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Finding the best Conference in College Football

Washington v Utah Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

What is the best football conference? And how does one hope to ever reasonably, and accurately compare one conference to another, each with unique intricacies and tendencies that make each conference as different as an ecosystem?

Establishing a pecking order is every fight that friends, bar companions and heated rivals surrounding college football have all debated time and again. Unquestionably, the deep seeded loyalty from fans means these types of debates are rarely unbiased, and for those steadfast followers, I have no hopes of shaking your rock solid opinion on your conference.

Therefore, I have no reason to send some blazing hot take your way, in a desperate heave to somehow shake your ideals knitted around your allegiance. My hope and the ultimate goal is to provide a new way for you to tackle the task of ranking these spots on a map.

First some mistakes -

  • Overweighing the top: Whenever I embark on this argument, the first thing that always happens is the top teams from a pocket of CFB is throw at me, and the conversation dies on the “these two teams can beat anyone and make this conference the strongest on their merits alone” hill. A house is not made of one brink, and neither is your favorite conference.
  • Heavy penalization of the bottom: In the same way it that it is poor form to argue the merits of a conference based solely on the top teams, it can just as well be said for those tossing a conference out because of the bottom. Do not tell me the Big Ten is terrible at football because no one can fix Illinois. The sins of one team should not crucify the work of 13 others.
  • Getting caught up in the draft: How much talent you send to the upper echelon of the sport is essential, but this is still college football. LSU was not the best team in college basketball because they had the No. 1 pick on their squad and ranking an entire conference purely on how many draft slots they can account for is simplifying the argument far too much.

The Formula

Finding the true value of a conference means a hard look at the middle of the pack. Lots of factors will pour into my final ballot (bowl record, out of conference record, sustained success, talent collection, viewing product) but the thing that can surely make or break each contestant is the bulk of teams the forms the core. Namely: when getting past those best two or three teams, is the bulk of your membership shaky, or rock solid?

When making comparisons, there are always outliers, always pieces that do not quite fit into the whole. The primary mistake made when comparing conferences, is the best teams are seen as the whole, making everything else an outlier.

Far from it. When ranking, the first thing to observe is the six to ten teams grinding out seven to nine wins year after year. Following the comparison of the core, everything else starts to fall into place.

Another note- this is not a lifetime achievement award or carries from recruiting class to recruiting class. It is year to year, just like the AP polls or the rankings the coaches release. The idea of proving your place every year fits nicely here.

The Ranking -

SEC - Bowl Record 6-6

Big-12 - Bowl Record 4-3

PAC-12 - Bowl Record 3-4

Big Ten - Bowl Record 5-4

ACC - Bowl Record 6-5

Mountain West - Bowl Record 3-2

American Athletic - Bowl Record 2-5

Sun Belt - Bowl Record 3-2

Conference USA - Bowl Record 4-2

Side note: Notre Dame finished No. 5 and Army finished No. 19; both will not impact a single rank here because of their none conference status, how silly is that? Join a conference.

Fighting the Push Back -

Off the top, I assume the three significant problems will be my high ranking of the Big 12, the way I buried the Big Ten and not placing the American Athletic conference at six.

Allow me first to defend the Big 12 and PAC-12. Both these take a big back seat to the SEC (obviously) but take a hard look at the middle of both conferences in comparison to the Big Ten. Maryland, Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Michigan State have a combined 43-45 record. The middle tier of the Big 12 is 47-41, and the PAC-12 holds a 42-36.

Few would take a collection of Nebraska, Purdue and company over what either conference has to offer. The product also has to be considered when weighing the scales. The Big Ten has one team inside the top 20 for points per game (Ohio State) and two in the top 30.

Defense is relevant, and the Bedlam Bowl has a distinct lack of it, but the Big Ten is a trudge. The most significant difference is the quarterback play. The top 30 quarterbacks are littered with Big 12 and PAC-12 QBs (eight), while only two hail from the Big Ten.

The push back is that pour defense makes for empty QB stats, but when looking at the top 25 defenses in points allowed, the Big Ten has four teams to the PAC-12’s three, with zero in the top 10 to one for the West Coast Conference. While a top team in the Big Ten (Ohio State) let up 25.7 points per game, mid-level Kansas State (25.4) and West Virginia (26.4) matched nearly the same mark. Even the top of the conference seemed to disappoint, as Northwestern found their way to the top of the West in the Big Ten while allowing 23.5 points per game, comparable to the middle of the pack Stanford and their 23.8.

It would seem pivotal games have over-hyped the defensive problems found in these conferences. Furthermore, if pour defense is the excuse for good quarterback stats, then disastrous quarterbacks in the Big Ten could also explain some defensive marks found in the North.

As far as the rest of this goes, if you find anyone arguing that the SEC should be lower or the ACC higher, revoke their football viewing privileges. SEC football has maybe two weak links in the chain, while the ACC is only relevant because of Clemson.

As far as non-power five schools, one could argue that the American Athletic conference should take six based on UCF alone. However, the Mountain West boasted a far deeper stable of teams, with three finishing in the top 25 and five schools finishing with eight or more wins.

Conclusion -

Rankings come down to the middle of the pack teams, who have the top level draft selection (yes, quarterbacks weigh heavily here), bowl performance and if they are even entertaining to watch in the first place.

Adding these key factors up is how I landed on the above ranking. Hopefully, I was able to dispel some questions; make sure to leave your rankings in the comments below.