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December 1, 2011

Week 14 preview in the Mountain West

MORE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | Big East

This hasn't been a banner year for Mountain West Conference football, but the league still has a remote chance of sending a team to a BCS game for a fourth consecutive season.

If Southern Miss upsets undefeated Houston in the Conference USA championship game Saturday, TCU (9-2, 6-0 MWC) could earn an automatic BCS bid by beating UNLV (2-9, 1-5) this week and moving into one of the top 16 spots in the BCS standings.

THE SCHEDULE
SATURDAY
Wyoming at Colorado State, 2 p.m.
UNLV at TCU, 2:30 p.m.
New Mexico at Boise State, 6 p.m.
Fresno State at San Diego State, 8 p.m.
"We talked about it two weeks ago," TCU coach Gary Patterson said of the BCS possibilities. "Now I think our guys all know. I think it's just as important to them to win an outright [MWC] title and finish for the seniors with 47 wins."

[Bowl projections: Who's in, who's out?]

TCU currently is 18th in the BCS standings. No. 14 Georgia and No. 17 Baylor have tough games this week, so losses by either team could allow TCU to move up. TCU also could benefit from No. 13 Michigan State facing No. 15 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

The champion of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West, the Sun Belt or the Western Athletic Conference gets an automatic BCS bid if it's ranked in the top 12 of the BCS standings or if it's in the top 16 of the BCS standings and is ranked ahead of the champion of one of the six major conferences. The highest-ranked Big East team currently is No. 23 West Virginia.

Only one team from outside the six major conferences gets an automatic bid, and No. 6 Houston has first dibs because it's the highest-ranked non-Big Six team.

"How everything's going to turn out is really not under our control, except what we can control, which is winning a ballgame," Patterson said.

No. 7 Boise State (10-1, 5-1) is ranked 11 spots ahead of TCU heading into its regular-season finale with New Mexico (1-10, 1-5). Boise State still has a shot at an at-large bid, though the Broncos probably need Houston to lose and TCU to finish outside the top 16.

That a Boise State team with one loss and a TCU team with two losses remain in the BCS mix show just how much respect each program has gained the past few seasons. All the previous BCS teams from outside the six major conferences were unbeaten, but TCU and Boise State have established enough of a reputation that they remained in BCS contention even after losing games.

"We've come a long way," Patterson said. "I'm very proud we have built that reputation."

Best matchup: Fresno State RB Robbie Rouse vs. San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman. Obviously, these running backs won't actually face each other Saturday night. But the winner of this game likely will be the team that gets a better performance from its star running back. Hillman ranks fourth in the nation at 134.4 rushing yards per game; Rouse is eighth at 124.4 ypg. Rouse has 327 yards in his past two games. After a high ankle sprain limited him to three carries against Boise State two weeks ago, Hillman bounced back last week and rushed for 192 yards in a 31-14 victory over UNLV. Both players should have big performances Saturday. Fresno State ranks 69th and San Diego State is 95th in run defense.

Player on the spot: Wyoming QB Brett Smith. This true freshman was on a major hot streak before delivering the worst performance of his young career Saturday. Smith went 17-of-25 but for just 78 yards with a touchdown and an interception in Wyoming's 36-14 loss to Boise State. He also had a critical fumble when Wyoming led 7-0 and was in Boise State territory. Now we get a chance to see how Smith bounces back from a poor game. He can't afford to get down on himself, as Wyoming travels to Colorado State in a rivalry game.

Keep an eye on: Boise State's secondary. Boise State improved its pass defense significantly last week by shuffling around its injury-riddled secondary. George Iloka, a four-year starter at safety, moved to cornerback and started alongside true freshman Lee Hightower. Senior Travis Stanaway made his second career start at the safety position formerly held by Iloka. That formula helped Boise State limit Wyoming to 78 passing yards in a 36-14 victory over the Cowboys. The Broncos plan to use Iloka at cornerback again Saturday against New Mexico.

Numbers game: When Colorado State's Chris Nwoke rushed for 269 yards in a 45-21 loss to Air Force last week, he set a record for the highest individual rushing total in a game between two MWC opponents. Nwoke broke the record previously held by Air Force's Chad Hall, who rushed for 256 yards against Colorado State in 2007. The overall MWC single-game rushing record is held by Colorado State's Gartrell Johnson, who rushed for 285 yards in a 2008 non-conference game against Fresno State. It was the second 200-yard performance of the season for Nwoke, who gained 232 yards in an 18-15 loss to San Diego State on Nov. 12.

Quotes of the week

"It's as intense a rivalry as I've ever been associated with, and I've been in the Washington-Washington State rivalry. I've been in the Kansas-Missouri rivalry. Toledo-Bowling Green. [Those] are the ones I've been associated with, and this one is every bit as big as those and is as important to both teams. I know how important it is certainly to the state of Wyoming." - Wyoming coach Dave Christensen, on the Cowboys' rivalry with Colorado State

"Honestly, this is no offense to Colorado State, but it felt a little bit too easy. We drove the ball downfield way too easily against a D-I defense. I guess that's a tribute to hour our offense can play." - Air Force QB Tim Jefferson, to The (Colorado Springs) Gazette after the Falcons gained 565 yards in a 45-21 victory over Colorado State

[The Forde-Yard Dash: Handing out pre-bowl awards]

"I really don't [know]. It seems to kind of flip each week a little bit. The thing I feel good about is I know we'll do what's best for the university. I really believe that. I think the situation we're in is a good one, and if something's out there that's better, then so be it." - Boise State coach Chris Petersen, responding to a question about whether the Broncos would join the Big East

"I think we're night and day from where we were a year ago. We were more veteran a year ago, but we're a lot tougher. We're a lot farther along in terms of guys playing hard. We just need to grow them up a little bit." - UNLV coach Bobby Hauck. UNLV is 2-9 this year and went 2-11 last season

Poll watch: Boise State remains seventh in the BCS standings for a second straight week. TCU is 18th, up two spots from last week. TCU jumped ahead of Clemson and Penn State, which both lost last week.

Etc.: Now that Air Force has completed its regular season with a 7-5 record, the Falcons await their bowl destination. Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh told The (Colorado Springs) Gazette that his personal pick would be the Military Bowl in Washington, but the Independence Bowl might select the Falcons first. Air Force won the Independence Bowl last season. The Military Bowl doesn't have any ties to the MWC, but Air Force could fill the spot that would have gone to Navy if the Midshipmen had been bowl-eligible. Boise State's Chris Petersen can tie the school record for career coaching wins Saturday. Petersen is 70-6 in six seasons. Tony Knap was 71-19-1 from 1968-75, which represented Boise State's first eight seasons as a four-year program. Boise State's 39 touchdown passes match the MWC single-season record set by BYU in 2001. Colorado State's seven-game losing streak has caused a notable dip in fan support. The (Fort Collins) Coloradoan noted that the announced attendance of 14,107 for the Air Force game last week was the lowest for a Colorado State home game in at least a decade. "You never want to see a half-empty stadium as an athletic director, no matter what time of year and who you're playing," Colorado State athletic director Paul Kowalczyk told The Coloradoan. . UNLV RB Tim Cornett has rushed for a team-high 646 yards and has averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He is seeking to become the first player to lead UNLV in rushing while gaining at least 5.7 yards per attempt since Ickey Woods led the nation in rushing and averaged 6.4 yards per carry in 1987. New Mexico LB Carmen Messina has 434 career tackles to share the MWC career record with UNLV's Adam Seward (2001-04). Messina's first tackle Saturday will give him sole possession of the record. The winner of Saturday's San Diego State-Fresno State game will receive an antique oil can. The rivalry is being billed as the "Battle for the Oil Can." The alumni associations for both schools held a contest to determine a name for the rivalry. One of the 65 entries mentioned the discovery of an oil can from Fresno during a San Diego State campus building project. Although Fresno State and San Diego State have played 50 times, this will mark the first time they've met since 2002. TCU K Ross Evans will dress for Saturday's game with UNLV, but his playing status remains uncertain. Evans was arrested Nov. 21 on a criminal trespassing charge. ... Wyoming ranks third nationally in turnover margin. The only teams ahead of Wyoming are LSU and Oklahoma State. Wyoming also is the least-penalized team in the MWC.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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