Make way, BCS qualifiers, for new kid on block

The league that used to complain about a lack of respect now is getting all it can handle.

SI.com even ranked the Mountain West Conference as the nation’s fourth best, placing it ahead of three Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifiers — the Pacific-10, Big Ten and Big East.

And this week the Mountain West fields three ranked teams for the first time in its 10-year history. Brigham Young is No. 11 and Utah No. 17 in both polls. Texas Christian entered The Associated Press’ poll at No. 24 and USA Today’s at No. 23.

It’s not only a first for the league, but no other non-automatic-qualifying BCS conference has ever had that many teams ranked in both polls at one time since the system was created in 1998.

"I think there’s no doubt, top to bottom, we’re the strongest the league has ever been," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said Tuesday. "There’s really not a week off (in conference play). To have six teams with one loss (or fewer) a third into the season says it all."

There is growing sentiment that although the league doesn’t automatically qualify its champion for a BCS game, the strength of the conference will be enough to get the winner to one of those bowls even with a loss.

BYU is considered the likely candidate. One ESPN.com writer projects the Cougars making the Sugar Bowl, and another has them playing in the Fiesta. CBSSports.com puts BYU in the Orange Bowl.

Thompson didn’t rule out a Mountain West team taking it a step further and playing in the BCS title game in Miami.

"It’s a stretch, but it’s a possibility," Thompson said.

THEY CAN PLAY SOME ‘D,’ TOO — BYU rightfully receives more attention for its offense. It’s hard to overlook a unit that seems to score at will, averaging 43 points.

But after the past two weeks, it’s hard to ignore the defense. The Cougars, who are off this week, posted back-to-back shutouts in blanking UCLA 59-0 and Wyoming, 44-0.

Hard to believe this is the same defense that lost eight starters from last season.

Not that coach Bronco Mendenhall, the former defensive coordinator, is surprised.

"We’ve played a couple of decent football games and improved, but I’ve said all along this is a program where you plug and play and the next BYU player steps in," Mendenhall said. "How good we’re going to be in eight weeks I don’t know, but I do think if we can limit the number of points every game, we have a chance to win."

With that offense? No doubt.

TOUGH LOSS — It’s been a difficult season for New Mexico (1-3), and things got worse Saturday when Lobos quarterback Donovan Porterie suffered a season-ending injury.

Porterie tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee in a 56-14 loss at Tulsa. Redshirt freshman Brad Gruner takes over as the starting quarterback.

New Mexico coach Rocky Long said at least Gruner has played some this season.

"It’s not like a brand-new guy, so he’s going to go out there, but he’ll be a little shaky and a little nervous. The boys around him will have to rally," said Long, whose Lobos play Saturday at rival New Mexico State.

New Mexico will apply for a medical redshirt for the junior Porterie, Long said, but the coach wasn’t optimistic.

"He’s probably played too many games or too many quarters," Long said.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914.

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