Friday, November 20, 2009

MWC Big Four: The Case for Air Force

It has become increasingly popular to reference BYU, TCU, and Utah as the Mountain West’s “Big Three” football programs. It has moved beyond the media and even coaches are doing it on a regular basis now. However, all of this referencing is a recent development, and with a closer look at what is behind it, you might be surprised.

A little history… In 2005, 2006 and 2007, there was really only a “Big One” as TCU went undefeated in 2005 and then BYU did not lose a conference game for two consecutive seasons. So the concept of a Big Three has really only been in the vernacular for 18 months or less, beginning with the conference’s 2008 breakout season that saw 3 MWC teams ranked in the final BCS standings and in the polls (with TCU and Utah both in the top 10). It was this performance that seemingly separated these programs from the rest. And, perhaps it is only these last two seasons (2008, 2009) that matter, but it would seem more appropriate to look at the last three, four, or five years (since TCU joined the league), since we are talking about a trend (otherwise any two data points will create a trend line). Doing so creates a slightly different picture of the Big Three.

A few assumptions:
• Includes consideration of conference games only (although non-conf games are an important part of a team’s perception)
• No consideration given for extenuating circumstances (injuries, suspensions, etc) although they may directly contribute to a loss
• No consideration is given for OT games, although that would provide perhaps other interesting insights
• No attempt is made to rank the teams within the top four (Air Force may very well be the fourth), but rather look at separation from the rest of the conference and where the division lies

A Look at Total Conference Losses

Conference Losses                 Totals
Team  05  06  07  08  09 **  5yr  4yr  3yr  2yr
BYU      3    0    0    2    1   **   6     3     3     3
TCU      0    2    4    1    0   **   7     7     5     1
Utah     4    3    3    0    1   **  11    7     4     1
AFA      5    5    2    3    2   **  17   12    7     5

This picture shows the overall success the programs have achieved in the Mountain West. And this picture shows the reason for the Big Three talk since 2008, as Utah has narrowed the gap with BYU and TCU. It also reveals a slight gap between the top three and Air Force. But many of Air Force’s losses come to the three teams above it, so to provide a better look, we will take a look at losses to teams from outside this group…

Non Big Three Conference Losses

Non Big 3 Losses                    Totals
Team   05  06  07  08  09 **  5yr  4yr  3yr  2yr
BYU       1    0    0    0    0   **   1     0     0     0
TCU       0    0    2    0     0  **   2     2     2     0
Utah      3    2    2    0    0   **   7     4     2     0
AFA       2    2    1    0    0   **   5     3     1     0

The picture here is now much different with BYU and TCU slightly separated in front (except in the two year view). With this lens, Air Force is actually on par with Utah, or actually slightly above. But some of those conference losses may have come to Air Force, which according to the data above, should be considered as part of the Big Four. If we remove losses to Air Force (TCU and Utah have one each), then the concept of a Big Four is confirmed…

Non Big Four Conference Losses
Non Big 4 Losses                    Totals
Team   05  06  07  08  09  **  5yr  4yr  3yr  2yr
BYU       1    0    0    0    0   **    1     0     0     0
TCU       0    0    1    0    0   **    1     1     1     0
Utah      3    2    1    0    0   **    6     3     1     0
AFA       2    2    1    0    0   **    5     3     1     0

Over a two or three year window, there is definitely a Big Four. Expanding to a five year look, BYU and TCU would appear a tier above Utah and Air Force, which are essentially on par.

So, why has a concept of Big Three emerged rather than Big Four? In non-conference games, Air Force has lost to Navy five years in a row as well as lost its bowl games the last two years. With those two losses in addition to its conference losses the last two seasons, it seems to perpetually find itself just outside of the top 25 rankings.

For Air Force, a win over BYU this season and/or a win in its bowl game, would be big steps forward for its program and begin to open eyes to the fact that in the Mountain West there is really a Big Four.

And, as the media, fans, and coaches begin to refer to the Big Four, rather than just the Big Three, as it is clear that is the case, it will be good for the perception of depth in conference for the rest of the country.


  1. Air Force has lost to Navy 7 years in a row.

  2. Yeah.... anyway, what are your posts going to look like this coming week? It is rivalry week and I was hoping to see some interesting stats. I know that the Turkey bowl, and cutting Christmas tree's for Kirt's dorm are going to keep you bust, but is their a schedule of when I could look at this to get some fun posts and insight into the "HOLY WAR"?

  3. Any reason why you omitted out-of-conference victories? Or BCS conference victories?

    I understand why you left out 2004 - might make Utah look too good.

  4. Michael, good questions. The reason I left out OOC/BCS/rankings, etc from the equation was that we already know that AFA hasn't been ranked and isn't in the Big 3 from a national perspective, but thought it was interesting that within the conference, they have had the same success against the rest of the conference as the Big 3, essentially creating a Big 4 (even all four are not equal). It would make for an interesting analysis, but was beyond the scope of this.

    The Utes had a great season in 2004, but it was a different conference then, and I showed only the last five years since that is as long as TCU has been in the league.