During the off-season, Forgotten Five has decided to do some research. We launched a multi-part series looking at some of the Group of Five’s most unique conference champions.
Teams such as Boise’s great teams, the 2004 and 2008 Utah teams, and Hawaii’s 2007 team receive so much attention as the Group of Five’s greatest teams in recent memory. Forgotten are the teams that had dream seasons or overcame odd circumstances but did not have a major bowl to show for it. This series tells their tales.
Farewells are hard for everyone in sports. But sometimes they can be poetic. Whether it’s Mike Mussina finally breaking 20 wins in a season in his final game, John Elway’s last Super Bowl win, or Michael Jordan’s Last Dance, a great farewell is mystical to say the least. The WAC’s 2012 farewell season and the champion that emerged from it was one for the ages.
How the Mighty Had Fallen
The year is 1996. The Southwest Conference just fell apart and cashing in on it aside from the Big 8, was none other than the WAC. The conference gained four teams to become a 16-team monster, something never seen before. The football was good for the most part, but members were unhappy. The dream was too good to be true and eight of the league’s teams left to create the Mountain West after the 1998 season.
While the WAC cashed in big by adding Boise State and to a lesser degree, Louisiana Tech, in 2001, conference realignment continued to hurt the conference. TCU left for Conference USA in 2001 and SMU, Rice, UTEP, and Tulsa followed in 2004.
Boise State’s success continued to carry the conference throughout the 2000s, but they became too big for the WAC, and bolted for the Mountain West in 2011. This was the fatal blow for the WAC, as it triggered a mass exodus among its members. Before 2012, the league was down to seven football schools, a mere fourteen years after having 16. With more exits coming, 2012 would be the final year of WAC football.
The “Magnificent Seven”
Needless to say, the WAC was a shell of its former self. Anchoring its final year were five mainstays; San Jose State, Utah State, Louisiana Tech, Idaho, and New Mexico State. Joining them were two schools added out of desperation – UTSA, who had only started football the year before, and Texas State, a long-time FCS power.
Starting the year, three schools got off to a hot start. San Jose State started 4-1 with the only loss being a three-point defeat at the hands of the eventual Rose Bowl champs, Stanford, and highlighted by wins over eventual Mountain West co-champ San Diego State and Navy.
Utah State started 4-2 with only one-score losses to eventual Big Ten champs Wisconsin, 16-14, and a 6-3 loss to BYU. Among their victories were wins over Colorado State and their first win over Utah since 1997 and third since 1988.
However, the talk of the conference and the BCS was Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs started 5-1, with wins over Virginia and Illinois, thanks to one of the country’s most exciting offenses, averaging 54 points per game in their first six games.
The lone blemish was to Texas A&M and Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, where the Bulldogs came back from 27-0 and 39-13 deficits only to fall short on a potential game-tying two-point conversion in the final minute.
The Aggies Catch Fire
Despite the WAC’s bleak outlook, Utah State was not the overwhelming favorite to win the conference. Defending champ Louisiana Tech returned many pieces from the year before, and while Utah State did go to their first bowl since 1997 the year prior, who knew if it was a fluke or not.
Surprisingly, the Aggies took control of the conference in a hurry. They began their hot streak by defeating the streaky San Jose State Spartans 49-27. Chuckie Keeton led a balanced attack with 273 yard and three scores through the air and 47 yards and another score on the ground. Kerwynn Williams added 176 rushing yards and three touchdowns on only 15 carries.
The Aggies made easy work of New Mexico State, UTSA, and Texas State before an encounter with Louisiana Tech, who ascended to #20 in the BCS and had an outside shot at being a BCS Buster.
Utah State looked in full control of the game taking a 41-17 lead with a minute left in the third quarter, but the Bulldogs’ top-notch offense scored 24 unanswered to send the game to overtime. A Kerwynn Williams four-yard run clinched the game for the Aggies.
Williams and Keeton were the heroes again for Utah State with Williams rushing for 162 yards and gaining 125 receiving yards and Keeton passing for 340 and rushing 121. The Aggies now controlled their own destiny in the WAC.
The following week, against Idaho, Utah State played in the first game as an AP-ranked team since 1961, when John Ralston roamed the sidelines and Merlin Olsen led the defense. The Aggies celebrated the occasion with an easy 45-9 win, where the defense forced four turnovers.
With help from San Jose State, who beat Louisiana Tech 52-43, the Aggies clinched their only outright WAC title and first conference championship since 1997. The following day, Utah State and San Jose State earned their first BCS poll appearance at #24 and #25 respectively.
Hard to Say Goodbye
Utah State ended their season with a 41-15 dismantling of Toledo in the Potato Bowl, while San Jose State took down a solid Bowling Green team 29-20 in the Military Bowl. In the Military Bowl, the Spartans played their first game as an AP-ranked team since 1975. Louisiana Tech, although 9-3, infamously turned down a bid to play in the Independence Bowl against ULM.
In its farewell season, the WAC had a season that many conferences, not just Group of Five ones would envy. Three teams spent time ranked in the AP and BCS rankings, and the conference went undefeated in their limited bowl slate.
Utah State had a season for the ages. Success had always been inconsistent for the program with only five conference championships and three bowl appearances from 1962-2011, with most of their best years coming in the lowly Big West. Not only did they go 11-2 and gain the WAC crown in their dream year, they were five points from a possible BCS spot.
A missed field goal with 11 seconds left deprived the program of a signature win against Wisconsin, while two turnovers and a missed field goal doomed the Aggies in their three-point loss to BYU. It is not far-fetched to imagine a 12-0 Utah State with a win over the Big Ten champs, gaining the BCS nod over Northern Illinois.
Additionally, Chuckie Keeton’s legend grew with 3,373 passing yards, 619 rushing yards and 35 total touchdowns. Later on, he even gained a Heisman campaign, but injuries derailed the immense potential he had.
The 2012 WAC football season may have been bittersweet, but the new heights reached by their top teams, especially their champions, made the season one to remember. The next time you hear arguments over the best farewell seasons, just remember the WAC’s season, spearheaded by an emerging Utah State program may have all of them beat.