Thu Jun 17 12:07pm EDT
There have been more "Expansion Winners and Losers" columns than you can shake a stick at since the Big 12 put a halt to the falling dominoes on Monday, but there's really only one "loser" in the equation: The WAC.
Everyone else came out of the imbroglio at least even, or a little bit ahead. The Pac-10 landed a pair of solid additions and a conference championship game; the Big Ten picked up a national brand in Nebraska, setting up its own championship; the Big 12 not only survived, saving five of its members from likely exile in the conference desert, but announced it would double its television revenue. The Mountain West bolstered its BCS hopes by adding the nation's winningest program over the last decade, and offers Boise State actual competition for a conference crown after nine years of running roughshod over the rest of the WAC.
The only conference that clearly lost ground was the WAC, by virtue of Boise's departure. As impossible as they've been to beat, the Broncos have come to serve as the national face of the conference, and as its pipeline to the big-money games in the BCS. On one hand, the conference championship will be more attainable after going to Boise outright seven times in the last eight years. But the tradeoff for losing a nearly invincible overlord is even greater obscurity and less interest for those random Wednesday and Friday-night slots on ESPN. The majority of those have involved Boise State for the last four years. To the extent anyone outside of the league's immediate footprint kept an eye on the WAC in the first place, there's even less reason to pay attention now.
The difference does matter to the holdovers. Take Fresno State. The Bulldogs, in spite of their consistently solid record over the last decade and hard-earned reputation as giant-killers, haven't won even a share of a conference championship in 13 years under coach Pat Hill. When I did a spot this morning on Fresno radio, though, the question wasn't "Can we finally win the WAC now that Boise's gone?" It was "Is there any chance we can get an invite to the Mountain West, too?"
That reaction is understandable, coming from a program that was generally hailed as the best "mid-major" outfit in the country for the first half of the last decade. From 2000-05, Fresno enjoyed various highlights. It moved into the top 10 after back-to-back upsets over ranked teams (Oregon State and Wisconsin) in 2001. It landed quarterback David Carr on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It blew out defending Big 12 champ Kansas State, 45-21, en route to a top-25 finish in 2004. It rose into the top 20 after an 8-1 start (including its only win over Boise, a 27-7 rout) in 2005. And it led top-ranked USC well into the third quarter later that year and won three straight bowl games over "Big Six" teams.
But expansion didn't come in 2004 or 2005. It came in 2010, by which point the Bulldogs were just another marginal also-ran next to Boise State, Utah and TCU, the underdogs that finally broke through the BCS' glass ceiling. As a Southern Miss alum, I can sympathize. There was a time when Fresno was the team on the verge of those breakthroughs, just like there was a time (around 1999-2000) it was supposed to be the Golden Eagles. But those windows close, and it's far less likely they're going to open again anytime soon in a league whose other headliners include Nevada and Hawaii. (Or Houston and East Carolina.)
Then again, a decade ago, the notion of Boise State and Utah as attractive, upwardly mobile commodities would have seemed ludicrous, too. In another decade, the entire WAC could be looking up at, say, Louisiana Tech and Montana. In the meantime, Fresno (and Nevada, and Hawaii) should relish the opportunity to become the biggest fish in a smaller pond in 2011, while it lasts.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.