll. The Rams’ 2-2 start is the best for a first year head football coach in Fort Collins since Leon Fuller started his seven-year tenure in 1982. On Saturday, CSU plays host to the Rebels (3-2) in a battle of what was supposed to be the two worst teams in the conference.
“It’s big to come out with a conference record of 1-0,” said CSU running back Kyle Bell. “I guess it will make the game a little bit bigger, but anytime you get a conference game, no matter who it is, it’s a big game. You have to go out there with the same attitude and aggression that you would any other game and try to get the win.”
Both of CSU’s wins have come down to the final ten seconds of the game, one winning it with a field goal, while the other was sealed by an interception in the end zone. While these games have been pressure cookers , UNLV has two wins in overtime this season, one of which at No. 15 Arizona State.
Bell says that if this game becomes another tight one, it will come down to which team can make the big play in the fourth quarter to keep momentum.
Even outside the friendly confines of Hughes Stadium and Sin City, overall, the MWC has played solid football since the get-go, when Utah marched in to Michigan Stadium and upset the Wolverines on national television.
Virtually every week so far has had a marquee win for the conference (the aforementioned Utah win in week one, BYU’s controversial win at Washington in week two before shutting out UCLA 59-0 in week three). And in week four, CSU defeated Houston by picking off Cougar star quarterback Case Keenum three times – his first three interceptions of the season.
This season has been so positive thus far, MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson believes that BYU may have a shot at the BCS Championship Game in January.
“Sure [BYU has a chance] because it is one year and (rankings) are based solely on this year so I don’t think you bring in baggage from previous years,” said Thompson in his weekly teleconference. “If there’s a team in the Mountain West Conference that’s 12-0 then it will depend on how many other conferences have undefeated teams and one loss and two losses.”
While there are still two months left in the regular season, BYU and Utah currently appear to be the teams to beat in conference, but the middle of the pack seems more of a frenzy than was expected.
After the UNLV game on Saturday, CSU has to face the Utes and Texas Christian, who just dropped from the Top 25 this week after a loss to Oklahoma. According to coach Fairchild, it’s time for the players to step up.
“We’re at a point now where we’ve led them to a certain degree and it’s up to them now to respond,” said Fairchild. “It’s up to them to decide ‘are we gonna be good, are we gonna be really good?’ It’s just a matter of what they want to be.”
Football beat writer Matt Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.