It hasn't happened often, but college sports conferences have died in the past. The old Pacific Coast Conference, wrought with scandal in the late '50s, comes first to mind. More recently, the Southwest Conference disappeared in the mid '90s, its members scattering to three different leagues.
Other conferences have rebranded, especially on the basketball side (such as when the old Metro melded into a newly-formed Conference USA in the mid '90s, and when the Eastern Eight morphed into the Atlantic Ten in the early 80s). Leagues have also been known to merge, as when the old Big 8 and a portion of the aforementioned Southwest Conference became the Big XII (and now they're using "12" instead of "XII" as they again rebrand that league).
Another merger of note occurred in the early '60s, when various members of the old Border and Skyline Conferences, mostly represented by schools in the Rocky Mountain region and desert southwest, came together to form a new affiliation called the Western Athletic Conference. This new conglomeration, which made its debut in 1962, quickly developed an identity and personality of its own, featuring colorful coaches and high-powered offenses and lots of shoot 'em up football representative of the roots of the region.
The remainder of the '60s were indeed an exciting time in the WAC, as schools such as Arizona State (under Frank Kush) and Wyoming (under Lloyd Eaton) emerged as national brands.
The progress continued into the '70s, and the league entered the true mainstream of college football with the introduction of the Fiesta Bowl in 1971 at ASU's Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. The Fiesta would feature the WAC champion vs. an at-large opponent in an era in which bowl games had yet to proliferate. Sure enough, the Fiesta soon became a desired postseason destination. By 1974, the bowl had secured a major TV network contract with CBS after an early affiliation with the old independent, Mizlou Network, with Valley resident and play-by-play broadcast legend Ray Scott working the microphone in '74 for the BYU-Oklahoma State battle.
The 1975 Fiesta Bowl was a highlight as it featured Kush's unbeaten and 7th-ranked ASU side against once-beaten and 6th-ranked Nebraska, when a late TD pass from backup QB Fred Mortensen to WR John Jefferson, and a subsequent field goal by Kush's son Danny, gave the Sun Devils a memorable 17-14 win, still recalled fondly in the Valley of the Sun. Kush's side subsequently ranked second behind only Barry Switzer's Oklahoma in the final 1975 wire service polls.
Later in the decade, BYU emerged as the league's flagship program under LaVell Edwards, whose high-powered offenses dominated the league and even helped the Cougs to an undefeated mark and national title in 1984.
We're taking this stroll down WAC memory lane because, as mentioned at the beginning of this piece, college conferences sometimes die. Which, unfortunately, appears to be the case with the WAC, which has undergone many transformations in the nearly four decades since ASU beat Nebraska in that '75 Fiesta Bowl but is on life support entering 2012. Although the league weathered the departure of the Sun Devils and sister school Arizona to the newly-named Pac-10 in 1978, and would become the first conference in the country to embark upon major and ambitious expansion plans in the '90s, it has been scrambling to stay afloat since 1999, when a rebel bunch of members, led by BYU and Utah, broke away from what was then a 16-member WAC to form a new conference called the Mountain West. Its membership thus cut in half, the WAC has gallantly attempted to survive in subsequent years, but like a sinking ship, it has taken on too much water and begun to list dangerously.
Recent defections of league cornerstones Boise State, Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii, and upcoming departures (effective 2013) of La Tech, Utah State and San Jose State, as well as even newer clientele who will align with the WAC for only the upcoming 2012-13 school year before bolting elsewhere (UT-San Antonio to CUSA, Texas State and UT-Arlington to the Sun Belt) appear to be the fatal torpedo shots to the bow of the WAC battleship. Most regional insiders do not believe what is left of the alliance, especially on the football side (there's a slight chance the WAC could stay afloat as a non-football league), will survive into the 2013-14 season.
And therein is another difference about the WAC's slow death from the past disappearances of the likes of the old PCC and Southwest Conferences, whose members merely dispersed and, in some cases, simply reorganized under a new name.
Don’t say, however, that the WAC hasn’t explored every possible option to stay afloat. Even in the wake of the La Tech, San Jose and Utah State departures that sounded the death knell for the league, it was rumored that the WAC was attempting one last Hail Mary pass to remain viable. Scuttlebutt suggested the WAC was attempting to add an East Division to the WAC, targeting the likes of Appalachian State, Liberty, Jacksonville State and Georgia Southern, using the carrot of the FBS. Meanwhile, current Big Sky reps Portland State and Sacramento State, and perhaps even Montana, could be in play for football membership as well, perhaps joining lone gridiron holdovers Idaho and New Mexico State.
Unfortunately, those plans have so far gone nowhere, and Idaho’s recent announcement that it plans to go independent in football after this season and align with the Big Sky in other sports was probably the straw that finally broke the WAC camel’s back.
Commissioner Jeff Hurd offered little encouragement in a mid-August press conference, admitting that the days of the WAC as a football league probably cease after the 2012 season. Instead, Hurd is hoping to cobble together enough membership to keep the WAC afloat as a league for basketball and other non-football sports.
“It doesn’t mean we’ve given up on the idea of football for the future,” said Hurd in a mid-August interview with AP. “But it’s apparent we don’t have enough members in 2013 to play football.”
Before the WAC might flatline for good as a gridiron league, there’s one more season to play this fall, with La Tech, San Jose State and Utah State still in the fold for what will be a 7-team competition. FBS newbies UTSA and Texas State will not be eligible for the WAC title or a bowl berth this season. And speaking of bowls, only one of those (Idaho’s Famous Potato Bowl) is guaranteeing a spot for a WAC rep in 2012.
Following are team-by-team previews for the fall campaign, top players to watch, and pointspread trend notes (which won’t include UTSA or Texas State, making their FBS debuts this fall). Last year’s straight-up records are also included.
LOUISIANA TECH (-175 to win WAC; 8-5 SU in 2011)
Third-year coach Sonny Dykes seems to know what he's doing and has La Tech on an unmistakable upward trajectory, and the pieces are in place for another winning season in Ruston after last year’s version stormed down the stretch to win its last seven regular-season games before going down valiantly vs. TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. The Bulldogs might even provide better viewing if the "O" opens up further this fall (as the fireworks of the spring game suggested) with senior QB Colby Cameron now fully established as "the man" to pilot the spread after tossing 13 TD passes vs. only three picks last fall. Four starters are back on the OL, and the bulk of a WR corps with relay-team speed are also still in the fold.
Meanwhile, WAC sources believe the defense, surprisingly good last season, shouldn't regress much (if any) despite the losses of some key components. Tough non-conference assignments aside, dates vs. what's left of the WAC appear very manageable. So much so, if fact, that it would be a surprise if the Bulldogs don't successfully defend their conference crown and head to another bowl, before making the move to CUSA next year. Now, how long can we expect the in-demand Dykes to remain in Ruston?
UTAH STATE (+450 to win WAC; 7-6 SU in 2011)
Sometimes breakthroughs like the one authored by USU a year ago are false alarms, and that possibility exists in Logan this fall. But considering the many near-misses by the Utags in most of their defeats last season (losses by 4, 1, 3, 7 and 1 in the bowl game), USU was closer to a much-better record than a worse one a year ago.
Granted, playmakers Robert Turbin (offense) and Bobby Wagner (defense) could be missed, but the Ags have two very capable established QBs in Chuckie Keeton and Adam Kennedy, and senior RB Kerwynn Williams (6.7 ypc in 2011) has been patiently awaiting his chance to become the featured back after caddying for Turbin. Head coach Gary Andersen, a respected defensive coordinator at Utah prior to accepting the Logan assignment in 2008, has also forged a robust stop unit that allowed only 3.46 yards per carry last fall. We suspect the Ags will again break .500 and find their way into some bowl game (perhaps even a return to Boise for the potato-fest) in December.
SAN JOSE STATE (+400 to win WAC; 5-7 SU in 2011)
San Jose provides curious subject matter for 2012, as the Spartans could reasonably be justified as one of the favorites in their last spin around the WAC if assuming the improvement displayed by head coach Mike MacIntyre's first two editions (from 1-12 in 2010 to 5-07 a year ago) continues into the fall. What's tricky is forecasting how the QB situation will evolve; the graduated Matt Faulkner emerged as an unexpected yet dynamic force last fall, and now that Michigan transfer Tate Forcier has bailed out of the program, there isn't much track record for any of the replacements. But if one (and most regional sources assume it will be juco David Fales) emerges, the supporting cast around him, featuring Minnesota transfer RB De'Leon Eskridge and top returning wideouts Noel Grigsby and Chandler Jones (who combined for 150 catches last fall), is good enough to suggest the Spartans can certainly trade points with any WAC entry.
Although a mere five returning defensive starters are on hand, almost all of the projected stop unit first-stringers have extensive game experience in the past, and veteran defensive coordinator Kent Baer is a respected tactician. Some WAC sources also wonder how long the Spartans and new AD Gene Bleymaier can hold on to MacIntyre (one of our favorites because of work in his pre-coaching adult life at Shoney’s Restaurants), who is quickly gaining notice within the coaching ranks. If nothing else, San Jose, involved in a lot of white-knucklers over the past two years, should again be fun to watch.
NEW MEXICO STATE (+1000 to win WAC; 4-9 SU in 2011)
It is almost sad duty to talk about NMSU in this preview, feeling at times as if we were reading last rites to the Aggie football program, whose future is completely up in the air after this fall. And we're not overdramatizing the situation; with the WAC likely in its last football season, unless NMSU finds a conference willing to house it, its future options are independent status (good luck to AD McKinley Boston in such scheduling adventures) or a drop to FCS level. Moreover, head coach DeWayne Walker has been targeted for desirable assistant roles the past few years (one interested suitor has been NFL Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll) and might find one of those offers too good to pass up after this season.
While the Ags are still alive in 2012, they likely stay competitive vs. a modest schedule...at least as long as the gunslinging QB Andrew Manley (one of only four returning offensive starters) stays healthy and in the lineup. Keeping Manley or any QB on the field was a chore last fall as injuries caused four of them to take snaps. Counting upon a 'D' that allowed 48.5 ppg last November and is relying upon several juco reinforcements appears to be risky business. But the losses of too many key components both offensively and defensively from a year ago makes it unlikely NMSU can break its 52-year bowl drought in what might be the program's last reasonable chance to do so.
IDAHO (+1000 to win WAC; 2-10 SU in 2011)
The Vandals are about to enter uncharted gridiron waters, becoming an FBS independent next season. More immediately, however, the regime of head coach Robb Akey probably can’t survive anything close to the 2-10 record of a year ago, as it would confirm that all momentum from the 2009 Humanitarian Bowl win over Bowling Green will have dissipated.
The Vandals are rarely going to win with defense; Akey had the proper recipe a few years ago when the "O" was dynamic and featured capable Nathan Enderle at QB, but Idaho is not going anywhere if the strike force isn't keeping the "D" (which ranked 101st nationally a year ago) off the field. With the QB spot looking to be a mystery as none of the candidates to replace departed Brian Reader were to separate from one another in spring, and resultant indicators of an offensive renaissance hard to identify, about the best we can expect in Moscow is a marginal improvement upon last year's 2-10 mark. Whether that will be enough to keep Akey employed into the Vandals' uncertain future remains to be seen.
TEXAS STATE (ineligible for WAC title; 6-6 SU in 2011)
The Bobcats make a quick pit stop in the WAC before moving to their permanent home in the Sun Belt next season. And if that gray-haired, wine-and-cheese-circuit-looking fellow on the sidelines appears familiar, he should...it’s Dennis Franchione, former New Mexico, TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M coach who enters his fourth year in San Marcos.
Coach Fran’s 2012 edition has a mostly new-look from last year’s 6-6 side, now featuring 21 redshirt frosh, plus several transfers and juco newcomers. The run-centric “O” returns both of its QBs, better runner Shaun Rutherford and better passer Tyler Arndt, and top two RBs Terrence Franks and Marcus Curry, but the OL must replace a trio of four-year starters. Nine starters return on “D” but expect some of the newcomers to break into the lineup after last year’s platoon was a bit ginger vs. the run (allowing 4.5 ypc) and surrendered a whopping 202 points after intermission. The newcomers hopefully bolster depth, which will be tested against an upgraded slate this fall.
UTSA (ineligible for WAC title; 4-8 SU in 2011)
Another FBS newbie, UTSA (a newborn program much unlike Texas State, which has fielded a team for over 100 years) is also making a quick stop in the WAC before moving to Conference USA next season. The Roadrunners, in their first gridiron campaign a year ago, averaged better than 35,000 fans per game at the spacious Alamodome, which helped make UTSA an attractive addition for next year’s Conference USA, which needed to fill its ranks after its own defections.
The Roadrunners are still in growing mode under Larry Coker, who won a national title at Miami-Fla. in 2001. Coker, looking toward the future, mostly utilized true frosh a year ago, and 20 starters return, although position shifting and roster additions figure to alter the lineup look from last fall. One of last year’s frosh, mobile QB Eric Soza, emerged as a capable pilot for Coker’s multiple-look spread in 2011, but how a young OL (likely starting five sophs) handles this year’s upgraded schedule remains to be seen. The “D” ran ahead of the “O” last season, and Coker’s 4-2-5 returns some impressive size up front, but depth issues and a more-demanding 2012 slate could take a toll.
TOP PLAYERS TO WATCH
Colby Cameron, QB, La Tech: Sonny Dykes’ spread offense took flight last fall once Cameron finally assumed the first-string QB duties. Also mostly void of mistakes a year ago, an invaluable component when running such a wide-open aerial show.
Matt Austin, WR, Utah State: Granted a medical hardship sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, which was greeted by cheers from QBs Chuckie Keeton and Adam Kennedy as it means the Utags now return their leading receiver from 2011.
De'Leon Eskridge, RB, San Jose State: The touted Minnesota transfer and Bay Area native will be expected to provide the infantry diversion for the Spartans that was so ably handled by the undersized (but graduated) Brandon Rutley a year ago.
Andrew Manley, QB, New Mexico State: As long as the Aggies can keep Manley – almost 300 ypg passing in his three starts and engineering a road upset at Minnesota before getting injured in 2011 – healthy, NMSU should at least have a puncher’s chance vs. any WAC foe.
Eric Soza, QB, UTSA: The Roadrunners’ soph QB showed a lot of promise running Larry Coker’s multiple-look spread as a frosh last season.
POINTSPREAD TRENDS TO NOTE
LA TECH: It will be hard for the Bulldogs to improve upon last year's stellar 11-2 pointspread mark, which was the nation's best. The Bulldogs covered their last eight, and 10 of their last 11 games, as well as all eight of their contests away from Joe Aillet Stadium as Sonny Dykes emerged as the favorite coach of many Las Vegas sports book patrons in 2011.
UTAH STATE: USU's emergence in 2011 also meant it could no longer fly under the pointspread radar as it had often done in previous years. But Gary Andersen's troops still covered all three of their chances as an underdog last season, and the Utags' extended dog mark since 2007 remains stellar (25-12).
SAN JOSE STATE: The Spartans enter the fall as one of the nation's hottest recent performers vs. the line, covering 10 of their last 14 on the board for head coach Mike MacIntyre, including eight of their last nine as an underdog.
NEW MEXICO STATE: Heach coach DeWayne Walker's teams, routinely underrated, have mostly held their own lately vs. the number, covering eight of 13 year ago and 10 of their last 16 away from Las Cruces and Aggie Memorial Stadium. The Ags also covered their last four as a host in 2011 after previous subpar home spread marks under Walker.
IDAHO: Spread-wise, the Vandals are only 3-10 vs. the line in their last 13 vs. FBS foes at the Kibbie Dome; a lot of pointspread good the recent refurbishments to the Vandals' home field have done!
Follow Don Best throughout the preseason as we preview each and every football conference: ACC ... Big 12 ... Big East ... Big Ten ... Conference USA ... Mid-American Conference ... Mountain West ... Sun Belt ... WAC .