Mountain West makes move with early-season upset

In the moments before the University of Hawaii’s football game with Central Arkansas kicked off Saturday the TVs in the Aloha Stadium press box were turned not to the big national game, Notre Dame-Georgia, but … San Jose State-Arkansas.

People were standing up and cheering for the eventual Spartans upset, conduct that is frowned upon in the press box when there is a game on the field below.

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It was yet another sign of just how heady things have been for the Mountain West Conference, whose run of eight nonconference victories over the Power Five elite (including two by Hawaii) is its longest since 2008.

No other league in the Football Bowl Subdivision has more at this point.

As the MWC wades into conference play, there is untethered pride that the underdogs have had their days — and nights — and there are hopes that it might portend more of a wide-open conference season than we’ve seen for a while.

But, just don’t expect it to set off any tectonic shifts in the national landscape. Don’t look for it to change where the really big money flows or who gets to play on the most prestigious bowl stages.

At year’s end, the well-heeled Power Five conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern) will still divide up the bulk of the spoils. And the more austere Group of Five conferences (MWC, American, Conference USA, Mid-American and Sun Belt) will continue to joust for the table scraps.

The highest ranking G5 member will get an appearance in one of the New Year’s Six bowls, but not likely a berth in the College Football Playoff, where the biggest trophy and payouts are awarded.

As Central Florida athletic director Danny White told the Orlando Sentinel in December when unbeaten UCF was barred from the CFP, “It’s not a playoff; it’s an invitational.”

Precisely the way the P5 folks set it up, of course.

What the nonconference exploits have given the Mountain West is bragging rights in the G5 and, for the moment at least, a leg up on its rival, the American Athletic Conference.

With AAC standard bearer UCF’s loss to Pittsburgh, unbeaten Boise State (4-0) is the early front-runner for the New Year’s Six bowl slot reserved for the top-ranked G5 team. This is where the MWC’s overall strength could come into play by season’s end, putting some coins in the pockets of its membership.

That’s prestige and money that have gone to the AAC in three of the five years the CFP has been in existence. The MWC and MAC have had it one year each.

The AAC has used the distinction in an attempt to distance itself from the G5 pack, going so far as to brand itself as a “Power Six” league, an entity closer to the P5 than the G5. AAC commissioner Mike Aresco has trumpeted the “P6” reference at every turn, with the membership placing “P6” emblems on the helmets of its football players.

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The AAC has cashed in on it with its latest media rights agreement, a 12-year, $1 billion deal with ESPN through 2031-32.

If the Mountain West, which is in negotiations for its future media rights, is able to use its recent success to help leverage something more lucrative, that would be its biggest victory to emerge from this remarkable season.

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