Well, here we are. The Wyoming Cowboys were smacked by the New Mexico Lobos in their final regular season game. Yet, as the conference’s house of cards crumbled last weekend, Wyoming earned Mountain West Conference Championship hosting duties for the first time in the school’s history.
So how do we interpret that?
It was a brutal loss for the Pokes. They gave up 690 yards of offense — 568 of which came on the ground — and New Mexico scored seven touchdowns. Three New Mexico players rushed for at least 121 yards, including 217 by Teriyon Gipson.
It’s not the way any team wants to go into its conference championship, especially the Wyoming Cowboys, who haven’t been there too many times.
This will be the first conference championship appearance for Wyoming since it joined the Mountain West in 1999. The Cowboys’ last conference title came in 1993 when they were still part of the Western Athletic Conference. The last time they played in a conference championship game was in 1996 — an overtime loss to Brigham Young University.
Saturday’s game is huge. It’s important for lifelong Wyoming fans, alumni, the state of Wyoming and its only four-year institution and especially for current students, most of which weren’t even alive the last time Wyoming was in this position.
Before looking too far ahead and putting too much weight on Saturday’s game alone, it’s important to reflect on the entire season for the Wyoming Cowboys.
Things have changed in Laramie. The Craig Bohl era, which began in 2014, seems to finally be turning the corner.
Not too many people expected this 2016 season for the Pokes. They’ve overachieved, and I mean that in the most positive way possible.
The 2015 season was one to forget for Wyoming. The team finished just 2-10 with an average margin of loss of 15 points. There was a 48-29 loss to Eastern Michigan — Eastern’s only win of the season. There were losses to North Dakota and Appalachian State.
But the Cowboys came in and beat a tough Northern Illinois program to open the 2016 season. They hung with Nebraska on the road for a few quarters and thumped UC-Davis in week three. Suddenly, there was belief amongst the Cowboys and their faithful fans that this team could win games.
There were definite slip-ups along the way — another loss to Eastern Michigan, a loss to UNLV that involved 69 points by the Runnin’ Rebels and the New Mexico blowout last week — but there were plenty of bright spots sprinkled into the schedule, as well.
Wyoming knocked off then-ranked No. 13 Boise State for the first time in school history, on a game-winning safety for added excitement. The Pokes beat then-24th-ranked San Diego State by 1 and held maybe the nation’s best running back 83 yards below his average.
The Cowboys now sit 8-4, which should easily be 10-2, and have reached territory they haven’t touched in 20 years. It’s the first winning season for Wyoming football since 2011. All of that is infinitely more impressive if you look back at where they sat at this time last year.
Bohl has created a system that promotes winning and the attitude that comes with it. Everybody on the Wyoming sideline believes in the process that’s produced a winning program, and everybody has overachieved individually to make that happen.
The Pokes suffered a few devastating injuries this year; there were still cobwebs from the 2015 season that needed to be brushed off the shelves. But most of the key players return next year, and the formula is in place for Wyoming to get comfortable atop the Mountain West standings.
Saturday’s game brings with it a ton of weight, both in competition — Wyoming is a 7-point underdog — and in sentimental value.
At the same time, it doesn’t matter. Wyoming turned a 2-10 season into just its fourth trip to a bowl game in 23 years and its first in five years. War Memorial Stadium is going to be cold, windy and raucous Saturday, win or lose.
But the Pokes are already winners, and that could be the story for years to come.