Thursday, April 07, 2011

2011-12 Preview: Mid Majors, Part I

Mountain West Conference

It's a time of change coming up for the Mountain West. BYU and Utah are out, and Boise State is in. And after this coming season, things will change again, with TCU heading out, and Nevada and Fresno State coming in. Hawaii is also joining the conference for football, but not for any other sport. On net, I think these moves hurt the conference, but it's not dramatic. TCU has never been good at basketball, and both Nevada and Fresno State have a recent history of being good at basketball. And Boise State is a rapidly improving basketball program under longtime Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice, who is using the success of the football program to aid recruiting. But more on them in a moment - let's start with San Diego State.

It's easy to forget that San Diego State lost only three games all year. Two were to BYU when they still had Brandon Davies and were a true national title contenders, and the third was in the NCAA Tournament to UConn, the national champion. The problem is, there are going to be major losses for this team next year. Their star ball handler and playmaker, DJ Gay, graduates. So do Malcolm Thomas and Billy White, the team's two best bigs. And the team's star Kawhi Leonard? I expect him to declare for the NBA Draft. Who's left? The two players from the regular rotation that will return for sure are Chase Tapley (8.6 ppg, 38.0 3P%, 1.9 apg, 1.3 spg) and James Rahon (7.0 ppg, 43.4 3P%). Some young backcourt players that didn't earn a lot of minutes this past season but will be expected to play a big role in the future include Jamaal Franklin and LaBradford Franklin. They also get a quality transfer in Xavier Thames, who scored 4.6 points per game as a freshman at Washington State in 2009-10. The biggest concern for SDSU is in the frontcourt, where they return almost nothing. Tim Shelton and Alec Williams are the only returners over 6'5", and neither is a big time talent. Their 2011 recruiting class features two 6'8" players (DeShawn Stephens and Kevin Young), but neither is highly rated. I assume that Steve Fisher will go out and get some Juco players, but unless they really hit the jackpot this team will be nowhere near as good next year as they were in 2010-11.

With BYU gone, the only other returning NCAA Tournament team in the Mountain West next year will be UNLV. The Runnin' Rebs lose two key players in star Tre'Von Willis (13.2 ppg, 83.3 FT%, 3.5 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.6 spg) and Derrick Jasper (5.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg). Their most important returners will be frontcourt players Chace Stanback (13.0 ppg, 54.7 eFG%, 5.9 rpg) and Quintrell Thomas (6.7 ppg, 52.7 eFG%, 5.2 rpg). Anthony Marshall (9.7 ppg, 3.0 apg) and Oscar Bellfield (11.2 ppg, 37.9 3P%, 3.8 apg) are key backcourt returners, as is Kendall Wallace, who missed 2010-11 with an injury but shot 40%+ behind the arc in both 2008-09 and 2009-10. Two key additions are 6'8" Mike Moser, a transfer from UCLA, and 6'6" Grandy Glaze (Rivals: 138), the jewel of their 2011 recruiting class. UNLV's strength recently has been defense, and I would expect that to stay the same. If they had a weakness it was outside shooting, which went from streaky to flat out poor, and in conference play hit a putrid 30.9% behind the arc. The return of Kendall Wallace, assuming he's totally healthy, will be huge. Worst case scenario for UNLV would be Wallace unable to get back, and the offense struggling without a go-to player like Tre'Von Willis.

New Mexico had what was a disappointing season. They were a good team, but they expected preseason to make the NCAA Tournament. Instead, they went 1-6 in conference play in games decided by six points or less and ended up only 8-8 and with a ticket to the NIT. They lose only one player to graduation, but it's their best player, Dairese Gary (14.1 ppg, 5.5 apg). Kendall Williams should be a very good point guard next year (11.6 ppg, 42.6 3P%, 4.0 apg). The other starting guard should be Phillip McDonald, but the bench is going to be raw: Jamal Fenton, Chad Adams and Demetrius Walker (4.1 ppg, 36.7 3P% as a true freshman at Arizona State in 2009-10). Their top 2011 recruit, Dominique Dunning, is also a shooting guard. The biggest question mark, of course, is Drew Gordon (13.0 ppg, 52.7% shooting, 10.5 rpg, 1.3 bpg), who will potentially test the NBA Draft waters. I think Gordon will come back, but they will drop precipitously if Gordon does leave. The rest of the frontcourt, other than AJ Hardeman, is very, very young. Alex Kirk, Tony Snell and Cameron Bairstow all played well as true freshmen in 2010-11. Kirk, in particular, was highly touted when he came in, spurning several big BCS schools to come to New Mexico. New Mexico has a lot of talent, but much of it is untested. The team will take a step back if Drew Gordon leaves. Assuming he is indeed back then I expect New Mexico to be a bubble team. But with BYU leaving and with San Diego State taking a step back, I wouldn't be at all shocked to see New Mexico contend to win the whole conference.

Only four returning Mountain West conference teams had a better season in 2010-11 (according to Sagarin and Pomeroy) than Boise State, the newcomer. Despite little record of basketball success, Boise State was a solid 10-6 (second place) in the WAC, and they earned a trip to the CBI semifinals. As I said at the top of this post, the recent development of Boise State has been due to a distinct strategy by Leon Rice, a longtime Gonzaga assistant, to use the football success of the program to build recruiting. He has built a really nice and deep 2011 recruiting class. The problem is, it's going to be a complete rebuilding year. Their four top minutes earners and their four top scorers will all graduate. Their top returner is Westly Perryman (6.1 ppg, 1.7 apg, 1.5 spg), and after that their top returners are a couple of rising-sophomores: Ryan Watkins (5.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and Jeff Elorriaga (3.4 ppg, 53.6 eFG%, 1.0 apg). Boise State is going to be depending very heavily on that deep 2011 class, though, led by 6'7" Darrious Hamilton and a trio of quality guards (Derrick Macks, Michael Thompson and Joe Hanstad). They also add 6'7" Drew Wiley, a transfer from Oregon who should have two years of eligibility remaining. But while the 2011 recruiting class is the best Boise State has had in recent memory, it's nothing special by Mountain West standards, and Boise State's returners have almost no experience. Boise State is rising a level in difficulty by moving from the WAC to the Mountain West, and it will take some time for their talent to catch up.

One other team to discuss quickly is Colorado State, a team that had a good season but could not get over the hump to defeat the best teams in the conference. They faded down the stretch and ended up losing six of their final seven games. And they lose three starters to graduation, including star Andy Ogide (17.2 ppg, 60.0 eFG%, 7.7 rpg). They do return a couple of very good rising-juniors in Wes Eilmeier (9.1 ppg, 35.8 3P%, 2.1 apg) and Pierce Hornung (4.3 ppg, 61.9 eFG%, 4.6 rpg, 1.1 spg). They have several other rising-juniors with potential, including Dorian Green, Jesse Carr and Greg Smith. One other player to keep an eye on is Chad Calcaterra, a 6'8" big man who was redshirt in 2010-11 and has four years of eligibility left. He was redshirt because Tim Miles believes he has a lot of potential and wanted to give him a year to develop without wasting a year of eligiblity. I expect them to take a step back in 2011-12, but with almost zero production expected to come from seniors they should be improved in 2012-13, when all of those rising-juniors will be seniors and can maybe finally take the Rams back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.

Here's how I see the top of the Mountain West ending up:

2. New Mexico
3. San Diego State
4. Colorado State

West Coast Conference

The West Coast Conference has been improving as a conference, and things are only getting better. Saint Mary's has joined Gonzaga as a perennial at-large contender. And now, the conference will be adding BYU, a team leaving the Mountain West because they want to go independent in football. I actually hate the football move by them because it's everything wrong with college football - that teams are given every incentive to leave a tough conference so they can play one or two good teams and then ten cupcakes, hoping to go 12-0 and to go to a national title game. It's why you see about two games all season between elite non-conference teams, compared to hundreds in college basketball. But college football's loss is the WCC's basketball gain.

Any talk of the WCC has to always begin with Gonzaga. The Zags were very talented this past season, but struggled during a horrid stretch in late January when they lost back-to-back games to Santa Clara and San Francisco, and their defense absolutely fell apart. Their defense got much, much better late in the season, leading to a road win at Saint Mary's, and then a repeat in the WCC tournament finals and a trip to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament before falling to BYU, of all teams. Steven Gray (their leading scorer at 13.9 per game) is the only graduation from the regular rotation, though Elias Harris is on the NBA Draft fence. Harris won't be a lottery pick, but he'd probably get drafted should he leave. Two freshmen that came on late in the year were David Stockton, who will likely start at the point next year, and Marquise Carter, an explosive backcourt scorer (55.0 eFG%, 38.6 3P%, 83.6 FT%). Robert Sacre has been a very good post player for a couple of years now, and he's now been joined by 6'9" Sam Dower and 6'11" Kelly Olynyk. In the backcourt, Demetri Goodson will be back, and I like him better as an energy sub off the bench than as a starter, where he can be inconsistent. The Zags bring in another quality point guard in their 2011 class (Kevin Pangos), but the jewel of the class is expected to be Gary Bell (Scout: 19 SG, Rivals: 64). Steven Gray is an important player to replace, but if Elias Harris returns then this team will be improved next year. And right now, I do think he'll return.

Saint Mary's only loses one regular to graduation, but it's their best player: Mickey McConnell (16.4 ppg, 45.6 3P%, 88.7 FT%, 6.1 apg). A lot of pressure will now fall to Matthew Dellavedova, who also has the ability to carry the team and to hit the big shots, but will now have to do it alone. The best athlete on the team is probably Rob Jones, and their best rebounder is Mitchell Young (1.9 offensive rebounds per game). Two other key returners are Clint Steindl (6.2 ppg, 42.3 3P%) and Stephen Holt (6.2 ppg, 82.9 FT% and 1.8 spg as a true freshman). The team also adds a bunch of size is 6'8", 240 pound Brad Waldow, who redshirt in 2010-11 and will still have four years of eligibility left. They also add Kyle Rowley, a 7-footer who began his collegiate career at Northwestern. In the Big Ten, Rowley was slow and seemed untalented, but he's a behemoth and can be a force in the WCC if he has added any agility. The team should definitely be deeper next season, and they'll have more size to counter Gonzaga's bigs, but Mickey McConnell was one of the most valuable players in the entire nation last year, and it's going to be really difficult for the team to recover from his loss.

It's now time to talk about BYU, which is heading into the post-Jimmer era. And at first glance, things seem bleak, since the team basically finished the year with a five man rotation, with the two best graduating (Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery). But first of all, I do think Brandon Davies will be back next year - if not to start the year, at least in time for the spring semester. They also will get Chris Collinsworth back from injury. Along with his brother, Kyle, and Noah Hartsock, those are three very good frontcourt players to, presumably, play with Brandon Davies. There are no backcourt returners that played major minutes, and unfortunately they've still got another year before they get back Tyler Haws from his mission (Haws is a player I love, and have even called the "possibly the next coming of Jimmer"). But not all is lost. Anton Winder was a quality 2010 recruit, and he redshirt the 2010-11 season and could actually break into the starting lineup in 2011-12 with four years of eligibility left. The jewel of BYU's 2011 class is DeMarcus Harrison (Scout: 30 SG, Rivals: 78), who had offers from Florida State, Wisconsin, Clemson and Marquette. They also add Matt Carlino, a high scoring guard who is transferring in from UCLA and will have to sit out the fall semester but will be eligible for the spring semester. Between those three players, and the fact that Kyle Collinsworth can play as a two guard if Dave Rose wants to go with a big lineup, the backcourt situation should be acceptable for BYU. BYU is not going to be a national championship contender again next year, but if Brandon Davies is back I expect them to be back in the Top 25.

Portland had a disappointing season. I thought they were more likely than not going to be a Top 100 team, and while they weren't too far away from that in the computers, they slid to the bottom half of the conference with a 7-7 finish, and they then lost their first WCC tournament game to Loyola-Marymount and then fell in the opening round of the CIT to Hawaii. And they have a massive loss in star Luke Sikma (12.9 ppg, 53.3 eFG%, 10.5 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.3 spg) to graduation. They also lose their leading scorer (Jared Stohl: 14.1 per game) and second best post scorer (Kramer Knutson: 6.2 ppg, 56.6% shooting). Their key scorer next year will be Nemanja Mitrovic (13.5 ppg, 60.6 eFG%, 46.3 3P%, 84.5 FT%). Portland's success the past few years has opened up recruiting, and Eric Reveno capitalized with a very talented and deep 2010 recruiting class, that in many ways will be the core going forward. The best player from the class has been point guard Tim Douglas (7.7 ppg, 3.0 apg). Riley Barker and Ryan Nicholas are two bigs that have shown themselves to be efficient scorers and rebounders in limited minutes as true freshmen in 2010-11. Korey Thieleke, a shooting guard, was a key member of that 2010 recruiting class who didn't do much as a true freshman, but has plenty of time to develop. The 2011 recruiting class is led by swing forward Kevin Bailey (Rivals: 143) and power forward Dorian Cason. It's hard to see Portland immediately recovering from the loss of Sikma, Stohl and Knutson, and I doubt anybody will pick them to finish higher than fourth, but those 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes are ones that Eric Reveno can build around for the future.

San Francisco was the big surprise in the WCC in 2010-11. The very young team started out the way they were expected to - poorly. They did beat Colorado and Montana, but they also lost to Cal State Bakersfield, Montana State, San Jose State, Loyola-Chicago and IUPUI. But they turned things around in conference play, beating Gonzaga, sweeping Portland, and finishing in third place with a 10-4 record. They lost by only four points to Gonzaga in the WCC tournament semifinals, and then made it to the quarterfinals of the CIT. Their success came from excellent, sound defense. They led the WCC in eFG% defense, defensive rebounding percentage and defensive free throw rate. Their one graduation (Moustapha Diarra) was not an offensive force (7.8 ppg), but he was their biggest interior defensive force (2.2 blocks per 40 minutes played). Their top rebounders, Angelo Caloiaro and Perris Blackwell (both had more than 7 per game) will be back. They also had two very good freshmen in their backcourt: Cody Doolin (7.7 ppg, 3.5 apg) and Avery Johnson (2.2 steals per 40 minutes played - the team's best perimeter defender). The Dons have some young bigs that could develop, but Blackwell is the only returner over 6'7" that was a regular this past season. With the size that teams like Gonzaga and BYU are going to have, San Francisco is going to need their own size to develop quickly. Their defense should still be very good, but they won't have nearly the offense or height to compete with the best teams in the WCC.

Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount are two other teams that should be improved. Santa Clara was at their best down the stretch, playing Saint Mary's tight in the WCC tournament semifinals and then winning the CIT with victories over Iona, Air Force, San Francisco, SMU and Northern Arizona. They lose three key players to graduation, but they have a rising-star in Kevin Foster (20.2 ppg, 36.8 3P%, 3.7 apg), who still has two years of eligibility left, along with one more year from their best post player, Marc Trasolini (12.8 ppg, 56.5 eFG%, 6.1 rpg), as well as a very good shooter in Evan Roquemore (11.7 ppg, 39.6 3P% and 82.4 FT% as a true freshman). Yannick Atanga and John MacArthur are two key bigs from their 2010 recruiting class that still need time to develop (Atanga redshirt the season). The 2011 recruiting class features more quality bigs in Robert Garrett and Karim York. Loyola Marymount had a poor season, but their regular rotation had only two seniors and four freshmen. Both Jarred DuBois and Edgar Garibay missed large portions of the season with injury and should be back. They have a force in the paint in Godwin Okonji (57.3 eFG%, along with 3.9 offensive rebounds and 2.1 blocks per 40 minutes). I don't think they have anywhere near the talent that the top of the conference has, but I doubt they'll go 2-12 again.

Here's how I see the top of the WCC ending up:

1. Gonzaga
2. BYU

3. Saint Mary's

4. San Francisco

5. Portland

Western Athletic Conference

Coming into the 2010-11 season, everybody and their sister knew that Utah State was going to dominate the conference. The middle of the pack in the WAC had a strong year in 2009-10, but in the offseason the conference was just decimated by NBA defections. One team that did surprise in a positive way was Boise State - the Broncos finished second in the conference standings and made it all the way to the semifinals of the CBI. But of course, Boise State is off to chase BCS dreams in the Mountain West, and the WAC is beginning a series of transitions in what has always been an unstable conference. Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii all have one year left in the conference before they leave, and those three teams will be replaced by Denver, Texas State, and UT-San Antonio. Honestly, I don't like where the conference is going, and it's possible that quality is really going to drop. I'm willing to give it a few years to play out, and the odds are that the WAC won't go too long without either adding or losing teams again, but at this point it sure looks like the conference is going to lose quality.

As dominant as Utah State has been the past few years, it's going to be a year of transition for them. They lose four starters to graduation, including star Taj Wesley (14.8 ppg, 59.9% shooting, 8.0 rpg), and they also lose their sixth man. The two players that played double-digit minutes per game and will return are Brady Jardine (7.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Brockeith Pane (11.8 ppg, 3.4 apg). That said, Utah State fans will be quick to point out that a lot of talent was simply held back because of how good those seniors were - no reason to waste minutes on inferior players. Preston Medlin, who actually played double-digit minutes per game as a freshman in 2009-10 was redshirt for 2010-11 just to save a year of eligibility, and he can play the two or three spot on the floor. EJ Farris and James Walker are two other backcourt players returning. Brad Brown is a winger that should play. On the inside, Morgan Grim and Matt Formisano should play big minutes, with Grim likely being the better of the two. They don't have any highly touted recruits in their 2011 class, but they never do. Stew Morrill does a good job of finding underrated players out of both high schools and junior colleges, and will always have his team competitive. Utah State won't be an at-large quality team again next year, but particularly when you consider the quality of the conference I'll be surprised if they don't at least contend for the conference title again.

Not including Boise State, the computers felt that the best team in the WAC not named Utah State in 2010-11 was New Mexico State. I thought New Mexico State was going to be a Top 100 team for sure, and possibly even a sleeper bubble team, but the season completely fell apart because of injuries. Star Wendell McKines got injured in October and just redshirt the entire season, and they also lost more than a dozen games combined from starters Troy Gillenwater and Hamidu Rahman. Things really fell apart late, and they lost five of seven games to end the season. Things should definitely be better next year. Their only graduation is Gordo Castillo, who was a pure three-point shooting specialist (40% behind the arc for the season, but used only 14.4% of possessions while on the floor). Gillenwater and Rahman will be back, along with Tshilidzi Nephawe (5.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg and 1.0 bpg in only 18.2 mpg as a true freshman). 6'11" BJ West was the jewel of their 2009 recruiting class, and he is a viable option, and they've got another good prospect in 6'10" Renaldo Dixon (a true freshman in 2010-11). With 6'6" Wendell McKines starting at small forward, that's a heck of a front court, with more size than most BCS conference teams have. The concerns are two-fold. First, their backcourt has a lot of questions outside of Hernst Laroche (11.5 ppg, 4.6 apg, 1.9 spg). They don't have another good shooter in the backcourt, and will be looking for a big improvement from Christian Kabongo (8.9 ppg, 37.9% shooting, 2.5 apg as a true freshman in 2010-11). And of course, defense has always been an issue for New Mexico State. They're going to have the best front court in the conference, so only shooting and defense can hold them back.

Idaho finished in a tie with New Mexico State in the standings, but they will lose three players from their seven man rotation, including their best player (Jeff Ledbetter: 12.8 ppg, 45.4 3P%, 2.0 apg, 1.4 spg). They also lose one of their two starting guards (Shawn Henderson) and Brandon Wiley (7.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg). That said, their best point guard was probably Landon Tatum off the bench (5.4 assists per 40 minutes played) and they've got a really good big in Kyle Barone (10.5 ppg, 61.1% shooting, 5.8 rpg). One other player I like is Stephen Madison, who shot 37.5% behind the arc in limited minutes as a true freshman. Another key returner is Luiz Toledo, a big who shot 58% from the field last season and will likely start alongside Barone next season. Idaho has been on an upward swing under Don Verlin, but they're losing a lot of talent, and it's hard to see them contending for a conference title next year.

Fresno State and Nevada are two historically good teams that struggled with very young teams in 2010-11. Fresno State only loses one player from their regular rotation to graduation (Nedeljko Golubovic), and he's not a killer loss, but they also will lose Greg Smith (11.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg) to the NBA Draft. At the same time, they'll add Givon Grump, a relatively highly rated recruit that is transferring in from Baylor with three years of eligibility left (more on him in a moment). They also had a really nice 2010 recruiting class that already paid off in Kevin Olekaibe (12.0 ppg, 1.2 spg) and Bracken Funk (6.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg). Tyler Johnson was another freshman that played big minutes, and they're also waiting on the development of 6'8" John Ryan, another true freshman in 2010-11. So they've got a lot of young talent. The problem is, they're going to have to do it with a new coach, and nobody knows yet who that will be. And when teams go through coaching transitions, the players sometimes change. Givon Crump (told you I'd get back to him) in particular is hinting that he might leave the program if he doesn't like the direction it goes. So we really need to wait on the new hire to guess accurately where Fresno State is going to end up.

Nevada lost Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson to the NBA and ended up having a really tough season with a very, very young team. They had zero regulars that were seniors, and their best player was a true freshman (Deonte Burton: 13.7 ppg, 35.5 3P%, 3.5 apg, 1.3 spg). They have a really good player in Olek Czyz, the Duke transfer, who is 6'7" and also shot 27-for-60 behind the arc for the season. Dario Hunt (12.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 1.7 bpg) is an offensive force, and they've also got an explosive scorer in Malik Story (14.5 ppg, 38.6 3P%). Jordan Burris, a 6'7" winger, is another up-and-coming player (3.1 ppg in only 11.1 mpg). Their biggest concern this past season was defense, where they were rated only seventh best in the conference by Pomeroy, particularly on the defensive boards. With the front line that New Mexico State is going to have next year, the development of Nevada's bigs will be essential. Nevada will likely have the most explosive offense in the WAC next season, but if they get destroyed on the boards they won't be able to contend for a conference title.

Hawaii and Louisiana Tech were two other very young teams. Hawaii has a very good player in Zane Johnson, who despite being 6'7" shot 98-for-241 (40.7%) behind the arc, as well as 81.1% at the line. But their key is actually a good young corp of freshman and sophomores, led by Vander Joaquim (9.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Bo Barnes (6.9 ppg, 38.8 3P%) and Trevor Wiseman (4.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg). Wiseman, in particular, will be needed to fill the gap left by their biggest graduation loss, Bill Amis (15.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg). Their top 2011 recruit is also a big: 6'8" Ronnie Stevens. Louisiana Tech loses their starting point guard (DeAndre Brown: 2.5 apg). Their best player this past season was Olu Ashaolu (14.2 ppg, 52.8% shooting, 9.4 rpg), and they also return a key player in Brandon Gibson, who missed most of the season with a knee injury. By the end of the year the team was starting three freshman: Lonnie Smith, Cordarius Johnson and Kenyon McNeaill. Smith's 39.8 3P% will be key to opening up what was a poor offense this past season (dead last in Pomeroy adjusted offensive efficiency). Alex Carr, their top 2011 recruit, is supposed to be another good shooter. Louisiana Tech doesn't have the talent to win the conference, but they should definitely be improved.

In the end, here's how I see the top of the WAC playing out:

1. New Mexico State
2. Utah State
3. Nevada

4. Fresno State

5. Louisiana Tech


Anonymous said...

Jeff, do you really think that BYU left the Mountain West because they thought the competition would be too tough for their football team? I don't get that impression at all. As a matter of fact, I suspect that if they have their way, BYU's schedule will end up being more challenging than it would have been in the MWC.

I agree that scheduling in general has become downright cowardly in recent years (games against 1-AA opponents have increased exponentially since the 12-game requirement was put in place), but this is due in large degree to the differing format compared to basketball. A football playoff of 8 or 16 teams would do more to encourage teams to challenge themselves on the SOS front than the half-baked system that's in place now, which is about little more than loss avoidance.

Jeff said...

I think what drives the easy schedules in football aren't necessarily the BCS, but simply the way the pollsters choose to reward playing cupcakes. If you beat two elite teams and lose to one, you drop in the polls. If you beat cupcakes week after week you keep moving up.

I think BYU wants to go with the Boise State model. Play one or two elite teams and ten cupcakes. If you lose to the elite team... oh well, get 'em next year. If you beat the elite team, you can make that tired "We proved we can beat the elite teams and we went undefeated! We're as good as anybody!" argument which, of course, is nonsense. There are 100 teams that can beat elite opponents if given the chance. Doing it more often than you lose week after week is what's impressive, particularly in football where teams from BCS conferences get worn down week after week.

So it's not that the Mountain West competition is "too tough", per se, but that it's unreliable. They don't want to end up with a year that they have to play two Top 25 teams on the road, and they don't want to risk a year where they don't have a single elite team on their schedule. They want to control their schedule to give themselves the greatest chance possible of making a BCS and/or National Title game.

I don't think a football playoff fixes that. Florida will still have zero incentive to play anybody in the non-conference, because a 6-2 SEC performance and 4-0 over four non-conference cupcakes will get them into that playoff every time.