LAS VEGAS This is Boise States league now. Thats the unmistakable takeaway from the Mountain Wests annual football media event.
Entering their third season in the league a conference the Broncos swooned over for nearly a decade before members, on the verge of losing teams, finally invited them the Broncos are more at home than ever.
Its not just that Boise State was the near-unanimous pick to win the Mountain Division. Its not just the addition of two more old WAC rivals in San Jose State and Utah State, which provides a familiar feeling from the days when Boise State tore through that league to the tune of 75 wins and five losses. Its not just the rules that were modified to mollify them.
Its all of it.
In 2011, the Broncos first year in the Mountain West, TCU was still around to represent the old guard. In 2012, any enthusiasm over the Broncos was tempered by the fact that they were leaving for the Big East.
It was their December decision to return that breathed new life into the 15-year-old Mountain West, that allowed it to regroup, get whole again and start moving forward.
Without Boise States return, charter member San Diego State is likely not back either. Without Boise States return, the Mountain West is not back on ESPN, a major step forward in terms of exposure. Without Boise States return, the Mountain West is not preparing to hold its first football championship game, possibly in prime time on national television. Without Boise States return, the league is pinning its hopes on Fresno State and sustained success from new members instead of crowing about enviable depth.
The conference, from top to bottom, is the best conference weve been in since Ive been at Boise State, coach Chris Petersen said.
Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson deserves credit for engineering the Broncos return, particularly the innovative approach of negotiating their home football rights in a separate television package.
But it was Boise States appeal and success that opened those doors.
And now, with its flagship in place, the suddenly stable Mountain West can again talk about growth. Thompson said the league reminds him of 1999 its first season. That core of schools played in four BCS bowls, including three consecutive after the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons.
It took about five or six years to mature, to develop, through scheduling improvements and the TV partners, to get to that level, he said. It may not happen this year or next year. It might. But I probably think its going to take a couple years to grow and mature to that level.
The conference has that time now, thanks to the Broncos return. Thompson sees his league led by Boise State as one that could and should compete in the College Football Playoff bowls routinely.
If were not in that position many times, Ill be shocked, he said.
But you will have to go through Petersens team.
Petersen, the longest-tenured coach among the 12, has moved into veteran status as he enters his eighth season. He said hes gotten more calls this offseason from fellow coaches looking for advice than ever before.
Being 84-8 makes the cell phone ring. As does going 11-2 in what many considered a rebuilding year after losing NFLers Kellen Moore, Doug Martin, Shea McClellin, Tyrone Crawford, Billy Winn, George Iloka and others.
Utah States first-year coach, Matt Wells, went to dinner with Petersen on Sunday night in Las Vegas.
Its a model of success and not just a little success, but phenomenal success. And its a model of consistency. So, yeah, wed like to emulate that, Wells said. Theres no question that the road to the Mountain West championship goes right through Boise.
The respect is conference-wide.
Theyve been the standard bearer in this league and until somebody knocks them off, in my mind, theyre the champs, said Fresno States Tim DeRuyter, whose team shared the conference title last year with Boise State and San Diego State.
With the conference hopping done, the Broncos have to like where they ended up the leader of another league.
Brian Murphy: 377-6444