The most important month of the season for the Mountain West is September.
The conference has underperformed in the opening weeks of the college football season for several years, and it’s had an impact so lasting that the American calls itself part of the “Power Six.”
It’s a marketing ploy, sure. The American isn’t getting the money and College Football Playoff access of the Power Five anytime soon — no matter how many ways UCF declares itself a national champion for its undefeated season in 2017.
But it’s a marketing ploy based on irrefutable evidence that the conference Boise State planned to join in 2013 has surpassed the conference it decided to stay in. And if the 2018 season goes the way the Broncos think it might, that gap in conference reputation could be the difference between a $6 million berth in a New Year’s Six bowl game and another trip to a lower-tier game. The highest-ranked champion of the Group of Five conferences gets an automatic major bowl bid.
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“It doesn’t matter who you play, you’ve got to win some games in September,” Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said. “You can’t make it up. You’re not going to fool your way in.”
The Mountain West is 84-96 in non-conference games since the start of the 2015 season — games largely played before October. The American has finished as the No. 1 conference among the Group of Five in the composite computer rankings each of the past three years, with the Mountain West second. That’s worth about $1.5 million in additional CFP revenue-sharing for the American, which also has won three New Year’s Six/Bowl Championship Series games in the past five seasons.
The Mountain West can counter that it’s 3-0 against the American in bowl games, with Fresno State and San Diego State knocking off Houston the past two seasons, and 9-7 against the conference overall. Hawaii’s win against Navy of the American last week was the latest MW win.
The Mountain West has a better bowl record over the past three years — 11-10 for the Mountain West vs. 8-14 for the American. It can claim four victories in major bowl games (or three, if you only consider current membership — all Boise State) and boast the winningest team in the Group of Five during the CFP era, also Boise State (Toledo, San Diego State and Houston/Memphis are next).
But until the Mountain West turns more of its feisty performances like Utah State’s last week at Michigan State into wins against college football’s big boys, none of that will matter. The Mountain West was 4-18 against the Power Five last season, 2-16 in 2016 and 3-21 in 2015 — and it’s 0-5 already this year. Those are the types of records that used to give the WAC trouble in its competition with the Mountain West.
The American, in that same timeframe since the beginning of the 2015 season, has posted 27 wins against the Power Five. That’s triple the Mountain West total.
“We are perceived probably more by what we do nationally than what we do in the conference,” Thompson said.
That makes the next two weeks critical for the Mountain West.
Boise State on Saturday plays host to Connecticut, a rare Mountain West-American encounter and a game that likely will be mentioned as analysts compare No. 20 Boise State and No. 19 UCF, which beat the Huskies 56-17 last week. Fresno State plays at Minnesota, a beatable Big Ten team.
Next week, Boise State travels to Oklahoma State, Nevada gets Oregon State in Reno, Fresno State plays at UCLA (where the American’s Cincinnati won last week) and San Diego State gets Arizona State at home.
“Those are games that we can win and be competitive in,” Thompson said. “The Fresno State kids think they’re going to win both those games.”
But if Boise State beats Connecticut and Oklahoma State and the conference loses the rest of those games, it could feel like 2004, 2008 and 2009, when the Broncos went undefeated in the regular season as WAC members and finished behind the Mountain West champions in the polls. The American, like the Mountain West of that era, has a variety of Top 25-capable programs — two American teams finished in the CFP Top 25 last year, two in 2016 and three in 2015. Five different programs have accomplished that feat — UCF, Memphis, Temple, Houston and Navy.
Since the CFP began in 2014, Boise State is the only Mountain West team to finish in the selection committee’s Top 25 — in 2014, when the Broncos played in the Fiesta Bowl, and 2017. San Diego State won back-to-back conference titles in 2015 and 2016 with a combined regular-season record of 20-6 and got snubbed twice.
Boise State still gets respect for two decades of excellence, regardless of how its conference performs. That might not be enough to combat the reputation of the American, which could have some Top 25 conference matchups later in the season — as it did last year — when the Mountain West lacks a buzz-worthy showdown.
It’s a nagging problem for the Mountain West — and one that won’t end without some big wins.
Thompson is optimistic that the conference’s latest membership group will rise up like the group highlighted by TCU, Utah and BYU did in the last decade. San Diego State has proven a solid, if underappreciated, companion to Boise State. But the conference needs a couple more reliable winners to emerge — Fresno State could be another — and the bottom of the league to improve.
“We’re starting to develop,” Thompson said. “This is year six of this current configuration. It’s about where the Mountain West was 15 years ago.”
American vs. Mountain West champions
Here’s where the American and Mountain West conference champions have finished in the College Football Playoff rankings since the system began in 2014. The Mountain West was ahead of the American in the composite computer rankings in 2014. The American has topped the Mountain West since. The highest-ranked champion of a Group of Five conference gets an automatic bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game, and that spot has gone to the American or Mountain West in three of the first four years.
2017: No. 12 UCF (12-0) vs. No. 25 Boise State (10-3). UCF won the Peach Bowl.
2016: No. 24 Temple (10-3) vs. unranked San Diego State (10-3). Note: No. 15 Western Michigan (13-0, MAC) received the New Year’s Six berth from the Group of Five and lost the Cotton Bowl.
2015: No. 18 Houston (12-1) vs. unranked San Diego State (10-3). Houston won the Peach Bowl.
2014: Unranked Memphis (10-3) vs. No. 20 Boise State (11-2). Boise State won the Fiesta Bowl. Note: Memphis shared the American title but was the most highly regarded of the co-champs.