There is one figure that all Mountain West Conference fans like to see: 8-9. That figure is the conference’s record against Power-5 opponents (8-10 if you count New Mexico’s loss against the conference-less Notre Dame). Regardless, this season has been a season of headway, a nod to a hopeful change brewing in the college football landscape. The Mountain West is no longer just taking paychecks from the bigger programs, they are taking names as well. Of the losses, a handful were by a touchdown or less. There is true competition across the country, and MWC is getting in on the action.
There are two ways to look at the uneven playing field in the college football world, one of victimization and one of optimization. The victim side has warrant, where there is no real path that a Group of 5 team could ever enter the playoff in it’s current format. That is real. With that mindset comes complacency however, where traveling to some of the larger schools to play games becomes more financial survival than it becomes maximizing opportunity. This year more than ever, the Mountain West is taking the latter approach, with on-field play and off-season scheduling. For example, Rocky Long of San Diego State refuses to play Power 5 opponents unless they are home-and-home series’. SDSU took down UCLA this year handily at the Rose Bowl, and they will host the Bruins in San Diego next year. Other teams have followed a similar suit, no longer being the punching bag, but strapping on the gloves themselves. Eventually, this approach will pay off, at least it should.
Having watched Mountain West football for nearly two decades, I always found the Power 5 against Mountain West game to be the ultimate matchup. Most would end in lopsided defeat, but it always felt like David versus Goliath, and every now and then David would hit his mark. Nowadays, it’s borderline commonplace in the non-conference weeks where you see the MWC taking down one of the “big” guys. This year in particular, it felt as if the Mountain West was truly better than the major conference competition. It wasn’t David and Goliath, it was two football teams. There is parity, and it’s only growing by the year.
We also must be realistic about what the conference has done this year against the Power-5. There hasn’t been many wins against the true blue bloods, albeit there hasn’t been many games against them either. Group of 5 detractors will say the Mountain West has only beaten the middle to lower-level major conference teams, and for the most part that is correct. Games this year against Notre Dame and Oregon didn’t pan out so well for the conference, and that was to be expected. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the gradual rise of the Mountain West against better opponents won’t be a quick process either. But this year, the difference has been noteworthy.
While it seems all but certain that the Mountain West won’t be represented in a New Year’s 6 bowl, more than half the conference should make a bowl game of some variety. As the college football world debates over the College Football Playoff, it seems that we are headed toward some form of a playoff expansion somewhere down the line. What that means for the MWC remains to be seen, but with a strong showing this September, expect the conference as a whole to continue to change the narrative more and more every year, that this conference is in fact just as competitive as conference in the nation.