For the past few years, we have compared the top two Group of 5 conferences to determine which one was best in the previous season. With the PAC struggles and the Mountain West playing better football the past few years, we will take the same exercise and apply it to comparing the PAC and MWC conferences. Which one was better in 2021? Read below to find out.
Head to Head
The Mountain West and PAC-12 play one another quite frequently, both in non-conference games as well as the LA Bowl. And traditionally, the MWC has been extremely competitive, securing several upsets and statement games over the years. This year was no exception, as the conferences played ten total games, and they ended up playing to a draw at 6-5. Among the wins were Nevada over Cal, Utah State over Wazzu, and Oregon State in the bowl game, plus San Diego State beating Arizona and Utah. There were some close games as well that could’ve gone in the Mountain West’s favor, such as Fresno State having Oregon on the ropes before losing. While it was a draw, the PAC-12 should have more wins as a “power conference,” so the MWC gets the edge here.
Top Teams Winning Percentage
The Pac-12 didn’t exactly have a strong year, but still had their two top teams, Utah and Oregon, led the way with double-digit wins (10-4), suitable for a .714 winning percentage, followed by UCLA with .667 (8-4). On the other side of things, the Mountain West also enjoyed success at the top of the conference. San Diego State was at the top of that conference with an .875 winning percentage (12-2), followed by Utah State at .786 (11-2), and Air Force and Fresno State both at .769 (5-2), rounding things off as the top three (really four). With two ten-win teams at the top, the PAC-12 managed a winning percentage of .698 among the top three teams. Meanwhile, the Mountain West edged them out with an average winning percentage of .804 among its top three teams. It was not a close race by any means, so the Mountain came out on top.
Record Against Power 5 Schools
Usually a great measuring stick for any Group of 5 conference, the Mountain West once again was up to the task. They went 7-11 against teams from the Power 5 conferences, including 2-0 in bowl games (38.89%). For the purposes of this category, only non-conference games will be examined for the PAC, as they obviously go .500 in their conference games. With that being said, they ended up going 3-11 (which includes Notre Dame), lowlighted by an 0-3 showing in bowl games (21.43%). This one goes to the MWC and isn’t even close.
Number of bowl teams/bowl victories
Bowl season could not have looked more different for these two conferences. The PAC-12 had six teams slated for bowls, and five of them ended up playing. It could not have gone worse, as every single team lost, with Utah being the only close game. In fact, the conference is 0-11 in the past two bowl seasons. Meanwhile, the MWC had eight teams who were selected to play in bowls last postseason. Two of them had their games canceled, but they won the bowl season by going 5-1, which was a better record than any other conference. Their only loss was by Nevada, and that was after their coaching staff left, their best players opted out, and other players announced their intent to transfer. The Mountain West sent more teams plus had more victories, so this category goes to them.
This one is pretty straightforward.
The PAC-12 and its auto bid ensure they get at least one team in the NY6 bowls. And one team was all they got. Utah played in the Rose Bowl, and although they lost, no one would argue the Utes were not deserving after their exceptional season (although let’s not forget San Diego State beat Utah in the regular season). Regardless, the Moutain West did not have a team in the NY6 once again. So even though Utah lost in the bowl game, it’s still the PAC, hands down.
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 (recruiting only, so excludes transfers) for each one.
Oregon led the way in both the PAC and between both conferences with the 13th-ranked class. The Ducks are one of the best recruiting teams in the country, and it’s on full display here. Boise State was tops in the MWC with the 62nd best class in the country.
Looking at the top three from each conference, we have Oregon at 13, Stanford at 19 (!), and Arizona at 22 as the leading trio in the PAC for an impressive average of 18. Comparing that with the Mountain West, there is Boise State at 62, San Diego State at 65, and Fresno State at 72, good for an average of 66.33.
Taking the MWC 12 team average, it comes out to 90.08, which is dragged down by several teams near the bottom of the recruiting rankings. On the other hand, the conference average for the PAC is 53.08 (which is no surprise for a power conference). The Mountain West’s top teams recruit well, but overall the conference struggled this year, which was aided by coaching turnover at a few schools. However, the top of the MWC only compares to the bottom third of the PAC at best, as the conference is on another level regarding recruiting. The PAC takes this category easily.
The NFL draft demonstrates the star power of each conference as the top players get selected to go on to the next level. Power 5 schools almost always take the top five spots in players drafted, and this year was no different. The PAC-12 had 25 players drafted, suitable for tying for the third-most by conference. By contrast, the MWC had 11 players drafted, which was good but paled in comparison. An easy call for the PAC here.
Although some of these coaches aren’t with their 2021 teams anymore, last year’s names and figures are being compared. This USA Today article and Chris Murray’s post will guide this category, although things don’t line up neatly. A few coaches (Air Force, SJSU, Temple) don’t have released salaries. We will use the average of those listed (assuming $1 million for the two MWC schools).
In the Mountain West conference, the top coach, Craig Bohl, made $1.6 million during the 2021 season. Eight other coaches topped $1 million annually, which is a higher number of coaches than a few seasons ago. However, the remaining three ranged from $800K to $625K. Although the money is increasing, the salaries for the 12 coaches come out to an average of about $1.13 million for the 2021 season (the same average as 2020).
The top PAC coach is David Shaw of Stanford, who checks in at an astounding $8.9 million annually, making him the sixth highest-paid coach in all of college football. Looking at the other eleven schools, two are over $5 million, just under half are over $4 million, and all are over $2 million, with the lowest being Jonathan Smith at $2.4 million. This comes out to an average of $4.23 million.
I’m no numbers guy, but the PAC numbers are higher than the MWC ones. While quite a few coaches got raises in the MWC over the winter, the money is at an entirely different level in the PAC compared to the MWC, where no one comes close to those salaries. This is an area where the gap is vast between the P5 and G5 conferences, so the PAC gets this one easily.
TV Contract Money/Exposure
This category will not be changing year to year, but when it does change, it’s a significant movement one way or the other.
The current PAC-12 contract isn’t great at a Power 5 level, but it still blows Group of 5 media deals out of the water. They pay about $33 million to each of their schools, which means their bottom line number is $400 million.
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, The PAC is in trouble. USC and UCLA are leaving the conference, and the media deal expires in 2024. The conference has already opened up negotiation windows, mostly so the remaining schools have an idea of what they can make in the next media deal. But after losing its most prominent brand in the Trojans, it’s hard to see them getting an increase in money and are probably looking at a decrease in total money for the conference.
Overall, money talks, and the PAC is getting more of it, even if they are in turmoil by their own standards. However, this category is interesting because the gap could be much smaller in the future as the MWC currently has more stability. So it goes to the PAC, but it’s worth keeping an eye on going forward.
When the idea for this exercise began, I wasn’t sure how the results would look, given that the Mountain West had a very good 2021 season the PAC has been heading downward for years. However, the PAC won in five of the nine categories here, with the MWC taking the other four. The Mountain West won out where it counted, on the field, securing the categories of head-to-head wins, wins against P5 teams, bowl wins, and overall winning percentages. However, the PAC has more resources (thanks in large part to their media deal) and showed it by having huge advantages in recruiting, coaching salaries, and draft picks, plus their automatic birth in the NY6 bowls. This exercise demonstrates the gap between the two conferences isn’t very large on the field but could not be wider off of it. With the PAC floundering, will the gap continue to shrink in 2022, or was 2021 an anomaly?