By Paul Arnett

Friday, September 5, 1997

This weekend is a
huge one for the WAC

THE Western Athletic Conference has talked the talk for so long, this weekend, it better walk the walk.

There are a pair of showcase games involving the marquee teams of a conference that's locked in a death struggle with national respect. The big one is No. 19 Brigham Young University hosting No. 4 Washington in a rematch of last year's game won by the Huskies, 29-17. The loss arguably kept the Cougars from a big payday at the Fiesta Bowl and a possible undefeated season.

"Any time a WAC team plays a prestigious non-WAC opponent, it's extremely important for us to win," BYU head coach LaVell Edwards said during this week's conference call. "We can talk all we want, but the WAC has to start winning these kinds of games."

League commissioner Karl Benson did his part the first six months of the year. He whined, while the big boys of the Bowl Alliance dined at the WAC's expense. They did brush a few crumbs off their table -- each member team gets about $100,000 -- but it's barely a pittance compared to what the major schools are divvying up.

The reason? Well, let's just say nobody really wants to be in a club that would have the WAC as a member. Schools from the Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10 conferences figure they are the rulers of the NCAA kingdom. And more importantly, so do the national television executives.

GRANTED, about once every 10 years a WAC team comes along that can rub shoulder pads with the traditional powerhouses of college football. But you have to wonder if last year's BYU team paid the price for its controversial national championship in 1984.

That mythical title was one reason football fans started clam-oring for some kind of a playoff system. They wanted a true national champion, not a team from some collegiate outpost near the dark side of the moon that captured the crown by de-feating a dead average Michigan team, 24-17, in something called the Holiday Bowl.

At this point, it seems unlikely a national championship contender from the WAC will emerge from this weekend's games. But it becomes an impossibility should BYU be blown out, or No. 24 Colorado State gets buffaloed at eighth-ranked Colorado.

"If you want national respect, first, you've got to play the Colorados of the world," Rams head coach Sonny Lubick said. "Second, you have to beat them."

And those aren't the only key encounters. San Diego State hosts Aloha Bowl champion Navy and San Jose State makes a short trip to No. 17 Stanford. Wyoming had a reasonable showing at Ohio State, but the Cowboys need to come back and play well at home against Big 12 Iowa State. UTEP travels to No. 10 LSU and TCU is heading to Kansas.

"It's not enough just to play major college teams," San Diego State head coach Ted Tollner said. "You also have to be competitive with them on a yearly basis."

IRONICALLY, BYU's matchup is not only a showcase game for the WAC, but possibly for the school itself. Realignment talks abound as the NCAA moves toward signing another major college deal with the national TV networks.

The Cougars could prove an attractive commodity for the Pac-10 or the Big 12. But should BYU lose badly to Washington, it would leave fans knowingly nodding their heads that the WAC is the great pretender after all. Should BYU win, the WAC could lose its star attraction to another league.

"Given our tough financial times, we can't blame teams looking to better themselves in a league like the Pac-10," Benson said. "BYU, Utah and San Diego State have all done that. We just have to make the league more attractive so teams won't be looking to get out. And a good way to do that would be to win the marquee games on Saturday."

Paul Arnett has been covering sports
for the Star-Bulletin since 1990.

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