With six wins against Power 5 competition in the early going, the Mountain West is making a statement
PASADENA, Calif. — Officially, NCAA Div. I football split into two subdivisions with their own standards for scholarship distribution and postseasons in 1978. Unofficially, the introduction of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998 led to further split that the College Football Playoff's introduction in 2014 widened.
Differences between the sub-subdivision — Power 5 and Group of 5 — exist. Not least among them is the Power 5's guaranteed access to play for the national championship. Get teams from the two sides on the field, and those differences don't matter, which the Mountain West Conference proved through two weeks of the 2019 season.
"It's not unusual. It's not unexpected. That's what we do; we play college football," said San Diego State head coach Rocky Long, following his team's 23-14 win at UCLA. "We have the same number of guys on scholarship, just like they do. The coaches don't get paid as much [as in Power 5 conferences]. The locker rooms aren't as pretty. We don't have a training table. But our kids play football just like their kids play football. There ain't no big deal about it."
Long added, cracking a smile that underlined his signature dry sense of humor: "We play, and we come out on top sometimes."
Sometimes has become oftentimes for San Diego State in recent years. The win Saturday marked San Diego State's fifth over a Pac-12 Conference opponent since 2016; that's more wins against the Pac than league member Oregon State's scored in that same stretch.
UCLA is the fourth different Pac-12 team San Diego State's beaten in that span, joining Cal, Stanford and Arizona State twice. The Aztecs' only loss to a Pac-12 opponent since 2016 came at Stanford in last year's season opener.
Dismiss San Diego State's success as another knock on the punching bag du jour the Pac-12 if you must, but consider that five teams in the Mountain West have already beaten a Power 5 conference opponent in the season's first two weeks. And those victories have been spread across the landscape.
Nevada and Boise State both rallied from early deficits to beat Purdue of the Big Ten and Florida State of the ACC, while Wyoming pounded the SEC's Missouri Tigers early and held on for a 37-31 win.
"These are wins that help define programs, that are building blocks," Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl said in his Week 1 postgame press conference, via GoWyo.com.
Plenty of those building blocks are being laid around the Mountain West. Add Hawaii's book-ending Week 0 defeats of Arizona and Oregon State, and the MW's six wins against Power 5 opponents is more than any single Power 5 conference can claim in its non-conference slate this season. The ACC, Big Ten and maligned Pac-12 all have two; the Big 12 has one. The SEC is the closest to the MW with five— one of which includes Missouri rebounding from Wyoming with a defeat of West Virginia — but the SEC also has twice as many losses to non-Power 5 opponents as the MW at 4-to-2.
Mahalo pic.twitter.com/qzofXwx4wU— Nick Rolovich (@NickRolovich) August 25, 2019
None of that is to posit the MW is better, but perhaps the division isn't so profound.
Punching through the glass ceiling isn't new for the Mountain West. The conference was the first of the non-automatic qualifiers to send a representative to a BCS bowl, with Utah completing a perfect season in 2004. The Utes replicated the feat in 2008, capping that season with a two-touchdown rout of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to close as the only undefeated team at any level of Div. I.
Associated Press voters denying Utah a split national championship after the Utes' BCS snub set the wheels in motion for postseason reform, as talk of an antitrust lawsuit against the BCS expedited push for a playoff.
Amid the sudden shift, the Mountain West continued winning. TCU ran the table in the regular season twice in 2009 and '10, capping the latter season with an impressive Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. But commensurate with growing buzz about a playoff came a byproduct: conference realignment.
Utah was an attractive option for the former Pac-10. The old Big East snagged TCU before losing its automatic-qualifier status, then the Big 12 came calling to get part of the Southwest Conference band back together. Perhaps the most telling departure, as far as the new system actually making championship contention more difficult on outsiders, was BYU opting for independence. The Cougars won a national championship in 1984 as members of the MW's spiritual predecessor, the Western Athletic Conference, and popular opinion suggested independence was a more realistic path back to such heights than membership in a non-power conference.
Realignment hit the MW hard, but it wasn't all a loss. The addition of perennial giant killer Boise State in 2011 added a budding national name brand, which paid dividends immediately in the playoff era. The Broncos won the first-ever Group of 5 access opportunity in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. Adding Boise State's WAC rival Fresno State has also bolstered the MW's efforts against the Power 5, with last year's 12-win Bulldogs scoring victories over UCLA and Arizona State.
San Diego State's also been central to reestablishing the Mountain West in the post-realignment era. In addition to its streak against Power 5 opponents, and two straight, 10-plus-win seasons from 2015-17, San Diego State produced two of college football's last three 2,000-yard rushers: Donnell Pumphrey in 2016 and Rashaad Penny in '17.
Saturday at the Rose Bowl, in the program's first-ever win in the historic venue, the run game deferred to the pass. Quarterback Ryan Agnew passed for a career-high 293 yards — 34 of which came on a beautiful touchdown throw to Kobe Smith. Agnew scrambled to buy time and directed traffic before zipping the ball in.
Agnew said his confidence was at a high after the win. This was a marquee moment for Agnew, who, despite playing at Texas high school football power Southlake Carroll, was off the Power 5 recruiting radar.
"We go with the mentality it's the next game," Agnew began, before deviating from the standard line. "But also, we're human. We're 18-to-22 years old and we understand some of these teams didn't think we were good enough to play for them. so, we come into games like this and it's like we want to prove people wrong."
Such stories of overlooked players rising to the occasion shape any good tale of teams who aren't supposed to succeed doing just that, but no one flourishes with any consistency without high-level talent, either. The MW isn't without it: Alumni including San Diego State's Penny open Week 1 with opportunities to make a splash on NFL roster. Fresno State product KeeSean Johnson is expected to be a major factor right out of the gate in the Arizona Cardinals' revamped offense.
Smith landed at San Diego State from Serra, a prep powerhouse in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Gardena known for producing elite wide receiver prospects. Serra's lineage includes Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, and Smith looks the part of Serra's next pro prospect.
He had Power 5 recruiting interest from Washington State, which finished last season ranked in the Top 25; and historic powerhouse Nebraska. Smith instead chose San Diego State. And as more high-profile wins pile up for the league, such recruiting wins can develop a self-sustaining cycle.
"If everybody would investigate the Mountain West, they'd realize what a great conference it is," Long said.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.