Today we take a look ahead. All off-season, we’ve talked about the MWC needing to be more successful. What exactly will that look like in 2022? Some might be funny. Some might be very important. Some we might forget to write on here. Last year was a definite success for the conference, as outlined in our review article from January. Anyway, here is what we think will make for a successful MWC season. We used pretty much the same categories as last year but switched up the standards in each.
Strong Showing Against Power 5 Teams
This year, the MWC has 17 games in their non-conference slate against teams from Power 5 conferences, which is about the same as last year. Some of these games are just a bit one-sided on paper, but the 2019 season demonstrated teams from the MWC are still capable of pulling off an upset. Other games look winnable or competitive. After last season, predicting how things go can be anything but easy.
It would be unreasonable to expect the conference to match the out-of-conference magic of 2019 every year. However, if they can manage five wins out of their seventeen games (basically 30% of their P5 games), it will allow them to build off of that year’s momentum and once again get some national attention for their success.
Some games that could result in wins against P5 teams:
Air Force vs. Colorado
Boise State vs. Oregon State
Fresno State vs. Oregon State
San Diego State vs. Arizona
Wyoming vs. Illinois
Making a Statement in OOC Games
Overall, it is important that the Mountain West showcase its talent against other teams in non-conference play. Obviously, the P5 games are a significant part of this, but really every game is taken into account. A conference having a strong first month playing other conferences (or independents) shapes people’s perception about a conference, good or bad, accurate or not. While the MWC has done well overall against P5 teams in 2019 and 2021, they have also lost some games against lesser G5 or FCS teams. This makes it hard to place the conference in terms of prestige.
Looking at the out-of-conference schedule for the twelve Mountain West teams, it is unrealistic to expect them to win every game. However, to be successful, they should win 60% of their non-conference games. The breakdown should generally look like this:
- Against P5 teams: 5-12
- Against BYU: 1-2
- Against New Mexico State: 3-1
- Against other G5 teams: 11-2
- Against FCS teams: 11-1
- Totaly: 31-18 (63.27%)
Bowl Eligible Teams
Last season, the Mountain West produced only bowl teams, but this was related to the pandemic as much as anything, as two Mountain West bowls were canceled, and at least one team declined to be in a bowl.
In this day and age, making a bowl basically means you were an above-average team over the course of the year, and the MWC should strive to have as many above-average or better teams at the end of the year as possible. In order to be successful, the conference will need to get to seven bowl-eligible teams at the end of the regular season. Five teams seem almost certain, six would be good, but after having eight last year, reaching seven this year would continue the high standard for the conference. Having seven bowl teams would mean the usual suspects took care of business, and 1-2 teams surprised or over-achieved to raise the conference clout.
Of course, getting to a bowl game isn’t enough on its own. It’s nice, but most people remember who won and who lost. Nevada had a successful season before getting destroyed in their bowl game against Western Michigan (not their fault, but the point still remains). Utah State capped off its magical season with a statement win over P5 Oregon State, and Wyoming salvaged its season with a win over Kent State. The Mountain West had a tremendous bowl season last year, going 5-1 (with two games cancelled due to Covid). For the MWC to be considered a success in bowl season, they must be above .500 once again. That means reaching the four-win mark during bowl season (going 4-3), with at least one of those wins coming against power-five teams.
This is important for the relevance of the conference. Topics and storylines that gain national attention. Last year, it was Trey McBride and Matt Araiza taking home national awards for being the best at their respective positions. In 2019, it was the upsets against Power 5 teams. Basically, the MWC needs something to put them on the map and stand out in the college football world.
Here are some potential storylines that could (not saying will, but could) be played up this season:
- Jake Haener and Fresno State’s quest to be a ranked team while Haener becomes one of the best QBs entering the NFL draft.
- Air Force being one of the best teams in the country while running the old-school triple-option offense.
- Someone, anyone being ranked and making a run at a NY6 bowl. An undefeated season would be even better.
- A surprise team defying preseason expectations and having a strong year. See Utah State or San Jose State for past examples.
- A player is chasing a single season or career conference record. Will any records be broken this year?
Top Teams Playing Like Top Teams
Conferences are often judged based on the top teams. Some years the SEC hasn’t been all that great, but they have Alabama to carry them year in and year out, so people don’t always notice or remember. For years the Big12 has been perceived as strong or weak depending on how good Texas and Oklahoma are. Fair or not, that’s usually how it goes.
Last year Utah State seemed to lead the way for the Mountain West. The top tier was pretty strong, all things considered. However, the public perception was one of the traditional powers, Boise State, had a down year, while the other, San Diego State, had a very solid year.
This year, it is difficult to know which teams will lead the way. As many as four different teams could find themselves at or near the top of the conference at the end of the year (Air Force, Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State). All seem likely to get to bowl games, and one or two of them may have a special season.
However, to excel in this category, the MWC may need to have more than “just” three or four teams having good seasons. It may require one or two of those teams to rise above the rest and be in the hunt for a New Year’s Six bowl. Two ranked teams meeting in the conference championship would be the best-case scenario to give the Mountain West some national attention to compete with the American.
I figured this would be as good of a spot as any to go on record with some predictions. Note that all of these are just personal opinions and not hating or favoring any one team. I’d be happy to be wrong about some of these. Just what I think will happen. In January, when we revisit this entire post, I’ll own up to everything I got right or wrong.
- After so much turnover in the past few years in the coaching ranks, there will only be one change at the end of the year. I don’t think anyone will be straight-up fired. However, there will be one coaching change, some kind of resignation, or “mutually agreeing to part ways.”
- I’m truly on the fence about UNLV and their bowl berth this year. Year 3 is the year improvement should be seen, and I think the Rebels will improve. In a roundtable earlier this summer, I said I think they make a bowl. I hope they do, but I think they fall just short (think SJSU in 2019).
- Hawaii will finish with the worst record in the conference. New Mexico will have the worst record in the Mountain Division.
- Seven teams will make a bowl game this year. (Air Force, Boise State, Fresno State, SDSU, SJSU, Utah State, Wyoming)
- There will be at least two MWC teams with 10+ wins this year. With at least one in each division.
- There will be no undefeated teams in conference play this season, but there will be two one-loss teams.
- Air Force and Fresno State will meet in the MWC Championship game.
- Air Force will win the Commander in Chief Trophy this season.
These are some of the factors that could make or break the 2021 Mountain West football season in terms of success. What are some other factors that weren’t listed here? What needs to happen for you to consider the season a successful one for the MWC?