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COLUMN: Goodbye Boise State, we hardly knew you

What will the WAC landscape look like now?

Published: Monday, June 14, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 10:06

To virtually nobody's surprise, the Broncos accepted an invitation to become the tenth member of the Mountain West Conference last Friday, joining Colorado and Nebraska as the third major college program to act in the ongoing saga of conference realignment which has gripped the sports world for the better part of two weeks. The Broncos may not have been the first defection in this massive game of risk, but as the dominos fall across the country they certainly won't be the last.

But while the eyes and ears of college sports fans remained fixated on the rapidly imploding Big 12 conference and further expansion opportunities for the Pac-10 (or wait, is that Pac-16?) and Big 10 (ironically, now with 12 members) the Western Athletic Conference faces an uncertain future without its most recognizable program.

How uncertain? Well, it depends on who you ask. If you're willing to take the company line, of course, WAC Commissioner Karl Benson's Friday statement probably leads you to believe that the glass is half full, and that Boise's defection for the Mountain West merely opens the possibility for further WAC expansion.

"While I am disappointed that Boise State has elected to leave the WAC, I am very optimistic that the WAC will continue to have success in the future and that this change in membership will allow us to build even a better WAC for the future," Benson said.

He continued, saying; "It's not the first time a school has left the WAC and each time it has happened, a school or group of schools have stepped up and performed at a level that brings the WAC national credibility."

To a certain extent Benson has a point. The commissioner of the conference since 1994, Benson has kept the WAC afloat in one form or another despite a sea of constant changes in member schools, including the breakup of the former ‘mega conference' that led to the foundation of the Mountain West in 1999. He has seen powers like BYU and Utah come and go, and he has seen coaching giants like June Jones depart for seemingly greener pastures. Still, under Benson's guidance, the WAC has survived.

But even the most veteran of soldiers knows that you can't live forever, and that it can be only a matter of time until the bombshell with your name on it comes calling. To the pessimist, Boise State's move, coupled with continued movement across the college landscape, could send shockwaves that hurt or possibly destroy the WAC in the long-term.

For starters, the loss of Boise deprives the conference of its flagship football program. No one needs to be reminded of Bronco girdiron success, but it goes without saying that Boise State's remarkable streak of winning has brought the WAC a great deal of attention. Since joining the WAC in 2001 the Broncos have not had a losing season, at the same time going undefeated twice (2006 and 2009) and turning in one of the all-time greatest bowl performances in their upset of Oklahoma during the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The darling of underdogs everywhere, Boise State was for many people around the country the only reason for tuning into a WAC game.

The dynamic of having Boise's success serve to elevate the conference's perception and exposure will be sorely missed. For Utah State fans, it means having one less game every year with the possibility of appearing on national TV, as was the case in 2009 when ESPN 2 broadcast a Friday night contest between the undefeated Broncos and the Aggies from Logan. That game was a major recruiting sell for USU coach Gary Andersen, and without it he'll have to find other ways to convince big-name recruits that playing football in Logan doesn't necessarily equate into playing football before just a local crowd.

The principle money-maker in the conference, Boise's defection could have long-term implications should college teams soon arrange themselves in ‘super-conferences,' putting the conference's TV contract with ESPN in doubt for renewal should the WAC cease to matter in the grand-scheme of the college football universe. The WAC and ESPN are currently agreed on terms through 2017, but a lot can happen between now and then, and unless someone wants to bank of Nevada or Fresno State winning 12 or more games a year, the WAC suddenly looks a lot less attractive on television.

Then there is the point of replacing Boise, a dilemma Benson has addressed only vaguely. "The WAC Board of Directors will begin immediately to evaluate possible replacement teams," he said in an email last week. "However, a specific timeline has yet to be determined as we continue to follow the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics that is currently underway."

The question is who does the WAC invite? Montana is an obvious choice for most, but regents at the Big Sky power are reluctant to act, and have long cited their financial and on-field success as a current member of the Football Championship subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) as a reason to not move up to the WAC during past seasons. That mindset was further reinforced in May, when ABC broadcaster Brent Musburger equated a possible move up to the FBS level as "economic suicide" for his alma mater.

Scratch that idea.

There is, of course, always the thought that the WAC could absorb former Big 12 members or pluck teams from other non-BCS conferences that could be broken up in the coming weeks. But both of those scenarios are unrealistic, and despite his talk, Benson has a hard sell on his hands when trying to attract teams to the WAC. The immense geographical area covered by the conference make it unattractive financially for potential new members (who wants to fly their woman's volleyball team to Hawaii every year anyway?) while its questionable merits as a football power conference now that Boise State is gone would likely leave "free agent" universities to explore other opportunities. The only other options? Schools such as Portland State have expressed interest, but given that program's lack of consistent FCS success, does it really make sense for the WAC to add them if the conference's objective is to improve its image?

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