When the College Football Playoff was created in 2014, and it was announced there would be a designated spot in the access bowls for the highest-ranked Group of 5, there instantly became a competition to be the top Group of 5 Conference. However, outside of 2014 for the Mountain West and 2016-17 for Mid-American Conference, it hasn’t been much of a competition at all. The American Athletic Conference has been leading the Group of 5 arms race. The question is: is the arms race over, or does the Mountain West still have a chance to turn things around?
How the Power 5 Conferences See It
- For the Power 5 conferences, it’s them and everyone else. And it might not even be that if you are talking to the SEC and Big Ten. They don’t care who the best from the other five conferences are because they see them all as inferior. The larger gap here is intentional because it’s likely they don’t see anyone else as close to their level of talent and play.
How the AAC Sees It.
- If you are talking to the American, it’s similar to the Power 5 conferences, only they view themselves as on the inside as well. The AAC started the whole “Power 6” thing a few years ago, and although it hasn’t completely been adopted, it’s served its purpose as putting the American Athletic Conference on the map. They see themselves not as the top Group of 5 conferences but as a group on an equal playing field as the big boys.
How the MWC sees it
- If you are looking at things from the viewpoint of the Mountain West Conference, then there are three distinct tiers. There are the P5 teams, there are the American and themselves who are somewhere in the middle, and then there are the other Group of 5 conference, who are a notch below. The issue here is the AAC has proven they are not at the same level as the MWC, even if they aren’t at the same level as the P5 conferences either.
The top handful of teams
P5 Conferences (minus the bottom feeder teams like Kansas and Illinois)
- This is basically what the college football landscape looks like these days. It’s a simplified version, but it works for this exercise. The top tier is basically Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and maybe Georgia, at least more often than not. Then there is the rest of the P5 conference teams, minus the ones who are riding everyone else’s coattails. That group would include the likes of Kansas, Illinois, Vanderbilt, and Rutgers. Removing those teams, the AAC comes in a step behind the P5 schools, and the MWC comes in a step (or maybe a half of a step) behind them. Bringing up the rear is everyone else, as usual.
How far has the MWC fallen behind?
Spoiler: pretty far, or at least far enough to be an issue.
This has been an issue the past few years, but it’s grown recently. The Mountain West captured the New Year’s Six bowl bid in the inaugural year, 2014 with Boise State, but the conference hasn’t appeared since. The American Athletic Conference has gotten the spot in five of the seven years it has existed, included the last four. At this point, most everyone assumes the AAC will get the spot, and although other conferences are still in play, it is the American’s to lose every year. That mindset basically says the AAC is in the driver’s seat as the top Group of 5 conference.
There are other factors too. The AAC generally recruits better than the MWC, they pay their coaches better, which means their coaches stay longer (comparatively anyway), and of course, schools get more money in the media deal payouts. Perhaps it started with east coast bias or some other factor, but it has transformed into the American rising above the Moutain West as the top mid-major conference.
What can the MWC do to regain relevance in the arms race?
Win more out of conference games
Winning cures all. Or it at least helps quite a bit. The Mountain West made a big impact in their out-of-conference schedule in 2019, pulling off a number of upsets. Can they do it again in 2021? The OOC schedule is the best way to measure up against other conferences (at least until bowl season) and get positive national exposure, which helps the conference when the selection committee meets.
Have consistently good teams each year
A conference is perceived as strong if it has a few good teams every year. Having about three teams ranked during the year, with those teams beating up the rest of the conference, and having one of those teams rise to the top of the others by going undefeated or perhaps suffering one loss is basically the best formula for success these days. However, it is easier said than does.
In the American, Central Florida, Memphis and Cincinnati are basically strong teams every year, with at least one or two of them good enough to be in the rankings. They may take turns each year with which team is the best, and sometimes other teams enter the fold, but more years, you can expect all three to have at least 9-10 wins each season.
Looking at the Mountain West, it’s Boise State and maybe San Diego State, and then a rotating cast of characters. Even Boise State, who has made the championship game the past four seasons, hasn’t truly dominated. San Diego State makes a bowl basically every year but has yet to truly find another gear as a top Group of 5 team. Fresno State, Wyoming, Utah State, Hawaii, Nevada, and San Jose State have recently had strong seasons, but none have cleared the bar into elite territory. Outside of one, maybe two teams, there hasn’t been much consistently at the top of the conference, and even those consistent teams have rarely been in the conversation for the New Year’s Six position.
In conclusion, the Group of 5 arms race isn’t over, but it will take a lot for the Mountain West to narrow the gap.