This was the Mountain West’s best season since realignment tore it apart

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Mountain West Conference is not exactly unaccustomed to big-time football. It was long the home of BYU, the only mid-major national champion in this sport’s aristocratic history. And since 2005, it has had five teams finish in the S&P+ top 10 — 2006 BYU, 2008-10 TCU, and 2011 Boise State.

Of course, the last time that happened was seven years ago, and those responsible for four of those five finishes have since left the conference.

The MWC was undoubtedly a loser in the early-2010s round of conference realignment. It grabbed Boise State from the dying WAC, sure, but it lost TCU to the Big 12, Utah to the Pac-12, and BYU to independence.

Replacing three bell cows with one is a net loss. Plus, other recent additions struggled to maintain early-decade form.

SJSU is still listless, having averaged just four wins and a No. 99 S&P+ ranking in Ron Caragher’s four seasons and having begun Brent Brennan’s tenure with three wins in 25 games.

But under Jeff Tedford and Matt Wells, the Bulldogs and Aggies found ways to peak once more, and they produced maybe the most impressive performances on the first day of the 2018-19 bowl season.

FS and USU entered Saturday’s action ranked 10th and 21st in S&P+. (S&P+ is always a little looser on the opponent adjustments than most computer rankings, though it’s like that for a reason: heavier adjustments result in less accurate predictions.)

S&P+ pretty much nailed its Vegas Bowl projection (it projected a 35-22 Fresno State win and got a 31-20 win), and it drastically underestimated USU’s efforts in the New Mexico Bowl: it projected a three-point Aggie win over North Texas and got a 39-point blowout instead.

Safe to say, then, that neither team is going to drop in the final S&P+ rankings. There’s a chance that USU moves up by a few spots, too.

And depending on Boise State’s efforts in December 26’s First Responder Bowl against Boston College, the No. 29 Broncos could easily end up in the year-end S&P+ top 30 as well.

The Mountain West might end up with more top-30 teams than the ACC, in other words.

This has easily been the MWC’s best season since conference realignment. And if you look only at the caliber of the conference’s top teams (and ignore the lack of caliber of the bottom teams), this might be the conference’s best year ever.

Even during its Utah and TCU heyday, the MWC never boasted a top fop four with S&P+ ratings like Fresno (plus-16.2), USU (plus-12.4), Boise (plus-10.0), and a still-solid SDSU (plus-6.6), which faded but ranks 38th. And even if you disagree with the Bulldogs or Aggies being ranked that high, it’s still clear that each boasted one of their best ever teams in 2018.

The obvious question: can the league keep this up?

Boise State’s Curtis Weaver (99) and Scale Igiehon (90)
Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

There are still obvious issues in the conference. SJSU is desperately seeking traction, Hawaii is as up-and-down and fiscally perilous as ever, Air Force and New Mexico have trended downward quickly, a Colorado State reset turned into a total rebuild in 2018, and UNLV is in constant “so close, yet so far away” status.

Nevada looked awesome down the stretch and could threaten a top-50 breakthrough, but right now, 2018’s MWC success looks like four programs doing good things, not a conference-wide renaissance.

Still, that’s more than what most mid-major conferences can offer, and it appears the league’s top teams are on steady ground.

With television revenue an uncertain driver of financial success, now’s a pretty good time to have as many programs peaking as possible.

And per overall conference ratings, S&P+ still has 2017 and 2018 as the MWC’s two best years since 2009, when BYU, TCU, and Utah all finished in the AP top 20 — despite 2018’s dead weight.

That 2018’s strong season coincided with some weak years by the MWC’s departures might make all this feel even sweeter.

Utah won a down Pac-12 South, but BYU and TCU both went 6-6 and rank in the 50s in S&P+, well behind the MWC’s top tier. Enjoy that while it lasts.


PAPN is now shamelessly in the tank for the Mountain West

And I love it. All of these programs on the upswing have benefited from good coaches, savvy recruiting, and strong development. There’s a lot of talent out West which is often overlooked by the national programs due to geography, giving Mountain West and Big Sky programs the opportunity to scoop up good pieces. Besides the MWC’s resurgence, Weber State, UC-Davis, and Eastern Washington all had great seasons too.

Good chance that the MWC gets a sweep in the bowl games

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