I believe these are all of this season’s bowl games. Apologies if I missed something.
Part I: Frame of Reference
This went long enough just covering the top two conferences, so I plan at least one more blog to finish off the bowl list and another for the overall list.
Before assessing the overall strength of conferences, we should discuss the bowl games, since that’s often the first place people go when talking about conference strength.
I’m skeptical about the bowls being very decisive because all but four teams (until 2014, all but two teams) aren’t really playing for anything but a nice trophy that few people really care about. Not only that, but there is a month layover after the games that really count.
Granted, anyone who lost more than a game or two was out well before the season ended, but there were few teams who didn’t at least have a rivalry game to get excited about in the last couple of weeks of the season. Also, what often happens is a team will be disappointed or disinterested in a bowl game.
There is a lot of talk about let-down games during the season, but a fair percentage of the time the better team ends up winning games like that. It’s a little bit different in bowl games. A relative lack of interest and motivation over a month makes a bigger difference than over a week. Also, you’re pretty much guaranteed an opponent who will beat you if they have a fairly good game by their standards and you have a fairly poor game by your standards.
Nonetheless, if you take the bowl games as one week, that’s still the most important playing week of the season when determining relative conference strength.
The most important consideration for me is how many wins a conference has. I think this is more important than winning percentage, because winning percentage is based more on who your competition is and which teams you have qualify. If only your best five teams are put to the test in a bowl game, what about the other half or more of your conference? They wouldn’t likely have won bowl games. Also, you have to look at who the wins came against.
The SEC, the #1 conference going into the bowl season, had the most wins with 7, 6 of which were against Power 5 conferences. The SEC had 12 teams qualify (and was very close to a 13th). The ACC was second with 11, but the ACC only won a total of 4 bowl games, two of which were not against other Power 5 conferences.
The Pac-12, the #2 conference going into the bowl season, did very well with 6 wins (5 over Power 5 conferences) out of 8 bowl teams. As a result, discussion of the best conference of the bowl season should rightly center in on the SEC and the Pac-12
Where I may part with some is I believe strength of schedule should not only be evaluated in the abstract (how good the opponents are on their own) but also by how difficult the opponent is in light of how highly ranked the conference member.
For instance, the most impressive non-conference win of the season in my opinion was by the ACC when Virginia Tech beat Ohio St. Virginia Tech was about #10 in the ACC, and they beat a team that made the championship game. If Florida St. had beaten Ohio St. instead, it would have been a lot less impressive.
All of the Pac-12 bowl games were fairly even match-ups. I think the combination of Arizona and Utah was a fair match for Boise St. and Colorado St. of the MWC. Each conference won one of the two. The combination of UCLA and Washington was also a fair match for Kansas St. and Oklahoma St., and again each conference won one of the two.
Since there were no other losses, everything else goes in the plus column for the Pac-12. Of course, Oregon beat Florida St. going away. Arizona St. was #4 in the Pac-12 and beat the ACC #5 Duke. Stanford was #7 in the Pac-12 and beat Big Ten #6 Maryland. USC was #5 and beat Big Ten #5 Nebraska.
Returning to the SEC, the results were contrary to what one would have expected. Most of the season, the top five teams of the SEC West beat all the other teams. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that that group lost to ANYONE else. Auburn lost to Texas A&M and Georgia, and Ole Miss and LSU lost to Arkansas. Still, it was interesting that three of those losses were still inside the SEC West. Also, despite the fact that the SEC lost more inter-conference games in rivalry week than it had lost the entire rest of the season combined, not a single one of those losses were by the SEC West.
Those five top SEC West teams were curiously the only teams to lose bowl games though. I think part of it was that disappointment, letdown sort of phenomenon I mentioned, but obviously that wouldn’t apply to Alabama. I think what happened there is the Tide defense got worn down, and then the Tide offense couldn’t keep up with the Buckeyes. That’s not the kind of game Alabama is accustomed to having to win, although they did manage to win a similar game against Auburn.
Also, those teams gave each other a beating. The most notable injury in an inter-SEC West game was to Laquon Treadwell, but I know LSU lost a lineman in the Alabama game, and some other players (such as Kenny Hilliard) were banged up as well.
Out of the five games lost, there was only a game and a half that was bad. Auburn took Wisconsin to overtime, LSU lost in the last second, Alabama was alive in their game until the final minute. The second half by Mississippi St. and the whole game by Ole Miss were pretty ugly though.
I believe I counted accurately that despite those five teams not winning any bowl games of their own, they got a total of 18 wins over teams that won bowl games. That’s more than the top five of any other CONFERENCE. The only one that comes close is, of course, the Pac-12.
I was a bit surprised that with Arkansas playing Texas in Texas (#10 SEC vs. #6 of the Big XII), Texas A&M playing West Virginia (#9 SEC vs. #5 of Big XII), South Carolina playing U. Miami (#12 SEC vs. #10 of the ACC), and Tennessee playing Iowa (#11 SEC vs. #7 of the Big Ten), no other SEC team lost a game. I won’t pretend I was at all surprised by Missouri, Georgia, and Florida winning all of theirs, but that doesn’t make them count for less.
It’s frustrating that there were no games between the SEC and the Pac-12 of course, but there are a few different ways to look at this.
There were four bowl wins by the Pac-12 over teams in the top 5 of power conferences and two losses to other teams. If we limit that to the top 4, the Pac-12 had two wins inside and two losses outside.
The SEC had three bowl wins over teams in the top 5 of power conferences, and Notre Dame was the only loss outside of that group. Notre Dame barely had a winning record against Power 5 opponents (even though they generally played pretty good ones), but we don’t have to count them as of that quality. Of course, if we discount the Irish too much, that devalues the season as a whole for the Pac-12 (three games against them vs. only one by the SEC). If we limit it to the top 4, it’s two wins and one loss. These are both better ratios than the Pac-12 had. I would also note that the Pac-12 didn’t have a sub-top-5 team beat a top-5 team of another conference.
Here’s another way to look at it. The Pac-12 wasn’t really over- or under-matched in any of their games, so they’re 6-2 in games in which they weren’t over-matched or under-matched.
The SEC was 3-2 in games in which they were over-matched. The wins I mentioned were by Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Tennessee; the losses were by Ole Miss (#4 SEC vs. #1 [tie] in the Big XII) and Auburn (#6 SEC vs. #3 in the Big Ten).
You could argue Florida was under-matched by East Carolina (#8 SEC vs. #4 American/AAC), but even though they struggled against the top of their own conference, East Carolina did beat ACC #6 North Carolina 70-41, so I think it’s fair to say that was basically even as well.
If the SEC and Pac-12 had the same number of teams, I would honestly struggle to pick a better conference despite the Pac-12’s 75 winning percentage in bowls vs. the SEC’s 58.3%. But since ½ of each conference won bowl games, I think it’s fair to give the Pac-12 a little slack for not being over-matched in any games and for having a smaller percentage of teams qualify. So they’re my #1 for the bowl “week”.
I do want to note that I don’t blame the Pac-12 for not having better bowl opponents. There aren’t that many great bowls out west that the other major conferences really want to play in. Also, the bowls in the East aren’t particularly disposed to trying to get Pac-12 opponents. Just because they’re good teams doesn’t mean a large group of fans want to travel two or three thousand miles to go to the game. But just like with my team standings, I can only judge on the games that actually take place.