Judge Mountain West by its best teams

Utah played in the Las Vegas Bowl back in 2010, its last year in the Mountain West. Its opponent was Boise State, then the crown jewel football program of the Western Athletic Conference.

Boise State won 26-3 and outgained the Utes 543-198.

Years pass.

Conference alignments shift.

Things change.

In the big picture of the monstrous storyline that has become major college football offering a playoff for the first time this season, smaller but significant narratives are also becoming more and more obvious.

Simply, the separation on the field between those in Power Five conferences and those on the outside looking in grows annually.

Colorado State on Saturday afternoon put half an exclamation point on the fact Mountain West football this season was arguably its worst since the league formed in 1999, falling to Utah 45-10 in a Las Vegas Bowl game before 33,067 at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Whether the other half is drawn will depend on how Boise State fares against Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31.

Because, really, you are judged this time of year on how your best teams look.

This isn’t debatable: For the second straight season, a team that finished in the middle of the Pac-12 dominated one of the Mountain West’s best sides in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Officials had the sixth choice of bowl eligible teams from the Pac-12 this year; it had the fifth selection in 2013, when Southern California routed Fresno State 45-20.

Translation: Over the past two years, the fifth and sixth choices beat a 10-win team and a conference champion by a combined 90-30.

“We got beat by a better team,” Colorado State interim head coach Dave Baldwin said. “They were more physical than us and I think faster than us. They were every bit as good defensively as I thought and better offensively than I thought. You don’t go into UCLA, into Stanford, into the Big House in Michigan and win and not be a really good football team.

“They took it to us.”

Look. Winning 10 games in a season as the Rams did isn’t easy. There are only 17 major programs with 10 or more victories this season. It takes some serious doing to reach such a level.

Which defines even more how far behind the Mountain West truly is to Power Five schools in terms of overall talent.

Utah on Saturday rushed for 359 yards to just 12 for the Rams, the ultimate example of a central contrast that exists between haves and have-nots.

Size and depth mean everything in football.

Utah didn’t have much of the latter four years ago. It has a ton now.

“I’m surprised, to be honest,” Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson said. “I never in a million years saw that score happening. I think we were more than prepared. I think they just came out and punched us in the mouth, and we didn’t necessarily punch them back, like we have so many times this season.”

Here’s why: It’s not as if the Rams didn’t want to punch back. They just weren’t gifted enough to do so against such an opponent.

The Mountain West is still good enough to annually win its share of lower-tiered postseason games, to have Utah State beat Texas El-Paso in the New Mexico Bowl or Air Force run past Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and so on.

It still has enough quality players to be considered Kings of the Have Nots most years.

But you can see consistent slippage against Power Fives.

Boise State is 11-2 and has improved as this season went on, and yet anyone with unbiased eyes would admit the Broncos are not as good as they proved in building themselves into a Top 25 program and the most successful outfit the Mountain West continues to offer.

Should such a decline continue with the Broncos just slightly over the next several years, the Mountain West will become even less of a factor across the national landscape.

That’s the cold, hard truth of begging for major college football scraps in 2014.

“I don’t think (the loss) tarnishes our season at all,” Grayson said. “Any time you win 10 games, you should always be proud of that.”

Without question. The Rams had a memorable season in the realm of what it means to be a non-Power Five team today, a group of players that watched their head coach (Jim McElwain) take the Florida job earlier this month and not prepare for this game or join them here.

Not that it would have made a lick of difference Saturday.

This game kicked off at 12:36 p.m. and was over at 12:40.

By then, Colorado State had gone three-and-out and Utah had traveled 53 yards to score its first touchdown in three plays.

This was Varsity vs. Junior Varsity.

This is what these sorts of matchups have become.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 100.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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