Commentary

WAC gaining momentum in college football world

Originally Published: August 13, 2007
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

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A play-in game between the WAC and Conference USA would be like a No. 5 seed playing a No. 12 seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

The WAC is just that much better than Conference USA right now.

Although Conference USA has a couple of teams capable of producing good seasons in 2007, the WAC has more recognizable coaches, more star players and a much better record against non-conference opponents and in bowl games in recent years.

The WAC has more star power on the sideline and on the field. The WAC has a coach who already has been enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame (Nevada's Chris Ault), a former NFL head coach (Hawaii's June Jones), a coach who might still become an NFL head coach (Fresno State's Pat Hill) and one of the sport's brightest offensive minds (New Mexico State's Hal Mumme).

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The WAC also has Boise State's Chris Petersen, who last year became the first coach to go 13-0 in his rookie season since Walter Camp in 1888, and San Jose State's Dick Tomey, who will coach his 300th game when the Spartans open the season at Arizona State on Sept. 1 (Penn State's Joe Paterno, Florida State's Bobby Bowden and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer are the only active coaches who have coached in more games).

Meanwhile, Conference USA has one of the game's most underrated coaches -- Southern Mississippi's Jeff Bower, who had a winning record in each of the last 13 seasons (only three other Division I-A schools have accomplished that feat) -- and a collection of young coaches trying to move up the ladder or older coaches trying to resurrect their careers. One-third of Conference USA's teams have new coaches entering the 2007 season.

Conference USA has three coaches who have been near the top of the profession. UTEP's Mike Price and Tulane's Bob Toledo led their previous schools to the Rose Bowl (Price at Washington State, and Toledo at UCLA), and Central Florida's George O'Leary was Notre Dame's coach for five days.

Conference USA has a Holtz (East Carolina's Skip Holtz, son of former Notre Dame coach and current ESPN analyst Lou Holtz); the WAC has a Dooley (Louisiana Tech's Derek Dooley, a rookie coach and youngest son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley).

The WAC has two legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates. Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan threw an NCAA-record 58 touchdown passes and finished sixth in Heisman voting last year. Boise State running back Ian Johnson ran for 1,713 yards and led the country with 25 rushing touchdowns in 2006.

New Mexico State quarterback Chase Holbrook isn't bad, either. He is capable of out-producing Brennan this coming season after completing 70 percent of his passes for 4,619 yards with 34 touchdowns in 2006.

Conference USA has two bona fide stars in Southern Miss running back Damion Fletcher and Rice receiver Jarett Dillard, and NFL-quality players such as Marshall defensive end Albert McClellan and UTEP safety Quintin Demps.

But overall, Conference USA is in transition. Memphis has struggled without star running back DeAngelo Williams. Houston lost record-setting quarterback Kevin Kolb. Marshall, the winningest Division I-A program in the 1990s, has struggled for three straight seasons. Tulsa lost coach Steve Kragthorpe, a hot commodity who bolted for Louisville.

The WAC also has outshined Conference USA during the postseason. Boise State stunned Oklahoma 43-42 in overtime in the Fiesta Bowl, capping one of the most memorable seasons by a non-BCS team.

WAC teams went 3-1 in bowl games last season, improving the league's record to 11-7 since 2002, the best postseason winning percentage by a conference in the last five seasons. Along with Boise State's stunning victory, Hawaii beat Arizona State in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl; San Jose State beat New Mexico in the New Mexico Bowl; and Nevada lost to Miami in the MPC Computers Bowl.

Conference USA had five teams play in bowl games last season and they went 1-4, the worst record among the 11 Division I-A conferences. Southern Mississippi was the only winner, beating Ohio 28-7 in the GMAC Bowl. East Carolina lost to South Florida in the Papajohns.com Bowl; Houston lost to South Carolina in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl; Rice lost to Troy in the R&L Carrier's New Orleans Bowl; and Tulsa lost to Utah in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.

Each league had impressive nonconference victories during the 2006 regular season. Boise State beat Oregon State and Utah. Hawaii beat Purdue. Conference USA teams beat up on the ACC. East Carolina beat Virginia and NC State, which also lost to Southern Miss. Tulsa beat Navy in overtime, and Houston defeated Oklahoma State.

But overall, a large portion of the WAC teams seem to be moving forward, while the majority of Conference USA teams seem to be stuck in neutral or, worse, going in reverse.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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