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David Ramsey: Mountain West football on the rise, despite probable loss of Las Vegas Bowl

June 11, 2018 Updated: June 12, 2018 at 9:00 am
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Air Force players run onto the field for their season-opening NCAA college football game against Abilene Christian at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo. Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (Stacie Scott/The Gazette via AP)

The Mountain West appears on its way to losing the Las Vegas Bowl, but MW football is not in a free fall. It’s on the rise, actually. A slow rise, but definitely a rise.

And here’s the good news for Air Force football fans:

The rise can linger.

Two years ago, in the 2015-2016 season, the MW placed only one team (San Diego State) in the top 50 of the final RPI power rankings. The conference was, deservedly, losing national prestige.

The MW has revived. In 2016-2017, the conference landed three teams – including Air Force at No. 36 – in the top 50 and five teams in the top 60. In 2017-2018, three MW teams placed in the final top 35 (the Pac-12 had four) and three players in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Yes, it appears the Las Vegas Bowl will drop its association with the MW starting in 2020. For the past decade, the MW has usually sent its champion to the Las Vegas Bowl.

But the football scene in Vegas is about change, radically.

The Raiders arrive in a glittering, billion-dollar plus stadium in 2020. The Las Vegas Bowl plans to team, according to Brett McMurphy, with the Pac-12 and another Power Five (ACC, SEC, Big 10, Big 12) conference. The Las Vegas Bowl loss would leave the MW without a Power Five bowl tie-in.

MW commissioner Craig Thompson has worked with the conference since its birth in 1998. He talked Monday from his office in Colorado Springs.

“This is not new to me, the fact that we may not stay in Las Vegas,” Thompson said.

Last week, the MW issued a statement calling news of the Las Vegas Bowl changes “premature.” Thompson repeated “premature” in his conversation Monday.

The bowl organizers, he said, “have no idea what they will be charged for rent. They have no idea what they would have to pay for a guarantee. There are a lot of moving parts.”

Thompson was more eager to talk about the MW’s future. Boise State has a chance to bust into the nation’s Top 10. The Broncos return 15 starters, including quarterback Brett Rypien, and could ease the MW’s national image troubles.

The Power Five conferences have seized control of the national conversation, and it’s highly unlikely – OK, virtually impossible – a MW team will ever rule America.

But this is, despite the gathering of power and cash in a few conferences, a time of possibility in college football. Just scan last season’s top 50. Memphis, Troy and Army cracked the top 30. Navy was 42nd and Appalachian State 46th.

The secret to cracking the nation’s top 50?

Imaginative, aggressive recruiting.

Mountain West history is packed with stars who virtually nobody wanted.

Chad Hall was a 5-foot-7 (at best) high school option quarterback in suburban Atlanta. Oh, and he wasn’t very fast either. He became a 2007 All American halfback and one of the most entertaining players in Air Force history.

Josh Allen was a gangly farm kid from California, a basketball, baseball and football star at his tiny high school who campaigned to play quarterback in college.

No D-1 team wanted him. Wyoming took a chance. Good idea. Allen was the seventh pick in the 2018 draft.

And here’s my favorite: Leighton Vander Esche played eight-man football (that is, eight offensive players vs. eight defensive players instead of the usual 11 vs. 11) in Riggins, Idaho, pop. 406. He was also a basketball star, averaging 29.4 points a senior.

(A tip to recruiters: Look for football stars who double as basketball stars. Middle linebacker Randy Gradishar, the Broncos greatest-ever defender, was a dominating basketball center at Ohio’s Warren High School.)

Vander Esche walked on at Boise State and quickly developed into a dominating, terrifying linebacker. Like Allen, he skipped his senior season. He was the 19th pick in the 2018 draft.

The Vegas bowl is almost certainly not in the MW’s long-term future. The MW never will grow into a high-glam football conference. The path to the very top is blocked by the beasts who reside in the Power Five.

But the conference can keep rising if coaches show imagination in the lifeblood of college football:

Recruiting.

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