Stats Corner is back. Between the decrease in college sports and finishing my third, and final, degree (from an SEC school no less), there was not much time to write and a decrease in available content. The objective is to write two articles a month. So here we go.
Currently, there are five Power Conferences, although the Big 12 status is in doubt with Texas and Oklahoma leaving (strange that they are leaving immediately after businesses could start paying athletes for name-likeness-image instead of the donating money to college. Almost like their athletic departments are planning on a decrease in funds, but that is another topic.) After the Power 5, or 4, there is the Group of 5, with a spot in a New Year’s Day bowl for the best of the group. The American Athletic Conference (AAC) has claimed themselves as part of the Power 6, with each school waving a P6 flag at every home game, but are they best G5 and what does the Mountain West need to do to claim that title with Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston leaving the AAC?
There are three conferences who are the top of the G5: American Athletic, Sunbelt, and Mountain West. Today we are going to break each conference into thirds and compare the rankings of the groups, I can hear my Stats colleagues screaming at the screen for your thirds instead of the typically used quartiles, or fourths, but the numbers of members in each conference makes a using third more effective. The American has 11 members (not including UConn who left the AAC after the 2019 season) and will be split 3-4-4, the Sunbelt as 10 and will be split 3-4-3, and the Mountain West has 12 and will be 4-4-4 with collegefootballnews.com end of the season ranking being used.
The Top Third
Sunbelt: App State 25th, Georgia Southern 51st, Troy 55th
MWC: Fresno State 16th, Utah State 26th, Boise State 27th, Nevada 82nd
AAC: UCF 11th, Cincinnati 34th, Memphis 61st.
Sunbelt: App State 37th, Louisiana 84th, Georgia Southern 91st
MWC: Boise State 23rd, Air Force 30th, Hawaii 39th, Wyoming 62nd
AAC: Memphis 21st, Cincinnati 24th, Navy 29th
Sunbelt: Coastal Carolina 12th, Louisiana 15th, App State 68th
MWC: San Jose 47th, Boise State 49th, Nevada 57th, San Diego 73rd
AAC: Cincinnati 9th, Tulsa 39th, Memphis 50th
The top third of the conference are considered the headliners. These are the teams which get the national recognition, the TV games with more eyeballs, hopefully the sold-out home crowds, and the New Year’s Day Bowls. When someone mentions the conference, these are the teams people automatically think about, Alabama for SEC, Ohio State for Big 10, Boise State for Mountain West, and App State for the Sunbelt. To be the top G5, your top teams (yes, that is plural), need to be nationally ranked and able to compete with the Power 5 teams.
In 2018, the Mountain West had the best top third, even with Nevada being a huge drop-off. That is going to be a theme for the Mountain West, three solid teams and then a huge dropoff to that top fourth team. Fresno State, Utah State and Boise State were all top 30 teams, and were all ranked during the season. While UCF and App State were having successful seasons, this was a one hit wonder year for their conferences, with Cincinnati and Memphis having solid years, but not great and Georgia Southern and Troy having great years as related to their program’s history, but not enough to garner national attention.
For 2019, the edge has to be given to the AAC with three schools Memphis, Cincinnati, and Navy earning top 30 rankings. The Mountain West had three top 40 schools, but the drop-off to Wyoming is to great, and once again Sunbelt is a one hit wonder with App State carrying the water for the conference.
2020 was a weird year, with the top G5 conference being claimed by the Sunbelt despite App State having a down year when compared to their previous success. Cincinnati can claim title as best of the G5, but received no help from the conference while the Sunbelt had two teams in the top 15 with Coastal Carolina and Louisiana, followed by the below average App State season. The Mountain West took a huge back slide, caused partly by cancelling then cancelling the season and the cancelled/forfeited games.
The Middle Third
Sunbelt: Arkansas State 69th, Louisiana 87th, Louisiana Monroe 98th, Coastal Carolina 105th
MWC: Air Force 84th, San Diego State 89th, Wyoming 90th, Hawaii 100th
AAC: Temple 64th, Houston 68th, Tulane 79th, SMU 97th
Sunbelt: Arkansas State 101st, Louisiana Monroe 107th, Georgia State 108th, Coastal Carolina 116th
MWC: Nevada 69th, San Diego State 70th, Utah State 71st, San Jose State 81st
AAC: UCF 32nd, SMU 33rd, Temple 35th, South Florida 59th
Sunbelt: Georgia State 77th, Georgia Southern 78th, Troy 84th, South Alabama 108th
MWC: Hawaii 74th, Air Force 80th, Wyoming 85th, New Mexico 95th
AAC: SMU 64th, Tulane 65th UCF 70th, Houston 86th
The middle third of the conference needs to be good to counter the argument “You have a good record, but who did you play?”. Part of the reason why the SEC and Big 10 can lay claim to an annual playoff spot is because the middle third of their conference contains ranked teams and teams receiving votes. This has been a problem with the PAC 12 getting into the playoff, their top teams lose a game and the middle third of the conference is below average making it difficult to get in. Granted this paradigm favors the SEC, remember when Alabama played for the national title despite not winning their division, much less their conference title game? The argument was the rest of the SEC was so good it kept their strength of schedule so high they got in despite being second in their division.
This is where the AAC rules the G5. In 2018, they had Temple, Houston, and Tulane as solid middle teams. The Sunbelt had Arkansas State and Louisiana, while the Mountain West has a middle third in the 80s, 90s, and even 100. 2019 the middle of the pack AAC was superior with UCF, SMU, and Temple claiming rankings in the 30s. The Mountain West fared better with Nevada, San Diego State, and Utah State claiming three in a row starting at 69. The Sunbelt struggled with their middle third being in the triple digits. It allowed for App State to have a lot of wins, but sometimes you need quality over quantity and the conference did not provide any quality wins for the Mountaineers.
Last season the middle third of the conferences were similar. The AAC had a range from 64 to 86, the Mountain West ran from 74-95, and the Sunbelt claimed 77 to 108. However, similar did not mean good as these rankings are lower that what should be expected from a solid conference.
The Bottom Third.
Sunbelt: South Alabama 119th, Georgia State 121st, Texas State 124th
MWC: UNLV 109th, New Mexico 114th, Colorado State 116th, San Jose State 118th
AAC: South Florida 101st, Navy 102nd, Tulsa 107th, East Carolina 113th
Sunbelt: Troy 117th, South Alabama 120th, Texas State 121st
MWC: Fresno State 82nd, Colorado State 94th, UNLV 95th, New Mexico 122nd
AAC: Tulane 60th, Houston 77th, Tulsa 78th, East Carolina 98th
Sunbelt: Texas State 111th, Arkansas State 112th, Louisiana Monroe 124th
MWC: Fresno State 96th, Colorado State 100th, Utah State 114th, UNLV 120th
AAC: Navy 88th, East Carolina 99th, Temple 110th, South Florida 113th
Not every school in the conference can be good, or even average, as by definition someone has to be below the average, the Big 12 has Kansas, Big 10 has Rutgers, the SEC has Vanderbilt, and the PAC 12 has Oregon State. However, when a conference has multiple teams who are consistently doing poorly it can drag the conference down and, by extension, make things difficult for the top teams to reach national recognition with the “well, anyone can beat them” argument.
In 2018, every team in the bottom third of the three conferences was ranked in the triple digits, however the edge has to go to the AAC for being the least bad. Their first 3 were ranked before the Mountain West’s UNLV and after Coastal Carolina the lowest three ranked teams all came from the Sun Belt. Also, the AAC lowest ranked team East Carolina at 113 did beat a P5 North Carolina 41-19 that year, it helps your cause when your worst team can beat up on an in-state Big Brother P5 team.
2019 was a strong year for the AAC, with no teams ranked lower than 98th. The Mountain West was almost as good, except New Mexico at 122nd. The Sunbelt had way too many bad teams that year for the conference to be taken seriously.
For 2020, the ACC had the least worst teams, as Temple and South Florida did less damage to the conference compared to USU and UNLV. While the Sunbelt did improve overall the bottom three teams are still too low to support the upper teams in the conference in the national perspective.
Top to bottom the best G5 conference has to be the AAC. While the top teams from each conference are comparable in both rankings and the number of teams, the edge has to be given to the middle teams out preforming the other conferences and the bottom teams not sucking as much.
For the Mountain West, they have an opportunity to claim that title with potentially three teams leaving the AAC and the AAC mostly likely taking at least two schools from the Sunbelt, I’m guessing App State is at the top of the list with Coastal Carolina and Louisiana getting consideration although none of those expand the footprint or bring in new markets to replace those who are leaving. Such a move will weaken the Sunbelt while not increasing the AAC enough to cover what was lost. First off, the Mountain West cannot afford to lose any teams to the AAC, I know there are rumors about Boise State and Colorado State, but Idaho to Florida or North Carolina is a huge distance and does not make sense. Next, the bottom teams in conference need to do better. New Mexico did move out of the triple digits last season to 95th, but that was offset by USU going from 26th, to 71st, to 114th. Hopefully, the victory over Washington State is a step in the right direction. Once again if you are going to be a triple digit team at least get a victory over a P5 school, like ECU over UNC, and not lose to FCS schools, looking at you UNLV and Colorado State. Ideally, the bottom third of the conference needs to be in the 60-80 range, which is where the middle third is currently. Finally, the middle third needs to each have a P5 victory annually and a ranking in the 30-50 range. In short, the 2019 AAC should be the standard for the Mountain West, with the top teams looking a little higher ranked top 2 in the top 20, 2 in the 20-30 range, 4 in the 30-50s, and the bottom 4 in the 60-80 range with no schools below 90. If the Mountain West can be ranked like this consistently they can lay claim to the “Best of the Group of 5” with an eye of the Power 6 title.