UPDATE: The Mountain West Conference issued this brief statement on its blog at 1:06 p.m., regarding the Thursday meeting between officials from the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA:
"Followed up on various media reports regarding a potential Mountain West Conference-Conference USA merger, and confirmed that representatives of both leagues did indeed meet yesterday in Colorado Springs. Included were Commissioner Craig Thompson, Commissioner Britton Banowsky (who have a long-standing personal and professional relationship), and a couple MWC Athletics Directors. The informal gathering, which was previously scheduled, covered a wide range of topics, including concepts regarding television, scheduling and the BCS. Yet another example of the Mountain West's ongoing strategic thinking on a number of fronts, as the league continues to position itself in the national landscape."
So the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA have apparently put their two brains together and are talking a one-game showdown -- champion vs. champion -- with the winner being granted an automatic BCS berth.
First question: On the surface, it seems ludicrous, so why would the BCS agree to give an automatic bid to a non-automatic-qualifying conference team every year?
Answer: They won't (in my opinion, but let's continue...). Conference USA hasn't sniffed a BCS berth since long-departed Louisville in 2004 and Tulane a dozen years ago. Last season, unranked East Carolina knocked off No. 18 Houston in the C-USA championship game. East Carolina went to the Liberty Bowl and lost to unranked Arkansas, 20-17, and finished with a 9-5 record. Houston came to Fort Worth and got shellacked by unranked Air Force, 47-20, in the Armed Forces Bowl to finish 10-4. Since the 2006 season, no C-USA team has finished with fewer than three losses. In three of those four seasons, the league's best team had four losses. Can you imagine the national outrage had 9-4 East Carolina actually played its way into the BCS by upsetting TCU in a one-game bonanza?
That's reason enough to end this conversation right here, right now ... but, having said that, the one reason the BCS might bend and agree to such a scenario would be to avoid the embarrassment of last season when it had to deal with two BCS-busters and threw TCU and Boise State into the Fiesta Bowl to eat their own. A MWC vs. C-USA playoff would lump 23 teams (assuming today's count for the 2011 season of 11 teams in the MWC and 12 in C-USA -- things can change quickly, like, say Houston switching sides, but the numbers would stay the same) together and immediately lop off 22. No longer would the BCS have to worry about two teams messing things up.
Second question: This is a no-brainer for C-USA, which has never sent a team to a BCS game, but why would the superior MWC want any part of this?
Answer: Last year, TCU and Boise State both crashed the BCS, but two years ago, undefeated Boise State was left to play one-loss TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. Would Boise have taken a one-game playoff against the C-USA champ for a shot to play on the big-money stage? Of course. What if TCU and Boise both go undefeated this season? One scenario: Boise gets the BCS bid and unbeaten TCU is invited to the Las Vegas Bowl. Gary Patterson has worked too hard to elevate TCU to a national platform to just give unproven C-USA a ticket to the BCS gates, but in the current system, Patterson might figure he has a better shot each year to win his conference and then win one more against the C-USA champ to ensure getting into the BCS rather than depend on BCS calculations to determine his team's fate.
Also, this would eliminate the undefeated-or-forget-it situation that now exists in the non-automatic-qualifer conferences, easing pressure on TCU and Boise State and the others to sweep their non-conference schedules, typically highlighted by two to three tough matchups against major-conference schools (TCU plays Oregon State and Baylor this season; Boise plays Virginia Tech and Oregon State). A loss in September wouldn't end all BCS hope as it does now.
The MWC and C-USA are also looking toward the future. Although the superconference model didn't come to fruition this summer, nobody is shortsighted enough to believe the Big 12 is stable and the Big Ten and SEC won't seek to expand. When and if superconferences emerge, schools in the MWC and C-USA won't hold their breath for an invite, and that includes TCU. Arranging this championship game would possibly ensure a spot in the BCS when the landscape again changes.
Third question: Would such a championship game generate more money for the two conferences?
Answer: How much is debatable. Surely, ESPN would pay for an elimination game, but it certainly wouldn't rank up there with, say, the attractiveness and popularity of the SEC championship game. And, revenue generated from a championship game would seemingly have to be split among the 23 teams, further watering down the profit margin.
Alternate solution: Merge. Let's say the Mountain West bids farewell to New Mexico, Wyoming and San Diego State (WAC, anyone?) and moves forward with eight -- TCU, BYU, Boise, Air Force, Colorado State, Fresno State, Nevada and UNLV -- and invites four from C-USA -- Houston, Memphis, Tulsa and maybe Southern Miss for a 12-team conference with a championship game. That's not bad football to take to ESPN and other networks to hammer out a more lucrative TV deal than either conference has now. It's also a stonger product than either can currently take to the BCS for eventual automatic inclusion.