The Final Act

The Final Act

The final weekend of MWC play will have slightly less drama than was anticipated because of BYU's upset loss at the hands of New Mexico last Saturday. While Utah has already clinched a second straight conference title the game's outcome may carry financial repercussions for each team in the league.

ONE MORE TIME. New Mexico caught BYU and me by surprise last weekend. I went 2-2 with my picks for the week bringing my record for the season to 43-13 (.767). As all eight teams conclude their regular season schedules this weekend here's a quick look at how the members of the conference stand in regard to postseason play.

UNLV, San Diego State, Colorado State and Air Force will all be staying home for the holidays. BYU needs to beat Utah to become bowl qualified. Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah are bowl qualified and will await word on whether postseason bids will be forthcoming. Here are my views for the action in week eleven of the college season.

@Cynics may call this one the Cellar Bowl as the loser of the contest will wind up as the conference doormat for 2004. The Aztecs and Rebels enter the game with identical 1-5 records in MWC play.

The Aztecs posted their first win since September by beating Air Force, 37-31, in snowy Colorado Springs last Saturday. The Aztecs forced six turnovers and blocked a punt and didn't seem a bit fazed by playing in weather far outside the norm of balmy SoCal.

Sadly, the coaching career of UNLV's John Robinson finishes with more tarnish than flourish. Last year's 6-6 mark has been replaced by this season's 2-8 ledger that may take another hit when Robinson returns to southern California--site of so many of his past glories. Like Joe Paterno, Robinson's legacy will be diminished for having outlived his effectiveness as a coach in the final chapter of an otherwise distinguished career. As has been its wont during Robinson's time in Las Vegas, UNLV has been maddeningly uneven in its performances.

The Rebels have shocked BYU in Provo this year and played poorly enough to lose at home to Utah State. The team's well- established history of lack of discipline--23 penalties at home against Wyoming helped the 'Pokes to a triple overtime win versus UNLV--raised problems at critical junctures of games for the Rebels throughout the season.

A San Diego State team that had scored more than 17 points only once in half a dozen contests entering the game with AFA last week, looked polished, poised and precise under freshman Matt O'Connell's direction. The Aztecs moved the ball for more than 220 yards both in the passing and running games against Air Force. Tom Craft's team has battled injuries all season and never fulfilled the expectations thrust upon it by virtue of its third place finish in a preseason conference poll. UNLV and SDS are playing out the string, but last week's success for the Aztecs has energized them while the Rebels are little more than hopeful of not embarrassing Robinson too thoroughly in his last stint pacing the sideline. My pick is San Diego State.

@ This is the week's most intriguing game. Only a few ago UNM's Rocky Long signed a contract extension to stay with the Lobos through the 2009 season. If New Mexico plays in a bowl game this postseason it will be the only MWC team to do so in each of the past three years.

Wyoming's Joe Glenn got my vote as Coach of the Year in the conference for his spectacularly quick resurrecting of the Cowboys' program. Picked to finish last in a preseason conference poll, Wyoming is bowl qualified and seeking a seventh win for 2004. Glenn's team is now a bona fide contender in every game it plays. Wyoming has a, 9-8, record in its past seventeen games. Keep in mind Glenn's predecessor--Vic Koenning--went 5-29 in three years. I'll offer Wyoming's athletic director, Gary Barta, some unsolicited advice by suggesting he get Glenn's name on a long-term contract, and soon. There's already an opening at UNLV for a head coach next year and, with what I believe will be Urban Meyer's departure from Utah, another opening in the MWC is coming soon. Either school would be well and ably served by hiring Glenn.

Wondrous DonTrell Moore seems nearly fully recovered from a knee ligament injury suffered against New Mexico State. Since returning to the Lobos' backfield Moore has gained 100 or more yards in four of five games. He needs 67 yards rushing this week to reach 1,000 for the year. Long's team enjoyed its finest hour in stunning BYU last weekend, 21-14, spoiling the Cougars' longshot bid at a conference title.

Wyoming took its turn being Utah's sparring partner last week and posted two late TDs to make the final score a more palatable, 45-28, before becoming Utah's tenth conquest of the year. In beating UNLV on the road earlier this month the 'Pokes rid themselves of the albatross of not having won a conference road game since 1999. The Cowboys face a much taller order this week in trying to defeat New Mexico. The Lobos are attempting to close the regular season by winning a fifth consecutive game.

In regard to this game, there are plenty of bowl bid scenarios through which to wade, but one possibility is that both UNM and Wyoming will extend their seasons regardless of the outcome of Saturday's game. Beating UNLV on the road is one thing, beating New Mexico is altogether another matter. The teams bring 6-4 records into this contest and the winner's 7-4 mark will be the second best regular season tally among MWC teams in 2004. My pick is New Mexico.

@. Had BYU not slipped against New Mexico last week this game would have featured two teams with a chance to win the MWC conference title in 2004. UNM's shocking upset presented Utah with a successful defense of its crown won last year. Urban Meyer's team has won 14 straight and brings a, 12-1, league record over the past two years into the game.

QB Steve Smith is 19-1 as the Utes' starter and has thrown 42 TD passes and only 5 interceptions in that skein. RBs Marty Johnson and Quinton Ganther run the ball authoritatively. Travis LaTendresse, Paris Warren, Steve Savoy and John Madsen comprise a superb receiving corps to whom Smith has completed 160 passes good for 26 TDs. Try and contain the Utah ground game and Smith will dissect a team's secondary. Concentrate on defusing Smith's passing game--which is a pipe dream at best--and Utah can ram the ball through the middle of a defensive line as the Utes' 235 yards per game show.

No, the Utes aren't the greatest offensive show on earth, but buying a ticket to watch the carnival of points that attends their every move, is money well spent.

BYU has been a puzzle all year. The Cougars began the schedule by beating a Notre Dame team that has proven to be better than most summertime projections had assessed it to be. Gary Crowton's team has lost at home to UNLV and New Mexico. The loss to the Lobos, while disappointing to the Cougars, is not an incomprehensible shock. The loss to UNLV--the Rebels' only conference victory this year--is inexplicable. An upset against the Utes would allow BYU to become bowl qualified and close the Cougars' regular season with five wins over the final seven games. It would also be a catastrophic economic turn of events for the teams in the MWC.

A Utah loss to BYU would almost certainly preclude the Utes' inclusion in a BCS affiliated bowl game and cost the team, and the conference, the fourteen million dollar payday that accompanies such a postseason bid. This is a damned if they do damned if they situation for the Cougars. No, BYU shouldn't give less than its best effort against Utah. By the same token, the financial realities of what a Utah victory would mean for each member of the MWC and their athletic programs and budgets, is not lost on BYU entering the game.

Political correctness is likely to abound among MWC athletic directors this week who publicly will voice hope for a close hard, fought game, while surreptitiously rooting for BYU to be bludgeoned early and often.

Last year's game produced a most improbable, 3-0, score in favor of the Utes. It's a contest included in the team's current 14 game win streak during which Utah has averaged 40.3 points despite scoring just three against BYU in 2003.

The MWC will close another season in which its collective play has done nothing to warrant inclusion in BCS affiliated postseason festivities. Yet make no mistake, Utah is worthy of the lofty heights to which it has ascended in all manner of national polls. Could or would Utah beat USC, Oklahoma or Auburn? I can't answer that question. Meyer and the Utes record and performance this year merit their being given a chance to see just how they'd do against those reigning powers in division 1-A. For those who don't recall, California is having a solid season this year. When Cal met Utah last year Meyer's bunch beat the Bears, 31-24, and no one suggests that cal is anything other than a top five team this year. A rematch could produce a bowl committee's fondest dream: a cascade of points.

Until the impenetrable shroud of mystery surrounding this year's work of bowl committees is lifted and teams are apprised of their holiday destinations, Utah will bask in the glow of an undefeated record. My pick is Utah.

@ I'll begin my overview of this Front Range rivalry by recalling what I wrote in August before the college football season started.

      While AFA's record against CSU stands at 10-10 over the past twenty years, the Rams have unequivocally seized recent control of the rivalry by winning nine of the past twelve meetings. The momentum in this series may eventually turn in Air Force's favor, but such a trend won't start this fall. AFA drops its season finale by losing to CSU and finishes 4-7 overall, 2-5 in the league, 1-1 in CIC competition and stays home for the holidays without a bowl berth.

Immodestly, I'm going to take a closer look at the last sentence of that preseason forecast. Nothing has happened in the Falcons' play through the first ten games of the season that persuades me to think differently than I did in August. A loss versus CSU this Saturday will cause AFA to finish with a 4-7 record overall, a 2-5 MWC mark, a 1-1 record in CIC games, while the possibility of a bowl bid became moot with last week's loss by the Falcons to SDS. Now, as then, I feel it's exactly the way the season will conclude for Air Force.

Fisher DeBerry began his career at AFA by dominating the series against CSU by leading the Falcons to seven wins in nine games. Since Sonny Lubick's arrival in Fort Collins the Rams have seized this series by the throat in winning eight of eleven games. (With Earle Bruce's victory in 1992 against AFA the Rams have won 9 of the past 12 contests in this series.)

Fans bitch, moan, whine and complain about perceived scheduling iniquities at all levels of athletic competition while rarely applauding a masterful piece of formatting when it surfaces. In MWC play, AFA, CSU and Wyoming ought to finish each year playing one another. Proximity of the campuses, fan bases that follow the exploits of all three teams and increased ticket sales are sound reasons why annual, conference-ending, season finales among these teams make sense. I congratulate the MWC for having paired AFA and CSU this year. I hope the league won't be reticent to repeat the timing of this game next year because both squads had disappointing records in 2004.

The Falcons and Rams have been led for large segments of the season by freshmen QBs. Shaun Carney won the job for AFA in fall practice while CSU's Caleb Hanie was thrust into the position after Justin Holland suffered a season ending injury against SDS. DeBerry and Lubick know that as night follows day, so too, do flashes of brilliance precede the often rash decisions of young quarterbacks. Perhaps such wisdom has made the uneven performances of their QBs easier to understand if no less frustrating to bear.

On offense and defense AFA and CSU have fielded teams liberally sprinkled with underclassmen and suffered the consequences that usually attend the good intentions but poor execution of inexperience. CSU may be further along in the maturation process than is AFA. Last week the Rams played their first turnover-free game in two years while beating UNLV, 45-10. That's progress.

In competing agianst San Diego State Air Force was intercepted twice, fumbled six times losing four of them and had a punt blocked in a clear demonstration that the Falcons couldn't keep their hands on the ball while the Aztecs couldn't wait to get theirs on it. That's regression, not progession for Air Force.

It's likely the teams will be met with cold, dark, snowy weather on which to conclude their limp to the season's finish line. Both will conclude the season with losing records and spend the winter trying to forget this fall's misery. Given the fact that 14,000 people crowded their way into 35,000 seat Hughes Stadium last week while perhaps--and I emphasize perhaps--17,000 made their way into 52,000 seat Falcon Stadium, it's apparent that the fans of both teams have already forgotten this season. And frankly that's a pity. There are seniors are both sides who will play their last game of competitive football before a crowd whose size doesn't befit the players' efforts.

Among the Air Force seniors playing for the last time are wide receivers J. P. Waller and Alec Messerall. HBs Darnell Stephens and Anthony Butler will take one more opportunity to ascend the ranks of the academy's top twenty career rushers. DL Ryan Carter will show why he has been the team's best and most valuable player this year while he tries to help contain the CSU offense. The occasion will be bittersweet indeed as "brothers-in arms" take the field together, for a final time. Striving for success will need to hold more importance for Air Force and its seniors than the game's outcome in this one, as my pick to win is Colorado State.

TWO FINAL THOUGHTS. Before bowl bids are extended and accepted, before Heisman Trophy votes are cast, mailed, received, tabulated and their results made known I want to leave you with two final thoughts. There are several worthy candidates for the Heisman Trophy this year, including the reigning winner OU QB Jason White. I'll offer a guess that USC QB Matt Leinart will claim the prize this time. As for a national champion there are again several teams in the running to claim this mythical title. The Auburn Tigers may have neither the best offense nor defense in the country, but each is solid. With games against Alabama this weekend, Tennessee in the SEC title game and a yet to be determined bowl opponent, Tommy Tunberville's team faces three tough games to conclude the season. I think Auburn will find a way to win all three and be named a national champion by one entity or another.
 

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