Football: The Move to the Mountain West Conference

WAC vs MWCI’ve been meaning to make a blog entry for quite some time now on this subject, and I’m finally getting around to it. I’ve been fascinated that media and fan perceptions of the move to the Mountain West Conference and schedule strength increases from last year to this year appear to be a bit out of touch with reality (in my statistically-based world, anyway).

Much has been made of Utah State entering the Mountain West Conference football conference this coming season. Most media members, fans (including our own), coaches (including our own), and other analysts have said that the move will be a tough one. Utah State will be facing a tougher conference and tougher opponents. How will they fare? Surely they won’t be able to achieve similar successes to what they did in 2012 in the “weak” Western Athletic Conference.

What is this opinion based on? I think it is based merely on image and historical biases. Is it true? That is what this article will focus on.

As a frequent contributor to the message board, I was intrigued this past week in reading a few threads on this very subject. Many fans (including the majority of Aggie fans posting) said repeatedly how this year’s schedule and this year’s conference will be tougher than last year’s. What was this based on? Many posters alleged that it’s incredibly difficult to compare teams that haven’t faced each other in direct competition. This may be true, but there are statistical formulas that do a great job of comparing disparate teams based on a variety of factors, and can predict outcomes with pretty good accuracy. That’s what I’m going to focus on to disprove the notion that the Mountain West Conference will be a huge step up in difficulty. I’ll also disprove the notion that the 2013 schedule will be much more difficult than the 2012 schedule. In fact, it could (and probably should) be argued that the WAC was a stronger conference than the MWC last year, and that the 2012 schedule was a stronger schedule than the 2013 schedule.

Jeff Sagarin is a statistical guru who has a several rating formulas that he uses to rate and rank teams on their relative strength. He uses his formulas to rate teams in NCAA football and basketball as well as a variety of other sports.


So let’s take a look at the notion that the Mountain West Conference will be a step up in competition from what we saw in the WAC. Here are the end of season ratings from 2012 for each conference:

Sagarin Ratings: 2012 WAC vs MWC

So the average Sagarin rank for WAC teams was 96 compared to 109.3 for Mountain West Conference teams. It’s also interesting to note that the top 3 teams in the WAC were rated much higher than the top 3 teams in the MWC when compared side by side. The bottom two WAC teams were rated quite low (lower than any MWC team), but overall the WAC should be considered the stronger conference of the two.

Now, there are many people who prefer to rely on the hats-in-the-mall theory, conference reputation, or the “eye-test” to determine the strength of a team. So let’s look at head to head contests last year between the WAC and MWC.

SJSU @ SDSU – WAC (SDSU was the MWC Co-Champion…and lost at home to the 2nd place WAC team)
TxSt vs Nevada – MWC
TxSt @ UNM – MWC
LaTech vs UNLV – WAC
Idaho vs Wyoming – MWC

WAC wins: 5
MWC wins: 4

Obviously not all WAC teams played all MWC teams, but in the games that were played the WAC won more often than the MWC did last year.

2012 Schedule vs 2013 Schedule

Now let’s take a look at Utah State 2012 Schedule vs our 2013 Schedule. Many have stated that this year’s schedule will be stronger than last year’s. I didn’t buy into that theory and with a little help from Jeff Sagarin was able to back up my initial thoughts.

Sagarin Ratings: 2012 vs 2013 Schedules

The average rank of our 2012 opponents was 99.83. The average rank of our 2013 opponents (at the end of the 2012 season) was 101.17. Does this mean that this year’s schedule will end up weaker than the 2012 schedule? Not necessarily. But based on the information that we have it looks like this year’s schedule will be slightly less difficult (on average) than last year’s schedule. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Body bag games:
Both games played on the road. Wisconsin ended the season ranked 23rd by Sagarin, while USC ended the season ranked 33rd.

In-State Opponents:
Last year we had #26 BYU on the road while this year they are coming to Romney Stadium. Last year’s BYU game was a battle of defenses with BYU pulling out a 3 point victory. Utah State should be favored in this year’s game. Especially at home.

Against Utah, the Aggies won a hard fought battle in overtime by 7 points. This year’s game will open the season in Salt Lake City, and early Vegas lines have Utah as the slight favorite. Using the end of year Sagarin Predictor ratings from 2012 gives Utah State a 9.26 point edge if the game were played on a neutral field. The home field advantage usually accounts for a 3-4 point difference, so based on where each team ended the 2012 season, Utah State should be favored by 5-6 points this year. Why is the Vegas line different? Well, that’s the topic for another post, but basically Vegas tries to set the spread to where they will get 50% of their bettors to bet on each side of the spread. Perception, BCS Bias, coaching changes, player changes, injuries, and probably even the hats-in-the-mall theory all weigh in to where lines are set. I think picking the Aggies to cover is a good bet this year.

As far as FCS foes go, Southern Utah was ranked quite a bit higher last year than Weber State was. Either way, this should be an easy win for Utah State. In short, based on last year’s results, all three games this year should equate to wins for the Aggies.

Conference games:
Last year we faced each of the top WAC teams on the road in #29 San Jose State, #51 LA Tech, and #110 UTSA. This year we face San Jose State on the road again, but have Boise State (41) and Wyoming (121) at home. It’s also interesting to note that outside of Boise State, and SJSU, the next highest MWC team we face was rated #121 in the nation last year. That bodes well for our conference record this year if we can get past the Spartans and Broncos (a big if).

Overall, I think it’s very safe to say that this year’s schedule is easier than last year’s schedule.

What are your thoughts?