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Peak Perspective: Was the 2023 season a success for the Mountain West?

A look back at the standards we set before the season and how the conference fared.

Welcome to another postseason review post. Way back in August, this post looked at some of the main factors that could qualify the 2023 football season as a success for the Mountain West Conference. Now that the season has concluded, it’s time to revisit those factors to see whether or not the MW had a successful season. Let’s dive in.

Strong Showing Against Power 5 Teams

Back in August, the standard was set at winning three out of their twenty-one games or roughly 14% of their Power 5 games. It seemed doable on paper, and actually went a bit better than expected.

The Mountain West didn’t have a great showing against P5 teams, going 4-17 (19%), but it is a drastic improvement from the 2022 season, where they only won a single P5 game. Winning 4 games is hopefully a sign of better things to come as the MW desperately tries to keep the gap between them and bigger conferences from widening.

Specifically, a few games were identified as highly winnable back in August. Here’s how they went:

Boise State vs. UCF. A loss.

Fresno State vs. Arizona State. A big win.

Utah State vs. Iowa. A loss

Instead, here were the other three games the Mountain West ended up winning:

Wyoming vs. Texas Tech. A double overtime win.

Fresno State vs. Purdue. A win.

UNLV vs. Vanderbilt. A last-second win

SUCCESS

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.

The goal was set at winning 55% of their non-conference games for the 2023 season. Given the schedule, it appeared to be a realistic benchmark, but it was last year, too, and the conference didn’t meet expectations.

During the preseason, a breakdown was provided on how the 49 OCC games should go. See below, with the side-by-side results included:

  • Against P5 teams: 3-18. Actual: 4-17
  • Against New Mexico State: 2-0. Actual 1-1
  • Against G5 teams (including NMSU): 13-3. Actual 10-6
  • Against FCS teams: 11-1. Actual 11-1
  • Total: 27-22 (55%). Actual 25-24 (51%)

As mentioned above, the Mountain West gained a projected game against P5 teams, although they gave it back by splitting the two games with New Mexico State. They took care of business against the FCS this year, but the real disappointment was losing 6 of their 16 games (37.5%) to other G5 teams, failing to widen the gap between the MW and the rest of the G5 landscape.

More on this category in next week’s Peak Perspective.

FAIL (both overall and in two sub-categories)

Bowl Eligible Teams

Last season, the Mountain West exceeded expectations by producing an unprecedented eight bowl teams, or three-fourths of the conference. This is what was targetted for them in August: “Five teams seem almost certain, while six would be good, but in order for the conference to continue the high standard for itself, having seven teams as often as possible is important. It would also mean the usual suspects took care of business, and 1-2 teams surprised or over-achieved to raise the conference clout.”

At one point in the season, the MW having only four or five bowl-eligible teams seemed like a real possibility. But credit to the conference, once again, who became bowl-eligible in the second to last game of the season. Even though this was a rough season for the conference, they still managed to get seven bowl teams once again, which qualifies as a success.

SUCCESS

Bowl Wins

Reaching four bowl wins was the goal for the 2024 season. And just like the 2023 season, the conference went 3-4 during bowl season. The big wins by Fresno State and Air Force were offset by bad losses from Boise State, Utah State, and San Jose State. Wyoming had a close win, while UNLV had a competitive loss. Despite beating some good teams, none of the wins against P5 foes. While bowl games carry less weight than they used to in the transfer portal era, it’s still an area where the Mountain West failed to have a good showing this year.

FAIL

National Storylines

This is important for the relevance of the conference. Topics and storylines that gain national attention. Two years ago, Trey McBride and Matt Araiza took home national awards for being the best at their respective positions. However, last year, the conference failed to garner much national attention at all. Basically, the Mountain West needs something to put them on the map and stand out in the college football world.

Here were the potential storylines that were identified as ideas back before the season started:

  • Taylen Green building on last year’s Freshman of the Year season and becoming one of the best Group of 5 quarterbacks in the country while leading Boise State. Quite the opposite happened this year, and Green had an up-and-down season as he was basically in a backup role for much of the season. However, Jayden Maiava for UNLV assumed the mantle of young and exciting MW quarterback.
  • Hawaii’s return to the exciting run-and-shoot offense, which is made for highlights seen by a national audience. The Rainbow Warriors took a step forward with their offense, but they were not must-see TV. However, the Rebels and their “Go-Go” Offense put on quite a display over the course of the season. It wasn’t quite a national storyline, but it did make for a good story.
  • Someone, anyone being ranked and making a run at a NY6 bowl. An undefeated season would be even better. For the first half of the season, the conference was marching forward towards this goal. Fresno State was ranked over the first month and after they lost, Air Force took their place. The Falcons started the season 8-0 and were even in the College Football Playoff Rankings. Unfortunately, they went winless in November. Fresno State and UNLV received votes at the end of the season, helping the Mountain West have one of its better seasons in the rankings department in recent years.
  • A surprise team defying preseason expectations and having a strong year. See Utah State or San Jose State for past examples. Could Colorado State or UNLV be improved teams this year? The Rams improved, and the Spartans were the hottest team in the Mountain West during the second half of the season. However, it was the Rebels who were the team of destiny of the course of the regular season. UNLV won 9 games and played in the Mountain West championship, having their strongest season this century.
  • A player is chasing a single season or career conference record. Will any records be broken this year? They were likely, but nothing substantial that became a national storyline.
  • Mountain West Players National Award Finalists. While this wasn’t part of the pre-season discussion, it ended up becoming a big story. Trey Taylor of Air Force won the Thorpe Award for the best defensive back in the country. Also, the conference had two other award finalists: Dallin Holker for the Mackey Award and Jose Pizano for the Groza Award. That doesn’t even mention Ashton Jeanty and James Ferguson-Reynolds, who should’ve been finalists for the Walker and Guy awards, respectively.

(MODERATE) SUCCESS

Playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl

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. Fair or not, that’s usually how it goes.

For the past few seasons, the Mountain West has actually been a pretty deep conference but has lacked one elite team. There were three ten-win teams, but none of them were close to being ranked or anywhere close to getting the NY6 nod.

Heading into 2023 year, the American’s top teams have left for the Big 12, which opens the door for someone in the Mountain West to step in. Going forward, one of the teams in the MW should be the favorite to get the spot in the NY6, or upcoming college football playoff, nearly every year. At this point, there is no excuse, and it needs to happen.

In order for this to happen, the MW 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 running for a top bowl game. The ideal situation would be two ranked teams meeting in the conference championship, as it would give the Mountain West some national attention to compete with the American and improving Sun Belt.

While things were heading in a good direction in the first half of the season, no Mountain West team made a late-season run to claim the title of top G5 team, and the spot went to the Conference USA.

FAIL

Personal Predictions:

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 I am not hating or favoring any one team. I’d be happy to be wrong about some of these. This is merely what I think will happen. Now, it’s 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.” Three coaches were fired, one was encouraged to retire, and a fifth chose to retire. The Mountain West head coaches will look very different in 2024. WRONG
  • Now that there are no more divisions, I predict New Mexico and Nevada to battle it out for the bottom spot in the conference. The Lobos and Wolf Pack did indeed finish last in the Mountain West. However, it was a three-way tie with San Diego State. CORRECT
  • Seven teams will make a bowl game this year. I think it will be Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State, SDSU, Wyoming, with the seventh team being one of San Jose State, UNLV, or Utah State. I’m going with San Jose State. I was right on the number of teams, and picked five out of seven teams correctly. CORRECT
  • There will be at least two MW teams with 10+ wins this year. I’m personally predicting Air Force and Boise State. For the first time in a number of years, no Mountain West team reached the ten-win mark. But four teams attained nine victories. WRONG
  • There will be no undefeated teams in conference play this season, but there will be one one-loss team. Boise State, San Jose State, and UNLV all finished at the top of the conference at 6-2. WRONG
  • In the first year without divisions, the two teams in the Mountain West Championship game will feature two teams from the former Mountain division. There was only one team from the former Mountain division. HALF CORRECT.
  • Air Force and Boise State will meet in the MWC Championship game. It was Boise State and UNLV. HALF CORRECT.
  • Air Force will win the Commander in Chief Trophy this season. They were heading that way, but did not. WRONG.

After having my best year of predictions reviewing the 2022 season, this 2023 review was my worst. Only 3 answers were correct against 3 wrong. I’m owning up to my claims here. This summer, a number of people on social media ridiculed our site predictions and preseason content, telling us we didn’t do research, were fools or wrong for having opinions to start the season. While I won’t reveal their names, it is interesting to check back on the predictions made by people who felt so strongly about them in July and August. There is nothing wrong with having a difference of opinions. It is unfortunate when people express those opinions in a way that claims anyone who disagrees with them is dumb. On the other hand, one or two were correct and they deserve to be acknowledged as well. If you’re reading this, please feel free to own up to them now.

  • A few fans were correct that Taylen Green would not have a great season and would not make progress as a thrower.
  • Clay Millen was not the best quarterback in the conference this year, contrary to one vocal reader. Also, now that he has transferred, it is unlikely he will be the top QB in the Mountain West for the next 2-3 seasons.
  • Fresno State did not have the best quarterback play this season. I was not “made a fool again.” At least not on this one.
  • Likewise, Fresno State did not have the best defense in the conference. While the Bulldogs were better on defense than myself/others thought, they weren’t the best.
  • While UNLV didn’t end up having our top wide receiver unit, one reader said they will have the #1 WR room by the middle of the season, and they had a fair argument.
  • Coach Anderson produced another great year for Utah State. But he was not the top coach in the Mountain West, as one person claimed.
  • The Aggies were not the 2023 conference champions.
  • Fresno State did not get back to the Mountain West Championship game this season.
  • New Mexico was tied for last in the conference. I was not racist for thinking they would be a bottom-tier team.

Final thoughts:

Looking at the facts, it is safe to say the Mountain West Conference had a moderately successful 2023 campaign. They did well in the bowl eligibility category but failed in bowl record, the overall OOC record, and while they did not fare well in games against the Power 5, they did show improvement and clear the low bar set for them. They had a winning record in their OOC schedule, but just barely. Also, they were able to muster some national attention through storylines or team success, and had a player win a national award. It was definitely a step forward this year, but they will need to keep the momentum going as they head into the 2024 season.

Your turn: What other factors or areas should have been considered? What parts do you agree or disagree with? Leave a comment below.