3. Big Ten
4. Big XII
10. Sun Belt
If anyone is interested in my blogger top 10 poll on MacApp, click here.
Before I begin, I just wanted to reiterate that I believe the correct way to evaluate conferences is to look at the games between conferences. I don’t think any result within a conference weakens it. So when I talk about wins, assume I mean non-conference.
Also, I will refer a lot to P5 and G5. P5 are the traditional Power 5 conferences: ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac-12, and SEC. Notre Dame is included in this group since it primarily plays a major-conference schedule and is given special privileges in bowl consideration.
G5 are the other conferences: AAC (American), CUSA, MAC, MWC (Mountain West), and SBC (Sun Belt). Discussion of these will include BYU and Army.
WHY THE SEC REMAINS THE TOP CONFERENCE
I opted just to do one for the season overall rather than trying to evaluate everything that happened since the last conference report separately.
ACC-SEC Rivalry games
The ACC won three games against the SEC on the final week of the regular season; but with the relative weakness of the SEC East in recent years, this wasn’t that surprising. Any negative implications were overcome by earlier games between the two conferences.
South Carolina kept North Carolina’s offense wrapped up to open the season, although the two teams went in drastically different directions since.
In hindsight, one of the best non-conference wins was by an SEC team that didn’t even make a bowl game when South Carolina beat eventual ACC Coastal champions North Carolina in the opening week. I don’t hold it against the Gamecocks that they later (in the final week of the regular season) lost to eventual ACC Champions Clemson by 5. The Gamecocks also suffered the worst loss of an SEC team by losing to the Citadel in controversial fashion, but you expect non-bowl teams to lose such games from time to time.
The two bowl teams who were playing non-bowl teams, Louisville and Georgia, both won their rivalry games. Louisville only went 1-1 against the bottom half of the SEC though, as the Cardinals had lost to Auburn early in the season. On the other hand, Georgia had no non-conference losses.
The only game that on paper should have been competitive—Florida St.’s win over Florida—is a credit to the ACC, although the Gators were showing major signs of weakness against such opponents as Vanderbilt (won by 2) and Florida Atlantic (won by 6 in overtime) in prior weeks. The Gators would have likely finished much worse in conference than 7-1 had they not played 6 SEC games by the end of October and had the remaining two games not come against two of the worst SEC teams.
Why the SEC Led before Rivalry Week
To talk a little more about why the SEC had a significant enough lead to remain #1 despite the final week, we can look at another of the worst SEC teams, Missouri. The Tigers beat Connecticut, not a good opponent by any means; but the Huskies were the only team to beat Houston, so they certainly had the talent to beat Mizzou. The Tigers also had a really quality non-conference win over BYU.
I do give credit to the fact that teams like South Carolina and Missouri were even able to compete and in some cases win against good competition out of conference.
Vanderbilt only went 1-2 against FBS opponents out of conference, but they got a road win over a Middle Tennessee team that will finish with a winning record. They also were a late two-point attempt away from tying Western Kentucky in regulation.
This is why SEC teams have such good schedules in my formula. They are guaranteed eight games against tough teams at a minimum. It happens there were three teams in the SEC who went 2-6 in conference and one that went 1-7, but I think the results I discussed indicate they might beat some of the best teams in other conferences and would have a shot at some of the mediocre teams.
If before the season you took the top 14 teams in the preseason poll and had them play 8 games against one another, there may well have been some that finished 2-6 or 1-7. As you might remember, Auburn was in the top 10 in most preseason projections and was actually #3 according to the ESPN power rankings.
You can accuse me of trying to spin the results in these arguments, but I really don’t need to.
By my calculations, the SEC won 81.5% of its games out of conference. That’s 3.1% better than the Pac-12, which is second. To show how big of a gap that is, the Pac-12 was only 2.0% better than the #4 Big Ten.
Yet you can turn on ESPN any day of the week and probably listen to someone tell you it’s a down year for the SEC because it didn’t place a bunch of teams in the top 10.
To be fair, all but a couple of the SEC teams played an FCS opponent whereas in the Big Ten (for instance) only half of the teams did.
I would point out though that Big Ten teams played an average of exactly two games per team against either the bottom four conferences (being the MAC, CUSA, Sun Belt, or MWC) or 2-10 independent Army. The SEC played six fewer games against that latter group.
Regardless, the SEC was similarly better than the other conferences when you subtract out FCS opponents. SEC 78.6%, Pac-12 75.9%, Big Ten 72.9%, Big XII 72.7%.
Strength of schedule
You might also quibble about FBS strength of schedule, but further analysis only strengthens these numbers.
Other than the SEC, the only conference to win a majority of its games against the P5 (adding in Notre Dame) is the Big Ten. I think the SEC wins out in FBS strength of schedule because it played five games against the AAC while the Big Ten only played one, which it lost.
I believe Houston, Memphis, Temple, and Navy were the best four teams in the G5 conferences as a whole, so that’s why I treat that conference a little bit differently. The four teams I mentioned only lost two conference games that weren’t against one another (unfortunately for Memphis, they played and lost to all three of the others). Apart from those two, the only non-conference game any of that group lost were Notre Dame’s wins over Navy and Temple.
In that context, I think it’s understandable that Ole Miss and Vanderbilt both lost to teams from that group. Clearly, Ole Miss’s loss to Memphis was a negative for the SEC. It’s a negative for any conference to have one of its top teams lose a non-conference game, but that sure is better than a team like North Carolina losing to South Carolina or even a team like Stanford losing to Northwestern.
The only non-AAC team with a strong argument for being among the top four G5 teams was Bowling Green, which lost to Tennessee, the same Tennessee team that lost late (in overtime actually) to eventual playoff team Oklahoma. Yet the Vols only finished in a four-way tie for fourth in the SEC if you combine the two divisions (so actually a two-way tie for sixth if you give LSU and Arkansas credit for being in the better division).
Speaking of the MAC, I think that Tennessee win helps to balance out Arkansas’s loss to Toledo. The Rockets did not play in the MAC title game, but they were in a four-way tie for the MAC West title and went undefeated against a good non-conference slate.
So losing to Toledo was not as bad as it was made out to be when it happened. I also mentioned here how Arkansas was better statistically in the game. It’s pretty clear that they learned as the season went on to better translate yards into points as Brandon Allen’s passing improved.
I mentioned the other conferences a bit above, but I’ll mention some things I left out below.
OTHER P5 CONFERENCES
The best Big Ten win was when Michigan St. beat Oregon, but to be fair, Michigan St. won its conference and Oregon didn’t win theirs. So that’s much less of a boost in my view than Northwestern’s win over Pac-12 champions Stanford.
Utah’s win over Michigan was the best non-conference win by a Pac-12 team, followed closely by Stanford’s win over Notre Dame, but neither one was a lower-ranked team beating a top team of another conference. I think if Notre Dame had played a full ACC schedule, it would have finished second or third, so Stanford should have won that game. The Big Ten East was a good bit better than the Pac-12 South (don’t get me started on why they put Utah in the South), but I don’t know that third in the Big Ten East is much better than tied for first in the Pac-12 South.
I haven’t talked much about the Big XII because it didn’t do much. Another part of Arkansas’s early-season struggles was a loss to Texas Tech. That seems to be the best non-conference win for the Big XII. The champion of the conference was supposed to beat Tennessee, so that’s not it. Minnesota is 5-7, and that was the best opponent that Baylor, TCU, or Oklahoma St. played out of conference. There were no good wins by the lower half of the conference, although West Virginia had a couple of borderline-decent wins over Maryland (which was had some bad luck in going 3-9 this year but made a bowl last year and is still a major-conference opponent) and Georgia Southern.
Other than Clemson’s win over Notre Dame and the SEC wins mentioned, I didn’t go into details about the ACC’s other three wins. They were Purdue twice and Illinois. So I that FSU win over Florida was actually the conference’s best win.
G5 DISCUSSION AND BEST WINS
I mentioned the best wins by the MAC, CUSA, and AAC because they came against the SEC. That’s right, the best CUSA win was over Vandy.
The Sun Belt’s best win was San Diego St., which went undefeated in conference after losing to South Alabama.
The MWC’s best win was Boise St. over Washington. The Broncos finished in a four-way tie for second in the Mountain division. The Huskies finished with a losing record in conference, but you still don’t expect a loss in hindsight to a team like Boise.
The winning percentages tell you pretty well who belongs where.
One exception of sorts: I give the MWC the nod over the CUSA even though the CUSA had a slightly better FBS record because MWC teams also beat Virginia and Colorado. I know three wins, none of which were won by the conference champion or runner-up, weren’t against great teams. Colorado might not even qualify as mediocre. But I don’t think Vanderbilt by itself is really a comparison. I certainly can’t put Purdue or Central Florida ahead of any of those.
The AAC had a better FBS record than the ACC but not a better overall record. I sided with the AAC because it played only one fewer P5 opponent despite having two fewer teams, and it won more games against P5 opponents. It was very close though. Had Georgia Tech upset Georgia or had Army beaten Navy, for instance, that would have made the difference. This was the only change from the prior Conference Report.