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Making Waves

The WAC is riding high, thanks to Boise State's stunning win over Oklahoma. Hawaii hopes for similar magic this season.

August 24, 2007|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

The Western Athletic Conference's original charter wasn't formalized in pencil, but South America has almost been more stable since 1962.

None of the WAC's six original members is still in the league . . . but Louisiana Tech eventually worked its way in?

The WAC would come to symbolize what the east thought of west-region football: it was lightweight, the Coors Field of conferences in that you couldn't trust its data.

There are fewer jokes now, though, especially in Oklahoma.

The conference that almost shut down a decade ago is now shutting people up.

"It's been a journey, for sure," Karl Benson, WAC commissioner since 1994, said.

"A political journey; a legal journey. And the WAC is still standing. And some people are still surprised that I'm standing."

Welcome back to the fall season for a conference that:

* Returns two players who finished in the top eight of last year's Heisman Trophy balloting.

* Boasts the only school to finish last season with a 13-0 record.

* Has the best chance, possibly, to roll out another perfect-record team in 2007.

* Defeated two Bowl Championship Series schools in bowl games and nearly toppled a third.

Never in its many incarnations has the WAC entered a fall campaign with more visibility.

"It's not a one-hit wonder," Boise State tailback Ian Johnson said of the conference. "It's not a gimmick show."

The WAC is excited. Overnight guests attending July media days in San Jose received hotel room key cards with WAC football information stenciled next to the magnetic stripe.

The WAC is opening doors.

Boise State's win over Oklahoma in last season's Fiesta Bowl still reverberates. The Broncos didn't win the national title despite finishing as the nation's only 13-0 team, but their performance gave the WAC credibility you can only win, not buy.

"What's good for the conference is good for us," Hawaii Coach June Jones said of the ripple effect. "Boise kind of set a standard that everyone's shooting for. . . . I think much of the preseason hype is because of their success."

The WAC has not one Heisman candidate, but two!

Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan and Boise State's Johnson finished sixth and eighth, respectively, in last year's Heisman balloting.

Brennan opted not to turn pro and returns for his senior season after setting the NCAA single-season record for touchdown passes with 58. He has thrown 93 touchdown passes the last two years.

Johnson, a junior, may be the most famous college player in the game after his Fiesta Bowl heroics and postgame marriage proposal.

He led the nation last year in scoring, 12.67 points a game, and his 25 touchdowns also topped all.

Ty Detmer, in 1990, remains the only WAC player to win the Heisman Trophy, but his school, Brigham Young, ditched the WAC for the Mountain West.

Another WAC Heisman is still no cinch, given that Brennan and Johnson reside in locales more famous for pineapples and potatoes.

"You've got to assume it's going to be harder for us," Brennan said. "I remember hearing how hard it was for people in the Pac-10 to get into the Heisman race."

But to be even talking about it?

The WAC also isn't a one-team league. The conference last year posted bowl wins against the Big 12 (Boise State over Oklahoma) and the Pac-10 (Hawaii over Arizona State) while Nevada nearly upset five-time national champion Miami.

San Jose State, a program once on the brink of extinction, has been revived under Dick Tomey, while Pat Hill at Fresno State continues his face-first scheduling approach in the hopes of drawing an inside straight to a major bowl game.

Boise State is the five-time defending WAC champion, but the school to watch this year is Hawaii, which won 11 games in 2006, returns Brennan, and has what Jones calls the best four-man receiver corps he's fielded.

Hawaii's comfy schedule all but eliminates it from national title consideration -- the first six games are Northern Colorado, Louisiana Tech, Nevada Las Vegas, Charleston Southern, Idaho, Utah State -- but the Warriors could be unbeaten and playing for their own major bowl bid when Boise State visits the island on Nov. 23.

As a conference member outside the Bowl Championship Series power structure, Hawaii has to finish ranked in the top 12 to earn an automatic major-bowl bid.

Thanks to the Fiesta Bowl, poll voters may see non-BCS teams in a different hue.

Brennan: "If Boise State would have lost that [Oklahoma] game, no one would be thinking we'd have a shot to go to a BCS game."

In fact, for the first time since the BCS formed in 1998, three teams from outside the six power conferences -- Texas Christian, Boise State and Hawaii -- were listed in the preseason top 25 of the USA Today coaches' poll.

TCU, a former WAC member, is now in the Mountain West.

Nothing has come easy.

It was the WAC in 1997 that took on the establishment when Benson went to Congress and claimed major college football was a monopoly in the wake of one-loss Brigham Young's not being invited to a major bowl game in 1996.

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