Over the past four seasons, it is no secret that the American Athletic Conference and the Mountain West Conference are considered the upper echelon of what is termed the Group of Five, or the five conference outside of what is known as the Power Five. Although all ten conferences make up the FBS, college football fans know the divide between the two groups is great and ever-widening.
Due to this, there is a competition to be considered the best of the rest, or top Group of Five conference. But which one is the best? Both have been able to make that claim at various times in their histories.
The Mountain West Conference used to include bowl-busters and top-25 teams such as Utah, BYU, and TCU. Before conference expansion, the MWC certainly looked the part of top non-power conference. Though not as strong in their current state, they still boast perennial mid-major powerhouses in San Diego State and Boise State, the latter often referring to itself as a “power program” (and has certainly backed that claim up on the field).
On the other side of the country, the American Athletic Conference used to be the Big East, which was once considered the sixth power (or BCS) conference before expansion ransacked it, leaving them to rebrand and reemerge with mostly new schools. They have begun calling themselves the “6th power conference”, following the theory of if you say something enough times, people think it’s true. While the AAC doesn’t necessarily possess the signature team atop the conference year in and year out, it instead has a rotating cast of teams who have each had their time to shine in both the conference standings and national rankings.
This article will attempt to decide which conference has the right to be called the top Group of Five conference (note: not 6th power conference). It will examine a variety of 10 important aspects in the world of college football and stating which conference is believed to have the edge in each topic.
Head to head:
Let’s start with an easy one. Over the past four seasons, the MWC and the AAC haven’t played each other that much. However, when they have they are 7-7 in such games. This one is a push.
Top Teams winning percentage:
For the sake of simplicity, we will define “top teams” as the top four record wise each season. In the Mountain West, there 4 year total for their top 4 teams combined is 156-59, good for a winning percentage of 72.56%. The American’s 4 year total of their top 4 teams record wise comes out to 119-37, resulting in a 76.28% winning percentage. Though it is close, the American takes this one.
Bottom Teams winning percentage:
As with the section above, the bottom four teams record wise will make up the “bottom teams”. The American comes in with a bottom four year total of 44-148 and an average of 22.91%. The Mountain West’s bottom teams total 47-149 over four seasons and their average winning percentage is 23.98%. Both are pretty lowly, but the Mountain West is a little less worse.
Record against Power 5 schools:
Each year, it seems like Group of 5 schools have less and less opportunities to prove themselves on the field against Power 5 programs. This is especially true for the top Go5 programs such as Boise State and Houston. There is a growing trend among Power 5 conferences to only play themselves. Much of this is because there is little to gain from playing the top schools. Playing a “cupcake” Go5 school can serve as a warmup game before conference play and a chance for an extra home game. Playing a good school is a no-win situation as if they win it proves nothing due to the perception that they aren’t on the same level, and if they lose, it hurts their rankings and big bowl chances. Still, let’s look at how each conference has done when they do go up against a team from a P5 conference.
The American conference over the past 4 seasons has played a total of 92 games. In those games, they have gone 31-61. That comes out to a 33.7% winning percentage.
Similarly, the Mountain West has played 76 games against P5 teams in the same span. They have gone a paltry 15-61 in those games, which translates to a 19.7% winning percentage.
Numbers don’t lie and the AAC has at least been competitive when it comes to games against P5 teams. The American takes this one.
Average number of bowl teams/victories:
For the MWC, their four year totals from 2014-2017 are: 7, 7, 7, and 6. This results in an average of 6.75 bowl teams over that span. To compare, the AAC has put 5, 8, 7, and 7 teams in bowl games each year, which comes out to an average (you guessed it) an average of 6.75 bowl teams per year.
Each conference got into the same number of games over the years, but how did each do in those games? The American has won 10 bowl games over the past four seasons, while the Mountain West has won 14 bowl games during the same time frame.
In the days of mass bowl games, getting to a bowl equals to at least an above average, which is still an accomplishment. Winning that game, is yet another accomplishment. Of course there are other factors involved, namely quality of the opponent. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, wins are what matters. This category goes to the Mountain West.
NY6 Bowl Appearances/Wins:
This is an aspect that may be one of the biggest measuring sticks when talking about the top Group of Five conference. Since the restructuring of the bowl system for the 2014, which gives the top Go5 school an automatic spot in one of the bowl games, one of these two conferences has secured the spot 3 out of 4 years. The exception was Western Michigan during their dream season in 2016.
Boise State of the MWC got the spot in the inaugural year of the system, still the only two-loss team to do so, and it was generally assumed in 2014 that the MWC was the stronger conference. They went on an incredible run and won the Fiesta Bowl for the third time, this time beating Arizona.
That was short lived as the AAC bounce back in 2015 and hasn’t looked back since. Houston burst onto the scene that year, capping off a strong season with a convincing Peach Bowl win over Florida State. They were the favorites going into 2016, and arguably looked primed to make a strong case to be one of the four playoff teams after taking care of Oklahoma in week 1. However, they laid an egg later in the year, losing to Navy and SMU in a 3-week span.
Last year the AAC had a few top options, as Memphis, Southern Florida, and Central Florida all finished the season ranked. The latter of course were undefeated and turned in a great Peach Bowl win over Auburn.
With two NY6 Bowl wins compared to the MWC’s one, this one goes to the American.
The lifeblood of any program is recruiting, so of course it is important for sustaining a strong conference as well.
Boise State has finished atop the MWC in recruiting over the past four seasons. Their rankings (according to 247 composite) have been: 58, 68, 64, and 56, which comes out to an average of 61.5. Looking at the top schools in the ACC over the same period, there is 66 (USF), 36 (Houston), 55 (UCF), and 47 (Cincinnati), which is an average of 51. However, one team does not make a conference.
Again going off of 247 info, but this time looking at average player ratings, which shows the quality of the average player each team is getting (though recruiting rankings are limited, it’s as good of a measure as any). Over the four year period, the MWC had an average player rating high point of 83.91 and a low point of 76.86. On the other side of things, the AAC’s highest average player rating was 85.62 and a average low point of 78.76.
So not only does the AAC have higher high and low team rankings, they are also getting a better rated player on average when compared to the MWC. Again, point for the American.
Developing players and putting them in the NFL is relevant as it can help with recruiting and usually means you have pretty good teams if you have a few players going pro every year.
The Mountain West total from 2014 to 2018: 36
The American Athletic total from 2014-2018: 54
The American. And it’s not particularly close.
Salary for Coaches:
Coaching salaries is important as more money ponied up to pay coaches gets them to stay longer rather than jumping ship all the time. If a coach stays longer, successful coaches are successful with their teams for longer periods of time. This section takes a look at 2017 head coaching salaries for the sake of simplicity.
In the American, salaries range from $2 million and change at the top (SMU, Navy, Central Florida before Frost left) down to $1 million and change (East Carolina, South Florida, Connecticut. Temple and Tulane salaries aren’t listed). This ranges from 55 to 130 place on the highest paid coaching list (USA Today lists Temple and Tulane 128 and 130 even with the the unknown salaries).
Moving to the other end of the country in the Mountain West, the top 3 coaches all make $1.5 million (Boise State, Fresno State, Colorado State) while the bottom 7 coaches all make under a million, with 3 under $500,00 (Nevada and Hawaii, plus Air Force, which doesn’t release their salary). The ranges are from 67 to 122.
The American pays their top coaches more money, their middle tier coaches more money, and the lower as a group more money. Although it looks like the lowest MWC coach makes more than the lowest AAC coach. However, it sure appears like they are trying to shelve out as much money as possible to retain their coaches. The American gets this one.
TV Contract Money/Exposure:
For the MWC, their current TV deal gives them between $13 and $14 million a year and lasts through the 2019-2020 season (although they can being negotiations starting in 2019). 10 of the full conference members gets a little over $1 million per year, with Boise State getting $2.8 million per year. Like every conference, they are looking to gain more money in their next TV revenue deal, but it is unknown how likely they are to receive a big increase.
Looking at the AAC, their current deal pays the conference $21 million per year. It will expire following the 2019 season. Its 12 members receive a little over $2 million each year. UConn reportedly gets more due to payouts they are receiving from the Big East realignment. Not only do they receive more currently, but it is assumed the AAC will getting a bigger deal than the MWC when they sign their next contract, although nothing is certain at this time. The conference is already a bit ahead of the Mountain West now and a bigger contract next round will only expand the divide in this category.
Advantage to the American here.
Note: here is a post from 2013 that has different numbers, Point still remains.
Totals: 7 for the American, 2 for the Mountain West, 1 tie.
To sum it all up, the American Athletic Conference is quite a bit ahead of the Mountain West Conference, at least in these ten important aspects. While it may be premature to call the American the 6th power conference, they are certainly deserving of being the current best Group of 5 conference in college football. The question then becomes, how can the Mountain West close the gap, or at least keep the gap from widening?
Here are some solutions:
- Win. That is first and foremost. Where it is NY6 appearances and wins, more teams in bowl games, or even head to head battles, the MWC needs to show that they can take care of business on the field.
- $$$. A few programs need to pony up and pay to keep their coaches. Or keep upgrading their facilities, as many currently are. Or pour money into recruiting budgets. Whatever it is, bring in the money and use the money to build the program.
- TV Deal. The MWC needs to do everything in its power to come out big on their next tv revenue deal. It doesn’t have to be on the same level as the AAC (because it’s pretty certain theirs will be good), but it needs to be in the same neighborhood. If not, the rich will only get richer (ok, maybe the upper middle class will become more upper middle class).
Your turn: What are your thoughts on the MWC vs AAC debate? What topics that were not covered in this post important for the discussion? Share your thoughts in the comment section.
Note: All team records and bowl records were compiled based off ESPN.com information. Recruiting info was all found on 247sports. Coaching salaries were found on sports.ustoday.com. Info on conference tv deals are found here and here. NFL Draft pick info was found at nfl.com