Eleven teams from the rugged Rocky Mountains to the sandy shores of California have made up the Mountain West Conference since its 2013 realignment.
Since 2013, only one of the 15 athletic programs at the University of Wyoming has won a MWC title — the 2015 UW men’s basketball team. It should also be noted that wrestling competes in the Big 12 Conference while men’s swimming is a member of the Western Athletic Conference.
The one championship for UW in the last six years stands as the lowest of any other MWC conference member. San Diego State leads the way with 23 titles during that stretch, while New Mexico and Colorado State are chasing with 19 and 16 championships, respectively.
With that knowledge, it begs the question: Does Wyoming belong in the MWC? For goodness sake even San Jose State owns four conference crowns in the last six years.
For the record, I believe Wyoming belongs in the MWC, at least for now. While the championships may not add up, the Pokes have acquitted themselves just fine over the years in multiple arenas.
But for argument sake, let’s say Wyoming dropped out of the MWC and joined, say, the Big Sky Conference. How could that change things?
Instead of competing alongside teams such as New Mexico, Boise State and Fresno State, the Cowboys would take the field against teams like Sacramento State, Eastern Washington and Montana.
The Pokes would fit better in terms of size. Right now, UW has the second smallest enrollment in the MWC with 12,687 students — only Air Force has fewer. Every other MWC conference member has at least 21,000 students. In the Big Sky, Wyoming would rank more toward the middle as the seventh largest school in the 11-team league.
The Big Sky would present Wyoming with more regional rivals than the MWC. The Pokes have hotly-contested games against Colorado State, Air Force (thank you Dave Christensen), Boise State and Utah State in the MWC. If UW moved to the Big Sky, regional rivalries would sprout up against both Montana schools. Northern Colorado could effectively take the place of Colorado State, and border wars against Idaho State and Weber State could also develop like they have against Boise State and Utah State.
In basketball, the MWC is a league that has sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament nearly every year with the Big Sky has only sending one. It is a one-bid league each and every year, and that won’t change. However, the only time Wyoming took advantage of the MWC reputation and had a resume worthy of at-large consideration was in 2002 when the Pokes won the regular season title, faltered in the MWC Tournament and still punched a ticket to the Big Dance. Very rarely is Wyoming in a position to contend for an at-large bid, so navigating the calmer waters of the Big Sky would present a much easier path to the NCAA Tournament.
In football, joining the Big Sky would mean dropping down a division into the FCS ranks. The allure of competing at the highest level of college football, FBS, would fade, and in its place Wyoming could contend for national titles. The FCS playoff system is more inclusive, with 24 teams advancing to the tournament, while the FBS — which seemingly doesn’t observe the non-power five conferences as worthy of consideration for the playoff (cough, cough UCF) — only invites four teams to play for a national championship.
The Pokes bumping down to the FCS would lose out on some TV revenue. ESPN pays Wyoming $500,000 for every Saturday game on ESPN or ESPN2 and $300,000 for national televised games on Thursday or Friday night.
There’s certainly arguments to be made that Wyoming would fit better in a conference like the Big Sky, and the recent lack of championship belts stands as the most glaring.