Everything the Mountain West Conference gained as a league during the 2008 football season is either about to be wiped out or reinforced in the bowl season.
Is it fair to put so much weight on one game after a 12-game season? Maybe it is or maybe it isn't, but the fact is bowl games are often used as the true measure of a team's and conference's strength.
Utah's win over Michigan was a good way to start the season and the conference's 6-1 record against the Pac-10 earned the league a lot of respect, but when it comes to making a lasting impression through a long offseason, nothing is better than bowl games.
"When we beat Michigan, it was a great thing for a week, then no one talked about it much anymore," Utah receiver Bradon Godfrey said. "Sports are all about the next week or the next big thing. But as far as bowl games go, it's a big high and it can give people something to think about until the next season or it can lead to talk for what to expect in the next year."
For the second season in a row, the MWC has five teams in bowl games. Three of those teams are ranked in the Associated Press poll with No. 16 BYU playing Arizona in the Las Vegas Bowl, No. 11 TCU playing No. 9 Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl and No. 6 Utah playing No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
However, the only bowl game in which the MWC is favored is the Poinsettia, where TCU is a 2.5-point favorite over the Broncos. The odds are an indication that even with everything the MWC accomplished as a league this season, it still has plenty of doubters.
Skeptics will have even more fuel if the MWC goes and bombs its bowl games. On the other hand, if the MWC does well, even the league's biggest critics must give the 10-year-old conference some respect.
"It takes time to gain national credibility, but we're slowly building it," Utah athletic director Chris Hill said. "We aren't making quantum leaps, but if you can win your bowl games, then that sends teams into the offseason with a certain amount of momentum."
The biggest of all the bowls for the MWC is Utah's Jan. 2 showdown with Alabama. Utah's win over Pitt in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl was nice, but a win over fourth-ranked Alabama would give the Utes and the MWC long-reaching credibility. CBSSports.com's analyst Dennis Dodd went so far as to say the MWC should replace the Big East in the BCS if the Utes win.
"Utah is never, ever supposed to beat Alabama," Dodd said. "Did I say ever? Never ever."
Since the BCS just started a new four-year evaluation cycle, the MWC can't get an automatic berth any time soon. However, the MWC can keep adding to its reputation to make its argument for inclusion stronger. The BCS looks at the number of ranked teams a conference has, the BCS rating for all conference teams and bowl performances when rating conferences.
The Sugar Bowl will give the Utes the most attention of all the MWC bowl-bound teams, but it certainly isn't the only one that matters. BYU, which was exposed to many as an overrated team when it was embarrassed by TCU 32-7, would help its reputation with a win over Arizona.
The Poinsettia Bowl matchup with TCU and Boise State could be viewed as almost as important a bowl for the MWC as the Sugar Bowl because of the rivalry that exists between the WAC and MWC.
WAC Commissioner Karl Benson told the Fresno Bee this week that while the MWC had an "outstanding season," he felt his league was the more recognized of the two in the West. Nevada coach Chris Ault, whose team defeated UNLV 49-27 this season, went so far as to say that "I've always felt the WAC is a better football conference than the Mountain West," in the same article.
The WAC, which was 2-5 against the MWC this season, will have to concede defeat to the MWC if TCU beats its champion in the Poinsettia Bowl and CSU beats Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl.
With conference pride and credibility on the line, MWC coaches such as Bronco Mendenhall admit they'll be pulling for their league foes in the coming weeks.
"My sincere hope is that Utah, TCU, ourselves, Colorado State and Air Force win," he said. "Because eventually that credibility will be sustained and recognized to a point where it has to be acknowledged," he said.
Does that mean he'd go so far to call himself a Utah fan on Jan. 2?
"I didn't say that," he said. "I will be a Mountain West fan."
* JAY DREW contributed to this story.
MWC bowl record
MWC bowl matchups
New Mexico Bowl
Sat., in Albuquerque, 12:30 p.m., ESPN
Colorado St. (6-6) vs. Fresno St. (7-5)
Las Vegas Bowl
Sat., in Las Vegas, 6 p.m., ESPN
Payout: $1 million
BYU (10-2) vs. Arizona (7-5)
Dec. 23, in San Diego, 6 p.m., ESPN
TCU (10-2) vs. Boise State (12-0)
Armed Forces Bowl
Dec. 31, in Fort Worth, Texas, 10 a.m., ESPN
Air Force (8-4) vs. Houston (7-5)
Jan. 2, in New Orleans, 6 p.m., Ch. 13
Payout: $17 million
Utah (12-0) vs. Alabama (12-1)