If the Mountain West Conference is going to earn an automatic berth into college football's lucrative Bowl Championship Series, it's not just going to need Utah, TCU and Brigham Young to keep piling up impressive seasons, bowl victories and Top 25 national rankings.
It needs New Mexico to stop sucking, too.
That's because the bottom teams in the league, such as the Lobos, will play a vital and perhaps overlooked role in whether the Mountain West can satisfy the criteria for earning one of the cherished automatic qualifying spots. In short, those teams need to help improve the average computer ranking of all the teams in the league, which is one of the three criteria unveiled last week - and the only one the league does not currently satisfy.
"Your top three teams, in this case, you would hope continue to perform," league commissioner Craig Thompson said. "But you can't have a lot of teams in a 1-11 or 2-10 position, either. ... You have to do well on both accounts, top and bottom."
When BCS officials released their criteria, new coordinator Bill Hancock said the Mountain West was in "good position" to earn automatic qualification starting in 2012.
That's because the Utes, Cougars and Horned Frogs have played so well recently that the Mountain West meets the other two criteria, after the first two years of a four-year evaluation cycle. The league's top-ranked team at the end of each regular season, on average, ranks among the top six in the country, as does its adjusted average number of teams to finish in the top 25 of the BCS standings.
"We're at halftime, and we're doing very well," Thompson said.
Except in the computer rankings.
Because of lowly teams like New Mexico, Colorado State and San Diego State -- a combined 8-28 last season -- the Mountain West ranks a distant seventh in the average computer ranking of its teams, according to an analysis by noted statistician Jerry Palm at CollegeBCS.com.
It needs to be in the top six.
Obviously, improving the bottom of the league won't matter if the top teams can't continue performing at the same high level. But it could prove crucial if the Utes, Cougs and Horned Frogs -- or perhaps somebody new? -- keep rolling along. The Lobos, in particular, are killing the average, having finished just 1-11 last season amid a swirl of controversies and ranked among the worst teams in the country in the computer models.
Thompson said he believes the league's coaches understand the gravity of the situation, and are capable of doing something about it, especially with smarter scheduling than in years gone by, which should help teams avoid more disastrous seasons.
"We've got two years left to perform," Thompson said.
The Mountain West needs three things during a four-year period to earn an automatic BCS berth:
» Its highest-ranked team in the season-ending BCS standings, on average, must be among the top six.
» The average computer ranking of all its teams over that period also must rank among the top six.
» It must rank 50 percent or better in a calculation based on the number of its teams in the Top 25.