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Peak Perspective: How to Compete in the Mountain West

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Are MW teams really winning with style? Or are we making this too complicated?

Mountain West Championship - Fresno State v Boise State Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

A Tale of Two Quarterbacks (and Dozens of Assistant Coaches Hitting the Road)

Wyoming Cowboys vs Oregon Ducks, NCAA football Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Jordan Love and Josh Allen are discussed together often enough, so I won’t belabor the point. I promise I have a point.

When Josh Allen arrived in Laramie in 2015, he was not the sort of recruit that boosters swoon over. In fact, he was a virtual unknown. Having played high school football at a small school in the Central Valley region of California, Josh didn’t receive a single FBS scholarship offer and decided to play at a nearby junior college instead of pursuing a walk-on opportunity. Despite bulking up and performing well at the JuCo level, he was still lightly recruited, but did hold an offer from Wyoming. When a final push to get Fresno State to offer — his favorite team as a kid — didn’t pan out, he signed with the Pokes.

After an otherwise unremarkable first year on campus, Allen led the Cowboys to the Mountain Division title and eight wins in his second season. His senior year was similarly fruitful for Wyoming as they won eight games again, the first time they’d hit the eight-win mark in consecutive seasons since 1987-88. For his efforts, Allen became the first Wyoming Cowboy to be drafted in the first round in nearly forty years, going to the Buffalo Bills with the seventh overall pick.

Jordan Love’s collegiate career at Utah State has followed a somewhat similar path so far. Love played high school football in Bakersfield (only a couple hours from Allen’s hometown), and didn’t receive the attention from recruiters that, in retrospect, he deserved. After redshirting his first year in Logan, Love shared time at quarterback with senior Kent Myers until late in the season, when he eventually won the full-time job. His sophomore season was a breakout performance, as Jordan tallied impressive stats while leading the Aggies to an eleven-win season.

Now, Love is considered to be an elite prospect in next year’s NFL Draft. In an uncharacteristically competitive Mountain West Conference, he was named the Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, and has brought along a new offensive line and receiving corps in less than a month. With Love at the helm, the Aggies have averaged over 600 yards of offense and are expected to be firmly in the mix for a Mountain West title.

Here’s that point I was promising earlier: both Love and Allen are considered examples of unidentified talent emerging to lead a Mountain West team to regional competitiveness and national recognition. In lock step with this theory is the belief that a team’s identity is the primary driver in deciding winners and losers in the Mountain West. Allen’s toughness and demeanor worked perfectly with coach Craig Bohl’s grind-it-out offense, and Love’s arsenal of throws allows him to distribute the ball all over the field in a hurry-up, spread system. If we subscribe to this theory, we believe that players and systems work together to build up something greater than the sum of its parts.

We are all familiar with the stereotypes at this point: SDSU and Wyoming are built around physicality and controlling the line of scrimmage, Boise State and Fresno State put their athletes into space (or limit that space defensively) and ask them to make a play, Utah State and Air Force have had recent success with offensive systems that attack you where you’re weakest.

Recruiting, Not Style, Determines MWC Success

Utah State v Wake Forest Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The truth? Most teams are only as good as their best players. Sure, Allen and Love have both played way beyond their 247 Composite rating, but they were still both above-average Mountain West recruits in the years they were signed. As boring as it sounds, Mountain West contenders are determined as much on National Signing Day as in training camp, if not more so.

Take a look at the numbers. I have charted the average player rating for each team over the last ten full seasons (2009-2018) to the team’s success since conference realignment settled (2013-2018 for the MWC). Since recruiting takes a few years to produce results on the field (i.e. that killer class your favorite team inked last winter won’t likely be contributing in full until two to three years from now), I thought using ten years of recruiting to explain six years of results was fair. See below.

Like I said, not many surprises. The further up you are on this chart, the better your conference win percentage has been since 2013. The further right you are, the better your recruiting ratings. Notice any trends? Every MWC champion has recruited well above the rest of the conference. Maybe Boise’s blue turf isn’t distracting players on the field as much as we thought, and perhaps San Diego State’s tough-guy mentality is actually just a talent-disparity reality.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. For instance, Utah State typically has had the 9th-most talented team over the last ten years according to 247 Sports, but has the third-best winning percentage since they joined the conference. Wyoming and Air Force have both represented the Mountain Division in the championship game, despite not impressing anyone on National Signing Day.

This is where we get a little bit of that extra flavor that makes the Mountain West so sweet. Wyoming definitely bruised its way to a division title, and Air Force optioned conference foes to death while generally creating a “no-fly zone” (not sorry for the pun) around their own endzone. Anyone familiar with recruiting can also tell you that the recruiting rankings can’t predict all player performance correctly. Air Force can sign many more recruits than their competitors, and wait to see which ones rise to the top through their academy system. Utah State has a history of taking raw athletes and placing them in the optimal position to develop. Don’t believe me? Ask Kyler Fackrell. He may be busy with his day job, though.

On the other hand, we can see some conference underachievers. Hawaii and San Jose State stick out like sore thumbs. Hawaii has collected top-half talent in the MWC and produced the fewest number of wins of anyone. Coaching challenges (Hi, Norm!) and a brutal travel schedule don’t help, but Hawaii has certainly not defended the island either. Nick Rolovich seems to be turning the tide (I will never apologize for puns, SO QUIT ASKING), but we will need a couple more years of data to confirm.

The Spartans are actually aided in this analysis by an okay start to MWC life (11-13 through the first three years), but have fallen off a cliff (5-19) since. Brent Brennan may be on his last life in the Bay, and this year’s projections don’t bode well for his continued employment. San Jose State has some competition for worst team in the conference this year (shoutout UNLV and New Mexico), but the relative recruiting successes make it all the more unseemly for them to be stuck in the cellar.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Boise State v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Now that we have established the importance of recruiting well in the Mountain West, what can we expect going forward? Isn’t there anyone that can provide some sort of helpful graphic with relative recruiting rankings for MWC teams since the end of realignment?!

Buddy….

I have included 2020 ratings as of September 19th, 2019. While these classes are by no means complete, I think we can get an idea of how teams’ classes are generally shaping up. These rankings are based on the average player rating, rather than the sum total of player ratings, so we get a better understanding of the caliber of each team’s classes.

A few thoughts:

  1. Utah State’s transformation into a consistent competitor is nearly complete. After averaging the ninth-best recruiting class for the first five years in the conference, including one year with the worst rating, the Aggies turned a corner with Matt Wells, and the current staff is improving even further on that recruiting level. Perhaps there will be diminishing returns with the Aggies, but they are definitely starting to swing with the big boys of the conference now.
  2. Boise State is uh...well, Boise State. Don’t expect much change as those 2018 and 2019 classes start to populate the two-deep. We’ve already seen Hank Bachmeier and George Holani take center stage in that Bronco offense. Could we be seeing the start of a meaningful division rivalry as the Broncos and Aggies build for future success?
  3. Colorado State has recruited well under coach Mike Bobo, but seen almost no reward for it on the field. If we don’t see some sort of turnaround this year, a new coach may inherit quite a bit of talent in Fort Collins. As always, it is a good time to remind you that CSU hasn’t beaten AFA or WYO, two rivals that are constantly lower in the recruiting rankings, since 2015.
  4. Surprise, surprise: Fresno State and San Diego State are the cream of the West division crop. The Bulldogs and Aztecs have taken turns as representatives for the West in the conference championship game, and no one would be surprised to see that continue this year and into the early-2020’s.
  5. Craig Bohl and Troy Calhoun are still doing more with less at Wyoming and Air Force, respectively. It is important to emphasize, once again, that Air Force really can’t be taken at face value with these ratings as they have a unique set of circumstances surrounding recruiting and player development. Wyoming, on the other hand, continues to beat teams despite less-than-stellar rankings and early returns indicate they will likely perform above their fighting class again this year.
  6. San Jose State and New Mexico are doing less with more. Brent Brennan’s hot seat has been well documented, but Bob Davie has not taken advantage of two strong years (2016 and 2017), and has now filled the program with JuCo players. That sort of gambit may pay off in the short run, but it leaves serious challenges to filling up a two-deep afterwards. Given his struggles on the field, and some scary health issues off it, perhaps a changing of the guard will soon hit Albuquerque.

The Mountain West is uniquely situated in the country in regard to recruiting. Teams can draw from traditional football powerhouse states like California and Texas, but also mix in some decidedly “home cooked” recruits. Whether it is raw athletes from the Intermountain West or a Polynesian pipeline, MWC programs are always trying to blend best-available prospects with their own personal brand.

As conference play begins and we get a better idea of how recruiting translates to winning this year, just remember...this league has been turned upside down by two relatively unknown Central Valley kids before, and somewhere out there the next “diamond in the rough” is waiting to make us forget it’s all about the numbers, even if only for a short time.