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Mountain West Football: Opportunities Abound to Make a Statement in 2021

Carson Strong, Nevada Wolf Pack Football

The Mountain West has flourished against the Power 5 in the past and teams like Nevada, led by quarterback Carson Strong, will look to pick up where they left off before the pandemic

LAS VEGAS — Heads up, Power 5: After a year away, the Mountain West returns to non-conference play ready to make up for lost time. 

College football returning to something more closely resembling normal in 2021 brings with it a traditional non-league season. The last time Mountain West teams played a true out-of-conference slate in 2019, they won nine combined games against four of the five power leagues.

Among them was Nevada, which opened the campaign with a rally from down 17 points to beat Purdue on a final-second field goal. Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong said at July's MW media days the victory was especially fulfilling "because we made money off them."

Earning a substantial paycheck for the university athletic department — the Big Ten's Purdue paid Nevada $400,000 for the privilege of losing, per USA Today — is a nice byproduct of such high-profile matchups.

But that's secondary to the opportunity for MW to prove they're at the top-tier of college football.

"Those big dogs think that they can just roll over us, but they can't," Strong said. "We know that they underestimate us. Like Wyoming: Missouri was underestimating them [Wyoming beat the SEC program in 2019, 37-31]. We knew Purdue was underestimating us."

By the time Strong passed for three touchdowns and a shade below 300 yards, there couldn't be any more denying of the Pack.

Sleeping on the Mountain West might be difficult given its recent and historic successes out-of-conference, but a year away might require offering up a reminder.

And the coming season provides plenty of chances to do so.

Boise State: vs. Oklahoma State, Sept. 18

Colorado State: vs. Vanderbilt, Sept. 11; at Iowa, Sept. 25

Fresno State: at Oregon, Sept. 4; at UCLA, Sept. 18

Hawaii: at UCLA, Aug. 28; at Oregon State, Sept. 11

Nevada: at Cal, Sept. 4; at Kansas State, Sept. 18

New Mexico: at Texas A&M, Sept. 18

San Diego State: at Arizona, Sept. 11; vs. Utah, Sept. 18

San Jose State: at USC, Sept. 4

UNLV: at Arizona State, Sept. 11; vs. Iowa State, Sept. 18

Utah State: at Washington State, Sept. 4

That doesn't include a handful of matchups with the American Athletic Conference, the Group of 5 league with which the MW typically jockeys for supremacy. A Labor Day contest pitting Boise State and UCF, the two most prominent Group of 5 programs over the last two decades, is one of the best contests on the entire Week 1 slate.

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But as for those 16 Power 5 games specifically, the prospects to make a statement are intriguing. Boise State and San Diego State draw home dates with Oklahoma State and Utah on the same weekend; surprise 2020 conference champion San Jose State reloads to make another title push, which begins Week 1 in a potential program-defining trip to USC.

The Spartans scored one such win in 2019 when it came away with a 31-24 defeat of Arkansas, which foreshadowed the 2020 breakout.

That Razorbacks team, which finished last in the Southeastern Conference, isn't directly comparable to a USC squad with realistic designs on a conference championship and perhaps even a Playoff berth. However, that trip to Fayetteville demonstrated that monetary budget, while meaningful, don't suit up on game day.

"It's incredibly impactful ... when you consider what an SEC football budget is compared to ours. We're not even talking the same thing," said Spartans head coach Brent Brennan. "One's driving a Ferrari, the other's driving a Hyundai. It's not even close. That's why those wins are so significant."

Charts via the Knight Commission spell out the economic differences between the economic spending of the Mountain West...

...and the SEC. 

The factors driving economics in college sports have driven countless changes, particularly in recent years. Among them, the formation of the College Football Playoff brings even more revenue to the power conferences.

Earning a shot at the championship tournament is one of the possible rewards for the Mountain West continuing to prove its strength against the Power 5. Talk of expansion to 12 teams permeating this summer — a universally praised proposal at MW media days — would make that title pursuit more realistic.

No matter what changes the sport undergoes in the coming years, however, both the recent success of its members and historic victories of league representatives past and present point to the Mountain West continuing to stand toe-to-toe with the power brokers.

To wit, the 2021 season marks the 20-year anniversary of a perennially strong Fresno State program commanding national attention for its non-conference exploits.

Behind quarterback David Carr, the Bulldogs scored wins over Wisconsin; an Oregon State bunch a season removed from decimating Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl; and Colorado, which went on to win that season's Big 12 Conference championship.

A generation after that team — then a Western Athletic Conference member — put the Valley on the map, the mantra of legendary Bulldogs coach Pat Hill still resonates.

"Anybody, any time, anywhere," said Fresno State defensive end David Perales.

Fresno State takes that mentality into its road games at preseason Pac-12 favorite Oregon and against a veteran UCLA bunch.

"I'm confident in my teammates," Perales said. "There's nobody I'd rather be on the field with to take on a team like that. I think we have the potential to beat anybody."

On the same day Fresno State looks to knock off Oregon in Autzen Stadium, MW West-division counterpart Nevada visits another Pac-12 North program, Cal. That one carries particular significance for the Pack's Vacaville native quarterback Strong.

"I saw [Jared] Goff, [Aaron] Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, DeSean Jackson, all those guys [as a spectator]," he said. "I've got that game [against Cal] circled for sure."

Strong's sentiment reflects another motivation for those Power 5 dates on an individual level: The stage to show that their brand of football is just as powerful as the Power 5, labels be damned.

After a year without that stage, the Mountain West should be especially eager to re-establish itself.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.