BOULDER, Colo. – Four weeks remain in the West Conference schedule, so nothing is guaranteed. However, after four weeks of West results there appears to be two near certainties out of the conference: newcomer Utah is the alpha dog this fall, and New Mexico is at least a year away from being competitive. As far as the middle of the West pack, it’s still anyone’s guess.
Not surprisingly, the Utes have begun their tenure as West members ahead of the curve. The program has a history of being one of the strongest sides in all of college rugby, and with annual fixtures against BYU and an eagerness to play top competition in the past, joining the West has not exactly been an eye-opening experience.
“Utah’s 3-0 start isn’t necessarily a surprise,” said West Commissioner Rich Cortez. “Historically they’ve been very good, and [Director of Rugby] Mark Drown has a good coaching staff and a great group of athletes to work with. They weren’t only added to the West because it made sense geographically, but to improve the conference and show a few of the teams what an elite, yet achievable, brand of rugby looks like.”
Air Force and Colorado State, like Utah, were playoff teams last spring, but both teams have provided mixed results. After forfeiting their opening-week match against Utah, the Rams didn’t play up to their potential in a 32-12 loss to Colorado. In a similar start to its season, Air Force looked sharp in a 55-30 defeat of Wyoming, but was unexpectedly blown out last week against Colorado State.
“A few of the lopsided scores have been surprising, but the unpredictable results have not,” explained Cortez. “This conference is typically one of parity, and I expect to see another upset or two over the next four weeks.”
Two teams that have been predictably unpredictable are Colorado and Wyoming. Last season, the Buffs and Cowboys tied in both of their conference matchups. This year, Wyoming followed up a clinical 52-14 win over New Mexico with a less inspired effort versus Utah, resulting in a 65-12 loss. The Utes appear to be quite strong this season, so finishing the season with consecutive wins against Colorado State and Colorado is far from unattainable for the Cowboys.
The Buffs’ resounding win against rival Colorado State to open their season and the Luke Gross era was encouraging, but, like Wyoming, Colorado wasn’t able to play Utah close. With winnable matches against Air Force and Wyoming remaining, back-to-back wins would mark a successful first season for Gross, and open the door to the possibility of a 2016 D1A Playoff appearance.
A shortened West schedule that will be played out in its entirety over the fall will allow the conference to test itself against nonconference opponents and play in a few sevens tournaments during the spring semester. Utah and Air Force competed in the Las Vegas Invitational sevens tournament last year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a couple West teams do the same this March. The Utes already have matches against BYU and Saint Mary’s scheduled, and are hoping to add Army to that list.
Other teams, including Wyoming, also have intriguing nonconference fixtures worth keeping an eye on later in the year. In late January, the Cowboys will head to California to test themselves against Santa Clara and Stanford.
After losing the majority of its first side to graduation last spring, New Mexico has been put on its back foot. Despite their one-sided losses, the Lobos have an honest desire to catch up to the rest of the West. To ensure improvement, New Mexico has strung together numerous nonconference dates, including home games against UTEP and New Mexico Tech.
October 24 will give fans of the West an opportunity to see several of their teams in action. There will be a West doubleheader at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo., where No. 19 Colorado will do battle with No. 18 Air Force beginning at 11 a.m. MT, followed by No. 16 Colorado State versus Wyoming, which is schedule to kick off at 1 p.m. MT. Both matches will be aired lived on Infinity Park’s web stream.