The 5 Most Interesting Mountain West Matchups this Season

Welcome to The Most Interesting Matchups, the series about interesting gridiron matchups (get it?) from the upcoming season, as taken from the series’ history. Think of it as “Drunk G5 History” or “Trivial Pursuit: CFB Edition.”

Each week, I’ll highlight one conference and its particular out-of-conference matchups. I have to rule out teams like UTSA and Georgia State, since their programs are so young, and my methodology is not the least bit scientific—though numbers play a huge part. This week is the Mountain West Conference.

Check out previous entries here:

Sun Belt


5. Utah State at BYU

2018 Date: Friday, October 5
Series: BYU, 48-36-3

“A rivalry game with an independent school? That’s cheating!”

Not really, considering it’s only No. 5 on my list. Besides, it has an older tradition than some G5 schools do. This game has been played nearly every year since 1922, and the Old Wagon Wheel trophy has been a staple of these schools’ athletics programs since 1948.

From 1983 to 2009, BYU dominated this series, going 20-1. The lone loss sat between two decade-long streaks that absolutely transformed this rivalry. BYU went from being down 32-23-3 (42%) to being up 43-33-3 (56%).

In 1992, BYU took the series lead after the first of said streaks. The next year, the Cougars left Provo for Logan, expecting to extend it. The last five games were decided by no less than 21 points.

The score at halftime was 20-14. Both teams’ defenses must have stayed in the locker room, because going into the fourth quarter, the Aggies led 37-28. Then, I assume, the backups went to the showers.

Both teams combined for 49 points in the last quarter of the game. BYU’s last three touchdowns came on passes of 93, 63, and 42 yards. BYU’s punter came out twice in the entire game, and Utah State’s… didn’t.

The Aggies kept up though. They took out a decade of frustration on the BYU defense, winning 58-56. It was the last Utah State win until 2010, and since that game the series has been 5-2 in the Cougars’ favor.

Given BYU’s recent decline, I suspect this may be Utah State’s first consecutive win in the series in 44 years, but then the Cougars return many more starters than the Aggies.


4. UTEP at UNLV

2018 Date: Saturday, September 8
Series: UNLV, 5-2

When the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ football team made the move to Division I-A play in 1978, like many schools it began play as an independent, scheduling whatever opponents would work with it. One of those was the University of Texas at El Paso.

The Rebels took the first game convincingly, 27-0 at home, but the next year UTEP won in its backyard. UNLV won the next two matchups, moved to the Pacific Coast Athletic Association and beat the Miners from the Western Athletic Conference one last time.

The two teams scheduled a home-and-home ten years later, still as members of the PCAA (now the Big West) and the WAC respectively, as yet again the home teams won out. UTEP’s one-game streak continues to this day.

“That’s not interesting. The two teams just played each other off and on until 1993!”

You’re not wrong. The interesting part comes three years later when UNLV joined the WAC. From 1996-1998, the two teams were conference partners, but in that time they never met.

UNLV then moved to the Mountain West, keeping the UTEP series a non-conference affair. Almost 20 years later, I expect the Miners’ streak will come to a close.


3. UC Davis at San Jose State

2018 Date: Thursday, August 30
Series: San Jose State, 5-4-2

This is another series that goes back to 1922, but it doesn’t have nearly the history that BYU and Utah State have. For one, after UC Davis pummeled the Spartans in the first game 58-0, it was seven years before they met again.

UC Davis was a founding member of the Far Western Conference, later the Northern California Athletic Conference. San Jose State joined in 1929 and played the Aggies each of the six seasons it was a member.

The winning team averaged a margin of 23.2 points, and only once did the losing team even score—in 1932 UC Davis lost 7-19. Over the course of those 12 years, UC Davis went 3-2-2. The series remained in its favor for 73 years.

A generation after the two teams last met (1934 was the second of two 0-0 ties), San Jose State took the series lead in back-to-back meetings (2007, 2008). UC Davis beat a one-win Spartan team in 2010, but two years later that same team dominated the Aggies 45-13 to kickstart an 11-1 run and take back the series lead.

The Spartans’ 2017 season was dismal, but returning 90% of the offense should prevent the Aggies from evening the series yet again.


2. Fresno State at UCLA

2018 Date: Saturday, September 15
Series: UCLA, 6-2

“Oh come on. I can forgive BYU, but UCLA is definitely against the rules. This is FORGOTTEN 5, not BLUEBLOOD NATION!”

That’s funny, I thought I made the rules. Plus, I definitely said my methodology was NOT scientific. Regardless, this is the second-most interesting non-conference matchup in the Mountain West to me.

“But UCLA owns the series 6-2!”

You’re right. The Bruins won the first six games of this series, which goes back to 1927, by a combined score of 184-69. However, Fresno State has won the last two meetings.

Fifteen years ago, the two California teams met in the Silicon Valley Football Classic, a short-lived bowl game. The Classic’s coordinators had tie-ins with the Pac-10 and the WAC, and for the fourth year in a row they chose Fresno State. (The next year, the bowl’s last, featured Northern Illinois and Troy.)

The Pac-10 representative Bruins held the Bulldogs scoreless in the second half, but it only scored a single touchdown in the entire game, losing 17-9. Five years and a Rick Neuheisel later, they dropped a second straight game to Fresno State.

That Fresno State team wasn’t notable. It went 7-6, and UCLA went 4-8. However, it was Neuheisel’s first season, just like Chip Kelly this year.

All I’m saying is that anything is possible.


Honorable Mention: Sacramento State at San Diego State

2018 Date: Saturday, September 8
Series: N/A

“Okay, this one is cheating. They’ve never played each other!”

That’s why this entry is only an honorable mention. No, these teams have never met, but they do have history. Remember that article about Texas-Arlington football, and how it won the 1956 and 1957 Junior College National Championship?

These teams played in that bowl game, since named the Pasadena Bowl, in consecutive years.

In 1968, Sacramento State lost the national title to Grambling State 34-7. Five years later, the Hornets joined Division II. In 1993, they moved up to Division I-AA, and two years later won a conference title… with a 4-6-1 record.

The next year, San Diego State won the game against Boston University 28-7. It was the third straight postseason final for the Aztecs, which claims all three as “small college division” championships. In 1969, they helped start the PCAA (see No. 4 on this list) and joined the WAC in 1978.

Given Rocky Long’s success in his position, the Aztecs should take the first meeting between these two storied programs easily.


1. Air Force at Army

2018 Date: Saturday, November 3
Series: Air Force, 36-15-1

“You know what? I’m okay with this one. Proceed.”

Glad I can keep you happy. This series has it all: streaks, upsets, and even just plain historic games. It’s a pivotal part of the Commander-in-Chief’s Series, and has proven to be in the last two years alone.

The trophy itself was introduced in 1972, but the Falcons had played the other two academies many times before that. From 1965 to 1971, they alternated between a game against Army and Navy. Their record was 6-3-1 before the trophy series even began.

For the most part, games between the Black Knights (or Cadets, whichever) and Air Force have been played at either home stadium, and Soldier Field in Chicago played host twice (1963, 1965). Both teams played Navy there at least once, too, and the list of venues for the Army-Navy matchup could be its own article.

The one game that stands out to me most though is the 1959 Army-Air Force game. It was a first for many reasons:

  1. It was the first matchup between the two teams. The Air Force Academy only began playing football in 1955, and met Navy on the gridiron for the first time in 1960.
  2. It was Air Force’s first and only game in Yankee Stadium. Army had played Navy there twice in the 1930s and hosted some opponent almost once a year there since, but the Falcons never ventured outside West Point again.
  3. It was the first and only tie in the series, 13-13. Not only did this specific matchup never end in a tie, but Air Force never tied with Navy either.

There’s no doubt that Air Force’s competitiveness with the two historically dominant programs gave rise to the trophy itself, but I’d like to point to this single game as the catalyst for the rivalry we know today. Again, Air Force’s record before the trophy speaks for itself. However, this game gave the Cadets a glimpse at the tradition that would soon be born.

Given Troy Calhoun’s work with the Falcons and Jeff Monken’s West Point revival, this year’s matchup should be yet another historic game for the academies. It won’t be a tie ballgame at Yankee Stadium, but it could be that intense.


Next time on Most Interesting Matchups: Conference USA.

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