TCU departure leaves Mountain West thin

Less than six months ago, the Mountain West rejoiced. It had just added Boise State as its 10th member, making what appeared to be a formidable lineup of schools with TCU, Utah and BYU while bolstering its case to become a seventh automatic qualifying conference.

Today, Boise State is the only one of the four left standing in the Mountain West. TCU became the latest to bolt the conference, accepting an invitation to join the Big East and the automatic qualifying spot that comes with it. The move comes on the heels of Utah leaving for the Pac-10, and BYU deciding to go independent in football.

Now what is left is a slightly stronger version of the WAC. Indeed, the WAC-raiding Mountain West has been raided itself.

Boise State once again will be the favorite to dominate a league that is not as strong as it was last June. WAC brethren Fresno State, Nevada and potentially Hawaii are joining up for 2012. San Diego State is on the rise, and Air Force is solid. But beyond that, UNLV, New Mexico, Colorado State and Wyoming might as well be Idaho, Utah State, New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech.

As for the coveted bid to become an automatic qualifying conference, the accomplishments of TCU will count for the Mountain West during this evaluation period because the Horned Frogs will still be a member of the conference when the evaluation period is completed in December 2011. TCU joins the Big East in 2012. What Boise State has done will also count because it is joining the league for the 2011 season.

But it will not get the accomplishments of Nevada and Fresno State (joining in 2012), and loses Utah and BYU. If it fails to meet the criteria laid out by the BCS, the league can appeal to a presidential oversight committee for inclusion as an automatic qualifying conference for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons.

BCS executive director Bill Hancock said in an e-mail Monday that he did not know where the Mountain West stood as of this week in its quest to become an AQ conference, reiterating that, "Before the season began, intuitively we knew that the Mountain West was in a good position." The numbers will be run after selection Sunday in 2011.

The Big East has an automatic selection through the 2013-14 season, but the qualification standards beyond that have not been determined. When they are, TCU would also be included in the Big East evaluation, if there is one.

As for Boise State, the Broncos made the move to the Mountain West to bolster their chances of being in an AQ conference. Coach Chris Petersen tried to put a happy face on the news, saying, "I still think it’s a good conference, a better conference than the conference we’re in right now."

But WAC commissioner Karl Benson said what we are all thinking: "I’m sure the WAC members that have elected to go to the Mountain West thought they were going to get closer to the automatic qualifying conferences. But in effect not a whole lot of upward movement has been made by those three schools."

And that is what it all boils down to -- getting into one of those coveted AQ conferences. TCU and Utah have jumped at that chance. For those people who yell that Boise State would be taken seriously if it was in a "real conference," the reality is the Broncos would jump if given the same opportunity.

All you have to do is look at the plight of the non-AQ to understand the reality. You have to be perfect to have any shot at making a BCS game. Despite undefeated seasons from Hawaii, Utah, TCU and Boise State, none of them have gotten a coveted berth in the BCS National Championship Game. Granted, neither did an undefeated Cincinnati last season, but at least the Big East has an automatic spot. A Big East team with four losses could get in this year (Connecticut). A non-AQ with four losses, meanwhile, is relegated to the likes of the New Mexico Bowl.

TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte emphasized the importance of going to an AQ conference Monday and had this to say about leaving the Mountain West: "The great thing about the Mountain West -- it's a wonderful conference, but it's not the same conference we joined," he said.

The Mountain West will now look to Hawaii to officially join the league after extending an invitation to become the 10th member of the league. But the potential exists for others to be added.

“Our board of directors and directors of athletics, as they have throughout the history of the MWC, and with even more focus recently, will continue to analyze the landscape and chart our course in the context of ongoing changes," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said. "That includes conversations already underway with potential future members, as well as related discussions with our television and bowl partners."