BY MIKE PRATER
THE IDAHO PRESS
HENDERSON, Nev. — The Mountain West showed up at Football Media Days on Tuesday with a new marketing slogan, a slick video and fancy new banners.
Slogan: “At The Peak’’
Definition of peak: “Top of the mountain’’
The campaign is designed to promote all sports, of course, but we all know that life starts and ends with football.
And this football season, the Mountain West has a golden opportunity to add substance to its slogan by reaching the mountaintop, its ultimate peak: An appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl game, which hasn’t happened since Boise State beat Arizona in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl.
Reason for optimism: The 12-team league is loaded with 12 veteran coaches, including the only newcomer, Utah State’s Gary Andersen, who has head coaching experience at Oregon State, Wisconsin and, well, Utah State.
The Mountain West also starts this season with up to nine established quarterbacks, including preseason offensive player of the year Jordan Love of Utah State.
Go ahead Central Florida, crank up another promotional campaign and chase another national title, but the Mountain West is poised to make a legit run at UCF’s postseason dominance after finishing last season with three teams in the top 25 (Boise State, Fresno State, Utah State).
“I’m anticipating a very good season. We had a blockbuster year last year,’’ league commissioner Craig Thompson said.
He’s the father of a family, who treats all his children the same, so he’s supposed to say nice things about his conference members.
Rocky Long is different. He doesn’t care. He says what he wants to say — and typically preaches the truth. The San Diego State leader, one of those grizzled Mountain West coaches, appreciates the unique dynamics of this season. In what may have been the surprise comment of Media Days, which continue Wednesday, the old defensive soul said football success starts with quarterbacks.
“My opinion is, and I have no facts to back this up, the better your quarterback is, the more games you’re going to win, no matter what else is out there and no matter who the coach is,’’ he said. “When coaching becomes involved, and other players become involved, is when the quarterback is just good enough.’’
Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald, who finished 33rd in national passing efficiency last season as a sophomore, agrees on the strong coach-quarterback connection.
“In my opinion, you should expect more (top 25 teams) this year,’’ he said. “A strong head coach and quarterback, that’s just a good dynamic to have. To have the trust in your head coach, and to have the trust in your quarterback, a veteran guy, it just elevates the team that much more, and ultimately you win games.’’
But, in the face of this opportunity, will the Mountain West actually win enough games? And the right games?
In order to play big bowl games in January, you first must win Power Five games in September.
“Those nonconference games are the make-or-break deals and will determine whether we get into a New Year’s Six bowl or not. Those are really important games,’’ Thompson said.
The Mountain West averages about three to four Power Five wins a year. This season, the league plays five of those games at home (Arizona and Oregon State at Hawaii, Missouri at Wyoming, Purdue at Nevada and Minnesota at Fresno State).
One league voter gave Hawaii a first-place vote Tuesday. Long told some reporters that the Rainbow Warriors are the best team in the league. They also have San Diego State and Fresno State at home on the islands.
Could Hawaii reach a New Year’s Six game?
If not, Boise State, Utah State, Fresno State and San Diego State could end the American Athletic Conference’s string of three New Year’s Six bowl appearances in four years.
All five of those Mountain West programs have strong coaching. Ironically, projected division winners Boise State and Fresno State have questions at quarterback, as does Nevada, but the Broncos and Bulldogs have enough talent in other places to make a run.
If Boise State beats Florida State in the Aug. 31 opener in Jacksonville, Fla., who’s going to beat them?
And are Memphis, UCF, Cincinnati or a surprise AAC team strong enough to make a run at a third straight New Year’s Six appearance for the league?
You know how Thompson feels, and even though he won’t say it, the perception that the American Athletic is a better football conference than the Mountain West has to drive him crazy.
“They talk, and their whole Power 6 brand and stuff. We have a winning record against them all-time (11-7) and we’re 3-0 against them in bowl games. We let our record speak for itself. We’re a little more subtle, subdued perhaps, rather than just getting out there and pounding a little more of this and a little more of that.’’
Thompson’s proud new marketing brand — “At The Peak’’ — won’t intimidate anyone, and three cute words won’t matter when games start next month. But the timely campaign sets the tone for a season of opportunity.
Veteran coaches? Check
Solid quarterback potential? Check
Win Power Five games? To be determined.
Put it all together, and the path takes you to the “top of the mountain.’’
Sounds like it’s New Year’s Six or bust for the Mountain West this football season.
Mike Prater is the Idaho Press sports columnist and co-hosts Idaho Sports Talk on KTIK 93.1 FM The Ticket every Monday-Friday from 3-6 p.m. He can be found on Twitter @MikeFPrater and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Prater’s opinions are his own.