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Stats Corner: Is the MWC Trending Up or Down?

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Is the conference improving or regressing over the years?

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In a previous Stats Corner, we compared the Mountain West to the American and the Sunbelt Conferences to determine which conference was the best of the Group of Five. This time we are going to determine how the Mountain West is doing over the years and if they are trending up, down, or treading water. We are going to divide the conference into quarters and use the ranking from college football news, with 2021 ranking coming from week 4 and the rest from the end of season.

The Headliners (top 3)

2018: Fresno State #16, Utah State #26, Boise State #27, average 23.0

2019 Boise State #23, Air Force #30, Hawaii #39, average 30.7

2020 San Jose State #47, Boise State #49, Nevada #57, average 51.0

2021 Fresno State #20, San Diego State #42, Boise State #56 average 39.3

These are the teams which get the national attention and need to perform well for the conference to have a good image. While the SEC has Alabama, the Big 12 has(had) Oklahoma, and the Big 10 has (the) Ohio State and the ACC has Clemson (but not this season), it is not necessary that it is the same teams every year, although Boise State is making a pretty good run. The AAC has had success with UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati, the PAC 12 has Oregon, Stanford, Washington, and USC lead the conference. What matters most is that the top schools are plural and ranked. The high mark was 2018 was three solid schools leading the conference. Though 2019 was a slight slip, 2020 was a disaster. The MWC cannot expect to be taken seriously with the top school being ranked in the 40s. Fortunately, the ship seems to have been righted in 2021. Boise State is still ranked a little low, but after beating Utah State good finish with a strong year.

Trending up (for now)

The Solid (Next 3)

2018: Nevada #82, Air Force #84, San Diego #89, average 85.0

2019: Wyoming #62, Nevada #69, San Diego State #70, average 67.0

2020: San Diego State #73, Hawaii #74, Air Force #80, average 75.7

2021: Wyoming #57, Nevada #65, San Jose State #77, average 66.3

For the headlines to be taken seriously, the top half of the conference needs to be good enough to counter the “yeah, their record is good, but who did they play?” The SEC has a death grip on this argument, Alabama could lose one game to anyone in the conference and still make the playoffs because the perception of the conference is so strong. Whether it is true is another story, or possibly another Stats Corner article. 2018 was a great year for the headliners, the rest of the MWC was a Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The drop off was immense, going from 27 to 82 between the third and fourth team. Having an undefeated UCF didn’t help, but Fresno State had a hard time getting national respect that year with such a weak conference because the only decent conference game was Boise State since they were not schedule for Utah State that year. The conference did improve during 2019 with schools being ranked in the 60s. So far, 2021 is the strongest this group has been recently: undefeated Wyoming is making a move into the top 3, Nevada has potential and a PAC 12 victory, and San Jose State still has high expectations for the season.

Definitely trending up

The So-So (Lower 3)

2018: Wyoming #90, Hawaii #100, UNLV #109, average 99.7

2019 Utah State #71, San Jose State #81, Fresno State #82, average 78.0

2020 Wyoming #85, New Mexico #95, Fresno State #96, average 92.0

2021 Utah State #78, Hawaii #87, Air Force #89, average 84.7

This is the weak part of the Mountain West, if they want to be taken seriously as a potential power conference, the third quarter of the league must improve. The low point was 2018, almost have the team in the league were ranked in the triple digits. The top teams in the league were great, but whoever they are, they need help from the rest of the teams. 2019 was the deepest the conference has been and after a sub-par 2020 the conference is improving: 3-1 Utah State with a PAC 12 win is in the bottom half of the league, so is 2-3 Hawaii, and 3-1 Air Force who is halfway to the Commissioner’s Cup. When two one-loss teams are ranked in the bottom half of the conference, it shows the conference is deep and makes it easier for the top teams to get noticed.

Trending up

The Bottom of the Barrel (Last 3)

2018: New Mexico #114, Colorado State #116, San Jose State #118, average 116.0

2019: Colorado State #94, UNLV #95, New Mexico #122, average 103.7

2020 Colorado State #100, Utah State #114, UNLV #120, average 111.3

2021 Colorado State #115, New Mexico #118, UNLV #119, average 117.3

Someone has to be at the bottom of the conference, that does not mean you have to be at the bottom of the college football rankings, so many triple digit rankings. 2019 was the best year, with only one team in the triple digits. This year is not looking good for the bottom of the barrel, already so many bad losses, and unless something changes, more to come. These are the cupcake games for the top of the conferences, but do not offer anything of value to the great teams or the conference in general. One would hope that a school would spend a year in this group and move on, 2018 San Jose State and 2020 Utah State, not plan an extended stay in purgatory, New Mexico, UNLV and Colorado State. Maybe the Rams should say yes if the AAC comes calling, it would increase the MWC rankings while decreasing the AAC.

Trending down.

Final Thoughts

While the top teams over the last 4 seasons were in 2018, the best MWC from top to bottom was undoubtedly 2019, with 2020 being a down year. With the uncertainty of 2020, the season is cancelled, no wait we are playing a shortened season, to we don’t know if individual players can play or this team will be allowed to travel, it was no wonder the conference was down. The average ranking in 2018 was 80.9, it rose to 69.8 for 2019 (another sign that the conference was improving), before dropping to 82.5 in 2020. In other words, the average team ranking for 2020 was fairly close to the 2018 season, it just did not have the top teams doing as well. With a current 2021 average ranking of 76.9 the conference is improving its image. The top 9 teams in the conference are compatible with the 2019 conference, as teams ranked 7-9 are better than what is expected from the MWC, currently ranked similar to teams 4-6 in 2018. Currently, it’s the bottom three which are dragging the conference down. One team in the triple digits needs to be the maximum, however the conference routinely has at least 3. As a whole the conference is trending up, the headliners are getting national attention, the solid group has the highest average over the last 4 years, there are quality teams and wins in the so-so group and the 7-9 group has a winning record at 8-5 with two teams at 3-1. The top 9 are doing their part to help the conference, the next step is move the bottom of the barrel into the double digit rankings.