Mountain West is riding high

August 20, 2002 5:01 AM
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The Mountain West Conference was born out of disrespect, which helps make this bunch the best bargains for the buck in college football.

The league boasts three of the top veteran coaches in the country in Sonny Lubick, John Robinson and Fisher DeBerry, who have carried the torch for the retired BYU patriarch LaVell Edwards.

The MWC also has some of the nation’s premier over-achievers. Utah is 11-2 ATS as an underdog since 1997. Colorado State is 14-4 ATS as a dog over the same period. San Diego State is 5-2 ATS as a dog of 10 points or more over the last three years.

The league also wins in postseason, going 3-1 last year. UNLV and Utah have posted upset victories over Arkansas and USC respectively as underdogs in the past two Las Vegas Bowls.

This "Cinderella" success will be tested in the first week of the season when Colorado State opens this Thursday at Virginia as a two-point underdog and Aug. 31 in Las Vegas when UNLV hosts Wisconsin as a six-point dog.

The MWC evolved from eight teams that broke away from the Western Athletic Conference to seek fame and fortune. Fortunately for wiseguys in the business of making money, the lack of identity has enhanced the value of the teams.

Utah has five players on Jim Feist’s All-MWC defensive team, including three linemen. This in a league where defending league champ BYU took the forward pass to another level for three decades under Edwards and current coach Gary Crowton, who started 12-0 in his first season last year.

The Cougars had a disappointing finish with consecutive losses to Hawaii and Louisville and start off 2002 having to replace All-Conference QB Brandon Doman (3,542 yards, 33 TD) and TB Luke Staley (1,582 yds, 24 TD).

However, All-Conference WR Reno Mahe is back and Crowton has plenty of potential firepower if he can delay the two-year missions for the Mormon church.

Colorado State finished a strong second in the league thanks to the swash-buckling style of QB Bradlee Van Pelt, known more for his running than passing.

Utah was 8-4 ATS last year, despite an average victory margin of only five points. Coach Ron McBride does it with defense, which should again be the class of the league.

New Mexico went 6-5, which was good considering a 12-23 record over the previous three seasons. The Lobos buried rival New Mexico State 53-0 to close the year and hope to take that momentum into their season opener at N.C. State.

UNLV has a number of questions to answer, particularly at QB where Jason Thomas slumped badly from his breakout season in 2000 as a sophomore.

The Rebels do have All-Conference RB Joe Haro returning, but were hit hard by graduation with two defensive backs going to the NFL.

Wyoming may have the best QB in the league in Casey Bramlett, but the Cowboys have not won a MWC contest in two years. That streak should end, but a league title is a dream.

San Diego State is in a full-blown rebuilding mode under new coach Tom Craft, as former USC coach Ted Tollner drove the program into the mud.

The Aztecs, once known for the high-flying offensive shootouts, were gunned down in 2001. State was 98th in total offense and 111th in scoring (16.7 ppg).