The Front Row with MARK NELKE July 29, 2012

Break it to the Vandals gently, perhaps

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Not much new came out of the Western Athletic Conference football media day in Las Vegas last week.

The Mountain West Conference re-confirmed its lack of interest in adding Idaho, all but assuring the Vandals and New Mexico State will be the only football-playing members of the WAC in 2013.

And unless they can get away with doing something crazy, like playing each other eight times in a home-and-home setup, both are looking at becoming football independents next fall - and for the foreseeable future.

WHATEVER FLEETING hopes Idaho may have had of still hooking on with the Mountain West next year effectively died earlier this week, when Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said he told the Vandals they and New Mexico State would not be invited to join his conference.

"Go on to Plan B, whatever Plan B may be," Thompson said.

Wow, Craig, you really know how to hurt a girl.

You couldn't try to say something to break it to them softly, like "I like you as a friend, but ... "

Or, "I don't want anything to distract me from my career ... "

Or ...

You get the point.

True, the Vandals have little to hang their hat on in recent years in football, other than one bowl appearance in 2009 and a near-miss the following year. They are coming off a 2-10 season. Idaho's success in other sports doesn't matter, because this conference realignment business is all about football.

And Idaho has been told that there are just not enough people watching TV in the Palouse/North Idaho/Spokane area to make the Vandals attractive to the Mountain West.

Oh, and a team like San Jose State is? The Spartans have been mediocre at best in football for years. True, San Jose is in a much larger TV market in the Bay Area, but how many of those people would really tune in to watch the Spartans?

IF THE Vandals were ever going to win the WAC in football, it would be this year - and not just because this may be the last year ever of WAC football.

With Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii gone this year, and Boise State leaving the year before, all the teams that had the edge on Idaho because they were longer-established programs with longer-established head coaches are gone.

Louisiana Tech (picked to win the WAC), Utah State, San Jose State and New Mexico State are at least teams the Vandals have been competitive with in recent years.

Texas State and Texas-San Antonio will be in their first seasons of FBS football this fall.

Utah State is joining San Jose State in the Mountain West in 2013. Louisiana Tech is headed to Conference USA.

After just one season in the WAC, Texas State is headed to the Sun Belt in 2013.

Idaho football coach Robb Akey said the other day he hears there could be more conference realignment in a couple of years, so the Vandals might have to sit tight through independence in football in 2013 and ’14. After that, who knows?

As much as a certain percentage of fans around here would want them to, I don’t see the Vandals caving in and dropping down to the Big Sky level. More likely, as Idaho athletic director Rob Spear has mentioned in the past, would be that a third tier of NCAA Division I football would be created — something between the power conferences in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Football Championship Subdivision, where the Big Sky resides. And Idaho, along with other smaller FBS schools, could end up in that middle tier, perhaps joined by some of the top Big Sky schools like Montana moving up.

“We’re the unwanted redheaded stepchild — no offense to any redheads out there,” Akey said the other day at media day, sitting between Vandal players Aaron Grymes and Mike Scott. “Nobody seems to want the Vandals right now. I promise that’s got a big chip on my shoulder, and I guarantee you it irritates these guys a little bit, too.”

If that’s the case, even more of a reason for the Vandals to go out and win the WAC this year.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter at CdAPressSports.

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