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It’s only going to get tougher for the WAC to ‘Play Up’

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Has it really come to this?

North Texas basically tells the Western Athletic Conference, "Don’t call us, we’ll call you."

The WAC motto the past several years has been "Play Up." Every now and then one of its teams lives up to it and overachieves on the playing field against a BCS conference behemoth. But when it comes to acquiring and retaining member schools, the WAC plays down, way down. Or, as in this case, it gets nothing.

Now it’s in what can best be described as a precarious holding pattern, perhaps a prelude to a crash-landing not too far into the future: The league announced yesterday it won’t add any schools for the 2011-12 year, when it loses flagship Boise State.

What happened to that big footprint from the Mississippi to Manoa?

It’s gotten to the point that a member of the Sun Belt holds out for a better offer. And when that source of fresh meat dries up, the WAC is in trouble. That’s where Idaho, New Mexico State and Utah State came from in 2005.

Not that they’re all that. In their five seasons in the WAC, the agonizing Aggies (both of ’em) and the mostly vapid Vandals have won 44 football games and lost 137. None of them made a bowl game until Idaho did it last season, and no one outside of Moscow’s calling the Kibbie Dome home to a budding dynasty. These three schools have averaged less than two wins a season against teams outside their triangle of futility.

Need further illustration that when you delete Boise State you severely weaken the WAC? Easy, just take another look at the overall football standings again, from last season. The Broncos won all 14 of their games. Nevada, Fresno State and Idaho all went 8-5. The remaining five teams, including Hawaii, all posted losing overall marks.

PROGRAMS LIKE Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada can look at Boise’s pending departure as an opportunity to become the new bull. But even if one of these teams romps through a Bronco-less conference in 2011, what is really gained if your goal is national respect? Unbeaten in the WAC won’t mean a whole lot when Boise State is not among the seven league victims. Such a squad better take care of business outside of the conference, too, if it wants to be taken seriously.

And, as Ferd Lewis points out, since the WAC isn’t adding another school for 2011, UH must on fairly short notice find an opponent to replace the Broncos (adding to that conundrum is the fact that any available foes will also likely get emails and phone calls from seven other WAC teams with new holes in their schedules).

Eight is enough for basketball. It actually works out better for scheduling with an even number of teams. And the March Madness money pie doesn’t have to be cut into as many pieces.

So much for the positives. Speaking of money, bid aloha to the football breadwinner.

An eight-team conference is workable. That, however, depends on which eight schools we’re talking about.

Remember the old Big Eight? THAT was a conference. National-championship contenders in football and basketball every year. And it only got bigger and better in 1996, with the addition of Texas and three other Southwest Conference refugees. Earlier this month the Big 12 – with the Longhorns standing tall – withstood an attack from all sides, losing Colorado and Nebraska, but surviving.

The WAC, however, now has no cushion to absorb any kind of a raid. If the Mountain West comes calling next year for Fresno State or Nevada, what then?

Hard to believe a WAC team actually won a national championship in football, BYU in 1984. There’s a longshot, lameduck chance at such conference glory this fall, if Boise State can get past Virginia Tech in its opener and then run the table.

After that, the WAC will be down to eight. And by no means a great eight.

Reach Star-Advertiser sports columnist Dave Reardon at dreardon@staradvertiser.com, his "Quick Reads" blog at staradvertiser.com and twitter.com/davereardon.

 

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