Given the craziness of playing college football during a global pandemic, the Mountain West opted against playing in two football divisions in 2020. And you know what? I liked it.
Why not have the two best teams in the conference play each other in the championship game rather than two division winners even if one of those division winners isn't very good?
The 2014 and 2019 MW championship games were perfect examples of inferior teams getting into the conference title game simply because they played in a lesser division. Both times, the West Division champ — Fresno State in 2014 and Hawaii in 2019 — advanced to the title game because of West's mediocrity, and playing for a championship should wring out mediocrity.
Instead of reverting to the two-division format in 2021, which the MW is planning on doing, why not go back to one division? There are two main benefits to that decision. Firstly, it would do a better job of identifying the conference's two best teams. It wouldn't be perfect because of the league's unbalanced eight-game schedule (I prefer nine conference games, but Air Force doesn't, so the MW doesn't). But it'd be an improvement over the current system. Secondly, and this is really why I'm in favor of the change, it would reestablish some long-time rivalries that have been watered down by the MW's two-division system.
Nevada and Boise State, for example, is one of the top-five rivalries in the MW. Those programs played all but two seasons from 1971-2014 despite not being in the same conference for parts of that period. Yet, they've only played each other only twice in the last six seasons. That makes no sense, and it's a result of Boise State being the Mountain Division and Nevada in the West Division. Same holds true for Boise State-Fresno State, which plays for a trophy but don't face off every season. Same with Boise State and San Diego State, which has been one of the MW's best rivalries the last decade.
My proposal? Go back to one division with each MW school getting three protected rivalry games played annually. The five other conference games would be randomly generated, or changed on a rotational basis (randomly generated would be easier; rotational basis would be fairer). You also could go forward with two protected rivalry games per year, but some schools — Wyoming, Nevada and Fresno State, for example — have three in-conference rivals. Here is what our protected rivalries would look like.
MW protected rivalries
Air Force — Wyoming, Colorado State, New Mexico
Boise State — Fresno State, Nevada, San Diego State
Colorado State — Wyoming, Air Force, Utah State
Fresno State — Boise State, Nevada, San Jose State
Hawaii — UNLV, San Jose State, New Mexico
Nevada — UNLV, Boise State, Fresno State
New Mexico — Utah State, Air Force, Hawaii
San Diego State — San Jose State, Boise State, UNLV
San Jose State — San Diego State, Fresno State, Hawaii
UNLV — Nevada, Hawaii, San Diego State
Utah State — Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado State
Wyoming — Air Force, Colorado State, Utah State
The matchups above aren't perfect, but they're pretty good. You can quibble with a couple of things. New Mexico doesn't have any true rivals inside the MW, so its matchups with Utah State, Air Force and Hawaii — especially Hawaii — aren't ideal. I couldn't squeeze in a Fresno State-San Diego State game given all the Bulldogs' rivals. And Boise State gets three typically strong opponents, which makes its road to a MW title game tougher. But this setup preserves all of the key MW matchups, except Fresno State-SDSU, and adds four or five more on an annual basis that are currently played only twice every four seasons.
Why is that important? College football attendance has been falling nationally, but even more sharply in the MW, the last few seasons. One way to get fans out to the stadium rather than watching on television is renewing some of these matchups on an annual basis. Trust me, more people are coming to Mackay Stadium to watch Nevada play Boise State than play San Jose State. Moving away from the two-division format won't increase travel too drastically, will give teams their traditional rivals every season and should do a better job of advancing the two best teams in the conference to the championship game every year. What's not to like about that?
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.