Last year, Fresno State and Boise State played not one, but two close games that helped to shape the Mountain West 2018 football landscape. During their first meeting in November, Boise State came back from a 17-3 deficit halfway through the third quarter to win 24-17 at home. The win would be a critical moment for their conference championship hopes, and they won the Milk Can in the process. Less than a month later, Fresno State beat the Broncos in the MWC Championship Game. An overtime thriller, Fresno State took home an even more coveted trophy and claimed rivalry supremacy while stealing a game on the blue turf.
As the Broncos and Bulldogs proved last year, rivalries are important. They can decide conference championships, attract millions of viewers, and shape the narrative of a team for the season. You can even win a giant axe! I bring this up because the Mountain West Conference has a rivalry problem. The problem is that our rivalries stink, or at least most of them do.
There are, as far as I can tell, eleven established rivalries in the Mountain West. Every team has at least one conference rival, with the notable exception of New Mexico. Lobos, why are you like this? You have played in the MWC since 1999 and were in the WAC for thirty-six years before that. The last time you had a conference rival was 1978 (Arizona’s final year in the WAC). This is no way to live your life, Lobos. Anyway, the rivalries are:
Boise State - Fresno State
Fresno State - San Diego State
Air Force - Colorado State
Colorado State - Wyoming
Wyoming - Hawaii
Utah State - Wyoming
San Jose State - Fresno State
Hawaii - Air Force
Nevada - UNLV
Fresno State - Hawaii
Boise State - Nevada
When focusing on teams that actually care about establishing rivalries, one problem is immediately apparent. Upon first glance, do you care about almost any of these rivalries that don’t involve your school? Even worse, could you tell me who won the last game in each of these series? If you, dear reader of a MWC blog, can’t tell me who won the last game played in these rivalries, what are the odds that the casual fan can?
For the purpose of this article, I went back five games in each series and took a look at how competitive these games were. You may think that five years is not long enough to understand the depth of a rivalry and I agree, but the point of my analysis is to determine how these rivalries have gone lately.
I graded each rivalry over the past five years on four criteria: parity, average point differential, total point differential, and championship impact (how many MWCCG were played by these teams). After assigning each rivalry an overall score based on these criteria, I grouped them into tiers.
Tier IV: The Stinkers
#11: Boise State - Nevada (5-0 Boise, 12 ppg diff, 59 total diff, 3 CCG)
#10: Fresno State - Hawaii (4-1 Fresno, 15.2 ppg diff, 74 total diff, 3 CCG)
#9: Nevada - UNLV (3-2 Nevada, 15 ppg diff, 53 total diff, 0 CCG)
Analysis: These are the dregs of the conference. The first two rivalry games have hardly been competitive over the past five games, with a 14-13 win by Hawaii against Fresno State (that finished 1-11) being the only win for the underdog. While the Battle for Nevada has been more competitive in terms of wins for each side, the average winning margin has been more than two touchdowns, and the two teams have never appeared in a MWC title game.
Recommendation: Hawaii and Nevada need to beat their historic rivals every once in a while. With Hawaii hosting Fresno State this year, perhaps we will see some fireworks on the island? As for the Fremont Cannon combatants, maybe try to win some games against teams outside the state of Nevada?
Tier III: The Also-Rans
#8: Hawaii - Air Force (3-2 AFA, 20.2 ppg diff, 43 total diff, 1 CCG)
#7: SJSU - Fresno State (3-2 FSU, 15.4 ppg diff, 21 total diff, 3 CCG)
#6: Utah State - Wyoming (3-2 USU, 17 ppg diff, 27 total diff, 2 CCG)
Analysis: Well, at least these guys tried? Each series is split 3-2 over the past five meetings, and each rivalry has sent a team to the MWC Championship in that time frame (including both teams in Bridger’s Battle). The actual games have rarely been competitive, unfortunately. Air Force and Hawaii seemingly never play within two touchdowns of one another, San Jose took advantage of bad Fresno State teams (including a squeaker in 2016 against a terrible Fresno team). Wyoming and Utah State also take turns thumping each other, and never seem to be good at the same time.
Recommendation: Maybe these teams could coordinate their competitive and non-competitive seasons? Utah State hosts Wyoming this year, and the game has the potential to be one of the best in recent memory. San Jose State hosts Fresno State this year and that game has the potential to be...watchable? Probably not, but we can dream. Hawaii and Air Force are also playing each other this year (the first time since 2016, due to divisional schedules), and they could actually give us a good game that no one will watch, present company excluded, due to the start time.
Tier II: The Pretenders
#5: Hawaii - Wyoming (3-2 WYO, 10.6 ppg diff, 25 total diff, 1 CCG)
#4: Colorado State - Wyoming (3-2 WYO, 14 ppg diff, 4 total diff, 1 CCG)
#3: Air Force - Colorado State (4-1 AFA, 9.2 ppg diff, 16 total diff, 1 CCG)
#2: Fresno State - SDSU (3-2 FSU, 14.4 ppg diff, 16 total diff, 5 CCG)
Analysis: These rivalries are all just missing one piece of the puzzle, and could easily break through to Tier I status in the next few years. Hawaii-Wyoming, CSU-Wyoming, and AFA-CSU all face the same problem, they rarely send anyone to a conference championship. This is probably a good time to remind you that Colorado State has never played in a MWC title game. Just thought I would mention that. I should probably also mention that CSU is 3-7 against their conference rivals in the last five years, including 0-6 in the last three. Maybe teams that are allegedly P5 candidates should play like it. Just saying.
The Old Oil Can Trophy is usually won by a conference contender, but the games themselves haven’t been terribly competitive. With an average margin of victory of more than two touchdowns, these games end up being slugfests where only one team punches.
Recommendation: Fresno and SDSU, we deserve better. Play a competitive, close game this year and I think we have a second Tier I rivalry. Thanks in advance to Fresno State for carrying this conference in terms of rivalries. For the rest, try to win your division. Or, in the case of Colorado State, try to beat teams that you allegedly want to beat.
Tier I: The Crown Jewel
#1: Boise State - Fresno State (3-2 BSU, 7.6 ppg diff, 10 total diff, 6 CCG)
What else is there to say about this game? The series is split 3-2 over the last five meetings (and 4-3 over the last seven), both fan bases basically live at the MWC Championship Game, the games are close, and the two teams are often ranked when they play.
To argue that any other rivalry has been on the level of Boise - Fresno recently is silly, but that is exactly what the Mountain West needs to have happen if the conference is going to improve its profile nationally. The 2019 season offers up the most rivalry games since 2014. Can the conference take advantage?