HENDERSON, Nev. — Is there an established upper crust in the Mountain West Conference football realm? Yes.

TCU, BYU and Utah have proven they have the best, most stable programs.

They have superior recruiting, metered consistency, best coaching and conditioning, and displayed a greater will to produce wins and titles.

Is it that obvious? Yes.

But do the other guys have a chance? Of course.

Despite the media vote Tuesday that established the favorites — TCU, BYU and Utah, in that order of finish — it isn't a huge reach that another team could win the title.

Folks in Las Vegas are confident UNLV will beat BYU here Nov. 7. Since 2005, Utah has lost to every team in the league. TCU has admitted an issue when the Frogs go on the road against teams they should defeat.

Look no further than last year. New Mexico had two minutes and the ball to drive for a win against Sugar Bowl-bound Utah, but sputtered at midfield. Colorado State had plenty of chances to beat TCU in Fort Collins, Colo., and UNLV's Omar Clayton had several tosses at paydirt to upset BYU in the closing minutes at Provo last fall.

New Mexico's new coach Mike Locksley, in his highest hopes for success in Albuquerque, doesn't see that big a gap, although his predecessor, Rocky Long, left the job because he believed the Lobos had hit the wall going against the Big Three.

Locksley is well-acquainted with big-time programs. His resume includes jobs in the Big Ten (Illinois offensive coordinator), Southeastern Conference (Florida running back coach and recruiting coordinator) and Atlantic Coast Conference (Maryland running backs coach and recruiting coordinator).

Locksley says one of his priorities is to use his "long reach" in recruiting, from Chicago to Florida, to pull up the Lobos. He admits as an outsider his first thoughts when he heard the Mountain West mentioned were TCU, BYU and Utah.

"Now, having been indoctrinated into the league as a head coach, you see that there is the Air Force Academy, Colorado State, and UNLV is nipping at your heels. New Mexico? I didn't know much about it, but when you look at the run New Mexico's had over the last 10 years, they've won as many conference games as some of the Big Three as we've talked about."

Well, sort of.

The numbers speak the truth of the current elite. Since joining the Mountain West Conference in 2005, TCU is 25-7, a .780 win percentage. Over the past 10 years since the MWC was formed, the Cougars are 52-22 (.700) and Utah is 50-24 (.680). The closest outsider is CSU at 41-33 (.550).

Said Locksley, "I've learned that this isn't a one-tier league as opposed to some of the other conferences who have the haves and have-nots. It's a very short drop from the penthouse to the bottom house in this league, and I've been impressed with it."

Locksley said the MWC's talent level is evident. So is the capability on any given Saturday.

"I've judged the talent level from matriculation of players from schools to the NFL," he said. "That's how I've always looked at it. ... The number of NFL draft picks from the MWC in recent years speaks volumes for the type of players we have in this league."

Last spring, the MWC had 16 players drafted, tying the most ever in 10 years.

TCU had five of those NFL draftees. Patterson believes, and he is right, that the Frogs are firmly peers of Utah and BYU. TCU's defense ranked No. 1 nationally last year and the Frogs have captured national respect. BYU is in an unprecedented home win streak, and Utah has won two BCS bowl games in five years. Yes, there is an elite in the MWC.

"We've been right up there with them," Patterson said of the Cougars and Utes. "But the thing about this conference is all the teams are very tough.

"You don't have a game off, especially when you're playing on the road. If we're going to win the conference, we're going to have to take it."

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com