As always, the first College Football Playoff rankings reveal of 2023 had much fanfare and excitement preceding it. However, much of this anticipation came from an unlikely source. Before the first College Football Playoff rankings, Air Force started 8-0 and held the #17 spot in the AP Poll, four spots ahead of 2022's Group of Five New Year's Six representative, Tulane.
The College Football Playoff Committee had a different opinion on the two schools, ranking Tulane at #24 and Air Force at #25 in the season's first College Football Playoff Rankings. Both had similar resumes. Air Force held an 8-0 record with three wins over Group of Five teams currently in bowls, and Tulane had a 7-1 record with three wins against Group of Five bowl teams as well. The Green Wave's only loss was to Ole Miss. It is not a stretch to say the Playoff Committee's perception of the American helped give Tulane the edge over Air Force in those initial rankings.
Of course, we are not here to talk about the New Year's Six, for we know Tulane and Air Force faltered down the stretch. The focus is instead on the Mountain West not having the opportunity to prove its might against the American Athletic Conference during Bowl Season.
San Jose State will face Coastal Carolina from the Sun Belt in Saturday night's Hawaii Bowl. The American vacated this tie-in due to only producing six bowl teams from its 14 members. Not playing the AAC in the Hawaii Bowl is a crucial opportunity the Mountain West is missing for multiple reasons.
Most college football fans know of the American Athletic Conference's stranglehold on the Group of Five's New Year's Six bid. From 2017-2022, the American Athletic Conference represented the Group of Five in the New Year's Six each year. 2023 is now the ninth straight season that the Mountain West will not play in the New Year's Six.
Many perceive the American as head-and-shoulders above the rest of the Group of Five, with the Mountain West consistently holding the second spot. However, the Mountain West's status as the second-best Group of Five conferences seems to be in jeopardy.
Many attribute this to the Sun Belt's rise, but Boise State's decline is also a contributing factor. The Broncos have the strongest pedigree of any Mountain West school and the most New Year's Six/BCS bowl appearances with three. Although Boise State won the conference this year, they are far from even their 2019 standing when they went 12-1 and were one game away from the New Year's Six.
This context brings us to this year's Hawaii Bowl. The Mountain West needs every opportunity to prove its superiority to the American Athletic Conference to the country. Since 2014, the Mountain West has played the AAC only 30 times, amassing a record of 16-14.
Six of these games are bowls, with the Mountain West winning five matchups. In fact, the AAC's first bowl win over the Mountain West came in last year's First Responder Bowl. Yet, few outside of the conference realize the Mountain West's competitiveness against the AAC.
Bowls like the Hawaii Bowl, which will be the only college football game in the country on TV, are prime opportunities for the Mountain West to prove themselves as the best Group of Five conference. No time is better than now when the AAC is reeling from the losses of their four best schools to the Big 12 and ACC.
San Jose State versus Coastal Carolina will be a competitive and intriguing matchup. Both schools look evenly matched, and the quarterback matchup between Chevan Cordeiro and Grayson McCall is one of the best of the bowl season. However, one can imagine the benefit the Mountain West would receive if San Jose State beat 8-4 UTSA or even 6-6 Rice in the Hawaii Bowl. A win over Coastal Carolina is a significant statement for the Mountain West, but it does little to undo the narrative that developed over the last decade.