Nine years ago if someone had said Boise State would be in the Mountain West Conference before Fresno State, he or she would have been ridiculed for making such an outlandish statement.
Fast forward to June 10, 2010, the Broncos receive and accept an invitation to join the MWC. And nobody is scoffing the move, especially Bulldog fans. Add in Colorado's announcement to join the Pac-10 and Nebraska's application to join the Big Ten, the complexion of college football is changing rapidly and for now Fresno State has no place at the table.
For most of the last decade, Fresno State has played second, often third, fiddle to Boise State in the Western Athletic Conference. Nonetheless, Bulldog head coach Pat Hill's philosophy of playing anyone, anywhere, anytime has kept his program on national TV and in the spotlight, albeit a flicker.
But a flicker isn't going to get the Bulldogs into the MWC or any other conference. The Fresno State administration better be in self-promoting mode because the reality is the Bulldog football program looks destined to be stuck in the realm of FBS doldrums or possibly worse – the FCS division. Few Bulldog fans care if basketball, baseball, and the women's teams still play in the upper level of D1 athletics. Football drives the car. Football funds all the sports. Fresno fans love Fresno State football – as long as it wins.
The last four years on the gridiron have been subpar to say the least, but no other event from San Francisco to Los Angeles draws a consistent 30,000+ fans as a Fresno State football game does. While the Pac-10 does dominant much of the Golden State's television market, the Fresno-Visalia market is the 55th largest in the United States with nearly 580,000 TV households. The Bulldogs are the only D1 football program in the San Joaquin Valley spanning from Sacramento (20th largest TV market) to Bakersfield (125th).
In 1998, his second season as the Bulldog head coach, Hill foresaw the "mega" conferences eventually taking over D1 college football. He has done is best to market Fresno State as the Valley's team. The Green V emblem was his idea. He wanted to paint the Valley red. Hence, the Green V – representing the fertile ground of the San Joaquin Valley – with a smaller red "v" painted inside.
By marketing Fresno State as such, he had hopes of creating a huge fan base among the four million plus residents in the Valley. The Fresno and Bakersfield TV markets combine make it the 38th largest in the U.S. Add in Sacramento and the San Joaquin Valley is the 10th largest TV market in the country.
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs are not perceived as a D1 team from the 10th largest TV market as Cal takes a large share of the Sacramento market and USC and UCLA have a strong presence in Bakersfield. Couple that with the fact Hill has not won a share of the Western Athletic Conference title since 1999, it's not hard to imagine any conference willing to take the Bulldogs unless it desperately wants a piece of the California TV market.
Granted the Valley has become a fertile recruiting ground with colleges from across the nation visiting bi-annually to scout the areas top high school and junior college players. For schools in the Midwest, South or East Coast, a game in California is exposure in one of the three richest recruiting states (Texas and Florida being the other two). With that said, Fresno State has home games lined up with Cincinnati and Illinois this season, Mississippi in 2011, Rutgers in 2013, and Nebraska in 2014.
But can Fresno State become the West's version of South Florida? Can the Bulldogs be a feasible BCS program in the shadow of more established in-state programs? In the last few seasons, the Bulls have become a successful BCS program after joining Big East in 2005. The USF football program is less than 15 years old and has been playing at the FBS level for less than 10 years. Nonetheless, on the field and on the recruiting front, the Bulls are more on par with Miami and Florida State than Central Florida or Florida Atlantic.
Let's be clear, Fresno State was never a candidate for Pac-10 expansion. Never! The Pac-10 will stay at 11, expand 12 but will only expand to 16 if it includes Texas and Oklahoma. The Bulldogs lone hope into BCS inclusion is westward Big XII expansion or some sort of WAC, MWC, and Big XII leftovers merger. Far-fetched but it's possible.
While not a BCS conference now, the MWC makes the most sense for Fresno State.
The Bulldogs became the 10th member in the original WAC in 1992. Seven of the original WAC members when the Bulldogs joined are flagship members of the MWC: Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, Utah, and Wyoming. Fresno State and UNLV were conference members in the in the Big West and again from 1996-98 when the Rebels joined the WAC. The Bulldogs and TCU were WAC members from 1996-00. The Bulldogs have a history – a one-sided rivalry – with the MWC's newest member Boise State, who has never been a conference mate of any of the current nine MWC schools.
Regardless, even if the MWC explores the idea of a 12-team conference. The next two teams on its list are arguably in the Big XII. Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, and Missouri are more attractive at this point. A MWC with Kansas and Missouri instantly make it a viable conference for BCS inclusion in football and arguably one of the top five conferences in basketball.
If the MWC looks to expand to 16 teams, even with the five Big XII members named, it leaves room for one more school. Certainly, Fresno State would be on a short list for the 16th spot with Nevada and Houston. But is it possible the Bulldogs could 18th on that list?
The best case for Fresno State is for the Pac-10 to extend an invitation to Utah, therefore securing the Pac-10 conference 12 teams and removing a top program from the MWC. Next, Texas A&M receives and accepts an invite to join the SEC. At that point, the Big XII will be at nine teams and either A: add three teams and move forward or B: see Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State bolt for the Pac-10 leaving Kansas, Missouri, Kansas State, Iowa State, and Baylor to fend for themselves.
If Texas remains in the Big XII conference and Commissioner Dan Beebe decides to add three teams to replace Colorado, Nebraska, and Texas A&M, the MWC could lose at least one other program.
TCU has showed no loyalty in the last 15 years bouncing from the defunct Southwest Conference to the WAC in 1996 to Conference USA in 2001 and then to the MWC in 2005. If the Big XII extended an invitation to the Horned Frogs there would be no loyalty to remain with the MWC, especially with no guarantee the MWC will ever secure an auto bid to the BCS.
Houston unveiled a $160 million plan to upgrade its football facilities on Thursday showing its dedication to improve its place in the college football food chain. The Cougars are an emerging program with world-class NFL facilities within its city limits that have hosted Big XII football championship games. Couple it with one of the nation's top 10 TV markets and Houston makes sense.
But for the 12th member, does the Big XII look to BYU first? The Cougars reluctance to play on Sundays could hurt them. As well, would BYU abandon its status in the conference it virtually created? Maybe, if BCS and TV money is involved.
If not BYU, does the Big XII entertain the idea of Air Force or New Mexico out of the MWC? Do they look at another Texas school SMU, Rice, or UTEP? Is Boise State an option? Is it possible Tulane or Southern Mississippi out of Conference USA becomes an option?
Or does the Big XII look towards California and Fresno State? Possibly, if the Big XII really wants a piece of the TV market out in the Golden State, there are not many options with Fresno State being the most viable. But the Bulldogs would become an isolated member with the closest Big XII team over 1,200 miles away.
In option B, it likely means Missouri and Kansas will find a power conference home. For either to drop to the MWC or CUSA is unlikely. Whether it's the Big 10, Big East or possibly the SEC, the Tigers and Jayhawks will likely have options. For Kansas State, Iowa State, and Baylor their only hope at a power conference is if the Big XII leftovers, after further Pac-10 expansion, decide to rebuild. The other possible scenario is the Big East, assuming Rutgers goes to the Big 10, inviting all five leftovers to join and create a 12-team two-division football conference and 20-team basketball conference. More than likely the Wildcats, Cyclones, and Bears will need to find a new conference.
Neither of those scenarios helps Fresno State. A "new" Big XII conference with Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, and Baylor will look to Houston then the MWC to fill its holes. Whether it's an 8, 9, 10, or 12-team league, the Bulldogs are further down the list of candidates unless the California TV market becomes a factor. A complete dissolution of the Big XII means the MWC could hold steady or add KSU, ISU, and Baylor before looking at Fresno State, Nevada or Houston.
Regardless, if the Big XII remains and expands, the MWC more than likely could be left with eight or nine teams if Utah and/or TCU leave. And Fresno State and possibly Nevada make the most sense for the MWC to expand back to nine or 10 teams.
Most Fresno State fans would be content with playing Air Force, Boise State, BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, Nevada, San Diego State, UNLV, and Wyoming on a yearly basis in the MWC.
Hill did say earlier in the week that he did see Fresno State in a different conference but not necessarily in the BCS. Well, he's been right before.
You can now follow BarkBoard.com via Twitter.
Discuss in BarkBoard.com Forums.
If you have not by now, subscribe to BarkBoard.com. Click HERE to get access to the members-only content from BB.C and the nation-wide Scout.com network.
©Copyright 2010, BarkBoard.com and Scout.com. All rights reserved.