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Peak Perspective: The MWC vs the AAC: 2020 Season Comparison.

Who was the top Group of 5 team this past season?

It’s time for the annual post to highlight how the Mountain West Conference compares to the American Athletic Conference in a variety of important categories. Since this yearly post has been done, the AAC had the advantage overall, and it wasn’t particularly close in 2019. Which one was the top Group of 5 conference in 2020? Read below to find out.

Head to Head

The Mountain West and American don’t have many opportunities to play each other from season to season, which should really change since they are direct competitors. Like last year, the conferences played one another three times, and also like last year, one conference went 3-0 against the other. However, during 2020 it was the Mountain West who beat up on the Amerian this time around. In the lone non-conference game, Air Force beat Navy. Then, in the two bowl games, Nevada topped Tulane and Hawaii overcame Houston. This one clearly goes to the Mountain West.

Top Teams Winning Percentage

This one will be tricky since teams all played a different number of games this past season.

The American’s top tier enjoyed a successful season, with three teams eclipsing seven wins. Cincinnati led the way with a .900 winning percentage (9-1), followed by Memphis at .727 (8-3) and SMU at .700 (7-3). On the other side of things, the Mountain West also enjoyed success at the top of the conference. San Jose State was at the top of that conference with an .875 winning percentage (7-1), with Nevada at .778 (7-2), and Boise State at .714 (5-2) rounding things off as the top three. Cincinnati was the top team among the six, helping the American to a .775 winning percentage among the top three teams. Meanwhile, the Mountain West narrowly edged them out with an average winning percentage of .789 among its top three teams. Like last year, it was a close race, but this year, the Mountain comes out on top.

Record Against Power 5 Schools

Usually a great measuring stick between the two conferences, the pandemic ruined this one as most non-conference games were canceled, at least on the Mountain West side of things. The American ended up going 1-2 (including a loss to Notre Dame) during the regular season and 0-2 in bowls, combing for a 1-4 record against the Power 5 this year. This one is N/A since both conferences didn’t get a chance, but it is noteworthy that the American struggled in their opportunities this year.

Number of bowl teams/bowl victories

Bowl season could not have looked more different for these two conferences. The AAC sent six teams to bowl games, while the MWC only had three teams playing in bowls (one or two teams ended up declining). Just like the number of teams differed significantly, so did the actual results in those bowls games. The AAC had a disastrous showing, going 1-5 during bowl season, with Tulane, UCF, Houston, Tulsa, and Cincinnati losing games. Memphis had the lone win. On the other side of things, the MWC went 2-1. Their two victories, by Nevada and Hawaii, were over the aforementioned AAC teams. The lone loss was an embarrassing display by San Jose State. Although the AAC should get credit for sending more teams, the MWC fared better, and this category goes to them.

NY6 appearances/wins

This one is pretty straightforward.

Cincinnati represented the Group of 5 in the New Year’s 6 in a year, and they were far and away the top Group of 5 team this year and arguably one of the top teams in the country. They ended up losing to Georgia in the Peach Bowl in a very close game. While winning big bowl games is extremely important, getting there is also vital in the Group of 5 world, and the MWC comes up short once again. Even though Cincinnati lost in the bowl game, it’s still the AAC, hands down.

Recruiting Rankings

It’s hard to know how exactly to decide on this category. Top team? Average of the top few teams? Average of each conference? Let’s go best two out of three in these categories, using 247 composite rankings for each one.

Cincinnati led the way in both the AAC and between both conferences with the 44th ranked class as they continue to recruit on par or better with many teams from P5 conferences. San Diego State was tops in the MWC with the 61st best class in the country.

Looking at the top three from each conference, we have Cincinnati at 44, Memphis at 47, and SMU at 51 as the leading trio in the American for an average of 47.33, which is extremely impressive. Comparing that with the Mountain West, there is San Diego State at 61, Boise State at 66, and UNLV at 67, good for an average of 64.67.

Taking the MWC 12 team average, it comes out to 78.5, a significant improvement from last year. Likewise, the conference average for the AAC is 79.72. The Mountain West made big strides this past year in recruiting, particularly at the top of the conference, and it shows up here in average rankings. However, the top of the American is on another level when it comes to recruiting, as their top four teams ranked higher than the top Mountain West team. The American takes this category, but it’s closer than it has been in recent years.

Draft Picks

The NFL draft demonstrates the star power of each conference as the top players get selected to go on to the next level. Last year wasn’t all that close, and this year was even more one-sided. The American had 19 draft picks while the Mountain West only managed 3 this year. Easy call for the AAC here.

Coaching Salaries

Although some of these coaches aren’t with their 2020 teams anymore, last year’s names and figures are being compared. This USA Today will guide this category, although things don’t line up neatly. A few coaches (Air Force, Memphis, Temple) don’t have released salaries. To further complicate matters, some schools listed adjusted salaries during the pandemic, and some did not. For the purposes of this category, we will compare adjusted pandemic salaries. If only the pre-pandemic salary is listed, that will be used. And we will use the average of those listed (11 for the MWC, 9 for the AAC).

In the Mountain West conference, the top coach, Bryan Harsin, made $1.77 million during the 2020 season. Five other coaches topped $1 million annually, but the remaining five ranged from $900K to $625K. Although several coaches got raises in the offseason, the salaries of the 11 coaches for the 2020 season come out to about $1.13 million.

The top AAC coach is Dana Holgorsen of Houston, who checks in at an impressive $3.61 million, making him the 37th highest-paid head coach in college football. Of the nine schools reported, five coaches making over $2 million, and all of them are over $1 million (the lowest is $1.34 million), coming out to an average of $2.23 million.

I’m no numbers guy, but the AAC numbers are higher than the MWC ones. While quite a few coaches got raises in the MWC over the winter, the money is flowing over in the American, and this an area the gap is vast between the two conferences, so the AAC gets this one easily.

TV Contract Money/Exposure

This category will not be changing for the foreseeable future, but it’s still an important one.

The current AAC contract (almost $7 million per team) became the benchmark for Group of 5 media deals when they announced their new deal a year before the Mountain West.

The Mountain West media deal is $270 million total, which comes out to about $4 million for the ten teams under normal circumstances (not Hawaii or Boise State), a massive upgrade from the $1.1 million in the past deal.

However, more goes into the contract than just money, even though money is the bottom line, as this article explains a bit. The AAC took more money ($1 billion) for less exposure (most appearing on ESPN+). On the other hand, the MWC secured a smaller deal financially and traded being the late game on ESPN for potentially better time slots with Fox, as well as sticking with CBS Sports for their secondary game package. Another big difference is the length of the contract. The American is locked in for 12 years while the Mountain West decided to go for a short-term deal (6 years), citing the ever-changing media landscape, and opted for flexibility in light of that.

Overall, money talks, and the American is getting more of it, even if only looking at the next six years. However, this category is closer than it appears as the MWC got a big boost and is potentially set up well for the future. A slight nod to the AAC.

Conclusion

Another year, another discussion about the American Athletic Conference topping the Mountain West Conference, although the competition was much closer this year, which is a good sign for the MWC. The AAC beat them 5 to 3 in the categories listed above (with one category being N/A this year). Many of the categories were close, but the ones that weren’t favored heavily in the direction of the American. The MWC won the head-to-head battle, had a better winning percentage among top teams, had a better showing in bowl games, and even closed the gap in recruiting. Also, don’t forget about their fantastic showing against P5 teams in 2019. However, the American is still dominating in NFL draft picks, coaching salaries, NY6 appearances (which lead to more national exposure, public perception, and more money for the conference), and the media rights deal. Now that the MWC has closed the gap a bit in recruiting and upped a few coaching salaries, will they continue that momentum in the 2021 season? Or will the American figure out how to widen their lead once again?