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Stats Corner: Is the MWC Trending Up or Down in 2023?

Is the conference improving or regressing compared to the last seven years?

Fresno State v Utah State Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

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 2023 ranking coming from week 11 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: Utah State #24, San Diego State #25, Boise State #36, average 28.3

2022: Fresno State #29, Boise State #48, Air Force #49, average 42.0

2023: Air Force #33, Fresno State #35, Wyoming #43, average 37.0

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 Georgia and Alabama, the Big 12 has(had) Oklahoma and Texas, and the Big 10 has (the) Ohio State and (another scandal) Michigan, and the ACC has Florida State and Notre Dame(ish), it is not required that it is the same teams every year, although Fresno State is making a pretty good run. The AAC has had success with Tulane, SMU, and Memphis, the PAC 2 has Oregon State and Washington State, but previously had Washington, Oregon, and USC to 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, and 2021 was a surprising good year, especially given Utah State started the year ranked 113th. Last year was not great, this year there are three solid schools, who seem to like beating themselves and each other up at bad times (looking at the Falcons who just needed to get past Army, but couldn’t). The MWC cannot expect to be taken seriously with the top school being ranked in the 40s, or even in the 30s. Hopefully we get a top 30 match-up for the conference title against Air Force and Fresno State

Trending up from last year, but historically lower than average.

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: Fresno State #40, Air Force #52, Nevada #56, average 49.3

2022: San Diego State #78, Utah State #80, Wyoming #84, average 80.7

2023: Boise State #60, UNLV #61, Colorado State #94, average 71.7

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?”, ask Liberty if you need a more detailed explanation. The SEC has a death grip on this argument, Alabama, LSU, and Georgia 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 or not 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. 2021 is the best the top half of the conference has ever looked, with a sixth best Nevada being ranked 56th, any other year that would have been the 3rd or 4th best team in the conference. This year, there are two solid teams for 4th and 5th, but the drop off to 6th is concerning at over 30 places.

Trending up over last year, but historically bad.

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: San Jose State #87, Hawaii #102, Wyoming #103, average 97.3

2022: San Jose State #94, UNLV #113, Hawaii #121, average 109.3

2023: San Jose State #97, Utah State #99, San Diego State #109, 101.7

This is the weak part of the Mountain West, if they want to be considered as a potential power conference, the third quarter of the league must improve. The low point was 2022 (I am seeing a trend here), almost half 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 couple years dropping off, the conference is doing better. San Jose State and Utah State are (barely) out of the triple digits and still in the running for a bowl game. But as with the group above only 2 of the three are solid, the 3rd ranking in the triple digits is not a good look.

Trending up, but ditto from above about historical trends.

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: UNLV #113, Colorado State #117, New Mexico #125, average 118.3

2022: Colorado State #125, New Mexico #129, Nevada #130, average 128.0

2023: Hawaii #112, Nevada #113, New Mexico #115, average 113.3

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, Purdue is bottom of Big 10 West but ranked 73rd and Indiana is bottom of Big 10 East but ranked 67th. There are too many triple digit rankings for the MWC to be considered a respectable conference. 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, but there are some surprising wins which moved all three teams out of the 120-130s ranged. 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 and Nevada.

Trending up over last year, cut and paste historical context from above.

Final Thoughts

While the top teams over the last 7 seasons were in 2018, the best MWC from top to bottom was undoubtedly 2019 and 2021, with 2020 and 2022 being a down years. 2023 is unquestionably an upgrade over 2022, but the conference cannot continue this trend: 2019 up, 2020 down, 2021 up, 2022 down, 2023 up, 2024 needs to be another up year. 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 2021 average ranking of 73.3 the conference is improved its image, before dropping to 90.0 in 2022, which is the worst average for the MWC. 2023 is improving to 80.7, but that is closer to 2018 and 2020 numbers than 2019 and 2021. The top 6 teams in the conference are compatible with the 2019 and 2021 conferences, as teams ranked 7-9 are better than what is expected from the MWC, currently ranked similar to teams 4-6 in 2022. 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 over last year, the headliners are getting national attention, the solid group has the higher average, there are quality teams and wins in the so-so group. The top 9 are doing their part to help the conference, the next step is to move the bottom of the barrel into the double-digit rankings and to break the pattern and not have another regressive conference during the even year season.