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 2020. Which one was the top Group of 5 conference in 2021? 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. Last year, the conferences played one another three times. This year, they played two times due to the Hawaii Bowl being canceled. To open the year, Boise State and UCF had a thrilling game, and the Golden Knights came from behind to win a close game. Then, in one of the annual academy games, Air Force destroyed Navy. Usually, this one goes to the Mountain West, but this year it is a tie.
Top Teams Winning Percentage
The American’s top tier enjoyed a successful season, although maybe took a step back compared to previous seasons. Cincinnati led the way with a .929 winning percentage (13-1), followed by Houston at .857 (12-2) and UCF at .692 (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 (11-3), and Air Force and Fresno State both at .769 (5-2), rounding things off as the top three (really four). Cincinnati was the top team among the six, helping the American to a .826 winning percentage among the top three teams. Meanwhile, the Mountain West edged them out with an average winning percentage of .804 among its top three teams. While it was a close race, this year, 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%). The American ended up going 6-13 against P5 teams (including Notre Dame), with two of those wins and one of those losses coming in bowl games (31.58%). This one was close, but the edge goes to the Mountain West.
Number of bowl teams/bowl victories
Bowl season can make or break the year for teams. A win can build momentum for the following year, while a loss can put a sour note to an otherwise productive season.
The AAC sent seven teams to bowl games; however, only four of them played in games. They fared very well, going 3-1 with the lone loss by Cincinnati. Considering it was in the college football playoff against Alabama, it was an acceptable loss. 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.
Cincinnati represented the Group of 5 in the College Football Playoff, the first time ever for a G5 team, as they were not only the top Group of Five team but also truly one of the top teams in the nation. , While they ended up losing, it does not take away any of their accomplishments over the past season. 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.
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.
Cincinnati led the way in both the AAC and between both conferences with the 42nd ranked class as they continue to recruit on par or better with many teams from P5 conferences. 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 Cincinnati at 42, Memphis at 47, and UCF at 53 as the leading trio in the American for an average of 47.33 (same average as last year), which is extremely impressive. 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 AAC is 79.72 (also nearly identical to last year). 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 American is on another level regarding recruiting, as their top four teams ranked higher than the top Mountain West team. The American takes this category, which is a big one.
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 closer, but there was still a clear favorite. The American had 19 draft picks while the Mountain West only managed 11 this year. Easy call for the AAC 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 and the reported $2 million for Temple).
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 AAC coach is Dana Holgorsen of Houston, who checks in at an impressive $4 million per year, putting him in the top third or so in all of college football. Looking at the other ten schools, five coaches make at least $2 million, and all over them are over $1 million, with the lowest number being $1.4 million. This comes out to an average of $2.26 million (slightly above last year’s average).
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, as the lowest paid AAC coach would be tied for fourth in the MWC. This is an area where 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. However, the contract will likely change once Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF leave.
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.
Another year, another discussion about the American Athletic Conference topping the Mountain West Conference, although this was the closest score in the years we’ve been doing this exercise, which bodes well for the Mountain West. The AAC beat the MWC in the nine categories by a score of five to three (with a tie in the ninth category). While many of the categories were close, the categories were pretty skewed. The Mountain has shown more ability on the field overall, demonstrated by winning the categories of head-to-head competition, wins over P5 teams, and bowl wins. However, the American continues to have the definitive edge in NY6 appearances, NFL draft picks, recruiting, and coaching salaries. All of those categories lead to more national exposure, public perception, and overall more money for the conference. With that being said, the gap is closing, and the Mountain West could continue its momentum heading into the 2022 season. Will they finally win this exercise, or will the American continue to be the top Group of 5 conference?