The decline began last season, when Mountain West football ranked 13th nationally in the Sagarin Ratings, behind even the Missouri Valley, known more for its ability to make 3-pointers than throw touchdowns.
It was the lowest such point for the Mountain West in its existence.
It’s not much better today.
If this is how its conference champion looks, the Mountain West isn’t close to average on a national scale. Fresno State was never in its 45-20 loss to Southern California in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday, never competitive at Sam Boyd Stadium against a No. 5 selection out of the Pac-12, never close to being on an even level of size, speed, strength, skill and execution.
You can mask the Mountain West’s perceived worth with an improbable win in Albuquerque and a blowout victory against a second-place Mid-American Conference team, but what Colorado State and San Diego State did in bowl games Saturday doesn’t in any way conceal the conference’s obvious descent when opposing talented people.
You can suggest that by producing more bowl-eligible teams than the league had contracted spots proves the conference is viable nationally.
It doesn’t. It only means that among 12 Mountain West teams, seven beat up on enough weak sides to become eligible.
It also means there are too many bowls.
“I think when you look at the body of work, this team won 11 games and a second straight conference championship,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said of his Bulldogs. “There are critics out there. Everyone has an opinion. I know in my heart we had a really, really fine football team.
“We didn’t play our best game today and that’s on me. We were beaten by a better team. I think had we played our best, it may have been a different outcome.”
Not if the opponent remained the same. No chance.
This was men against boys, an inspired and aggressive Southern California team working with its third head coach of the season and still outclassing Fresno State in every area.
The Bulldogs couldn’t block the Trojans, couldn’t tackle them, couldn’t pressure them and absolutely couldn’t cover them. It’s why the Mountain West went 0-10 against the Pac-12 in the regular season, why it was only 11-24 against Football Bowl Subdivision non-conference opponents.
When it comes to playing legitimate sides of late, the Mountain West fails to match up more often than not.
Consider: Fresno State entered averaging 45.3 points and 570.6 yards. It managed 254 yards and 13 offensive points against the Trojans.
This is the Mountain West’s best team?
“Physically, that was the most impressive team we’ve played the last two years,” DeRuyter said. “Clearly, they were better.”
Statistics will tell you Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr completed 30 of 54 for 217 yards and two touchdowns, hardly the video-game numbers that earned him consecutive Offensive Player of the Year awards in the Mountain West.
Carr didn’t have much time to throw, didn’t get much help from his wide receivers and wasn’t all that accurate when he needed to be. It wasn’t the best we have seen Carr for many reasons, some of it his doing and yet much of it a huge difference in speed and ability between teams.
If it was true beforehand that Carr’s chances to move into the first round of the NFL Draft would depend largely on his workouts over the next several months, it’s even more a fact today.
He still has much to prove beyond all those bubble screens and quick slants.
“Blame me,” Carr said. “Blame me always. I have to do a better job of leading and getting our guys in better spots. That’s my fault.”
It wasn’t anyone’s fault. Fresno State, amazingly in the conversation for a Bowl Championship Series game until allowing a whopping 62 points to San Jose State, just wasn’t that good Saturday.
It was supposed to be better for the Mountain West this season. Boise State and San Diego State remained in the league instead of jumping ship, and the conference welcomed Top 25 programs of a year ago in Utah State and San Jose State.
But high hopes eventually equaled low reality.
This was a tweet sent by the Mountain West following Saturday’s games: “#MWFB is 2-1 halfway through its postseason. Since the league’s inception in 1999, the #MW holds a 34-25 all-time record.”
That’s all well and good, but in its most visible bowl, in its shining moment for an 11-win champion, the lasting memory most will have of the Mountain West in 2013 will be a Fresno State side that was embarrassed by Southern Cal and a third-string head coach.
It’s the first time since 2008 that the Pac-12 representative walked away from the game a winner.
It was never a game. Blowout city.
This, your Mountain West champion.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.