Daily Blog •July 13, 2012

Which is the Toughest Conference?

Let me help clarify the great debate on which conference is the toughest. One of the most exciting things about NCAA Football is that the toughest conference changes are on a yearly basis, but of course lately the SEC has dominated winning the last 6 National Titles as well as the top spot in my final Toughest Conference Ratings for the last 7 years. I remember back in the late 1960's, when it could have been argued that the SWC was the top conference in the country with powerhouses like Texas and Arkansas battling it out for #1. Nittany Lion fans are still not too pleased with President Nixon's proclamation that Texas was #1 after they beat Arkansas in 1969 when their undefeated Penn St team finished #2. In later years, it was the Big 8 with Nebraska and Oklahoma dominating the landscape. The SEC, of course, is usually near the top, as is the Big Ten. Both conferences have had their powerhouse years, with Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide and the rivalry between Woody Hayes (Ohio St) and Bo Schembechler (Michigan). They, of course, have also had some off-years. There have been a lot of conference changes in the last 12 yrs (a lot this year!). These realignments have created some major shifts of power.

Another interesting point is that there is not an exact science for picking the toughest conference. You cannot rely strictly on how many bowl wins a conference racks up during the postseason, or on its overall record in non-conference play. Let's face it, some leagues' non-conf slates are much tougher than others. Conferences can play non-conf games vs FCS or BCS opponents and if you go strictly on overall records, the wins and losses count the same.
Before I take a look at 2011's results, First let me explain how I derive the results. I complete 9 primary sets of power ratings at the start of the year. First is a pure power rating. I rank the positions (QB, RB, WR, etc) from 4 to 10 points with 10 points being the highest. I then add up all of the positions, factor in coaching and special teams, and derive my Power Rating for each team.

The second Power Rating is based on my Plus/Minus Power Ratings. These take into account the production of the team not only in terms of points, but yards gained and allowed. I compile a lengthy list of areas of improvement and spots that are weaker and either upgrade or downgrade each team's Power Plays numbers. I then add up all the different numbers and get my Preseason Plus/Minus Power Ratings number for each team.

Three other sets are based on last year's final numbers. I grade every position for each team (QB, RB, WR, OL, DL, LB, DB) on their scale of improvement from one year to the next. The scale ranges from +6 points to -6 points for each position. I take the total team number and factor it into last year's 3 final sets of Power Ratings. This gives me 3 very different ways of gauging the strength of the teams.

The question is, how do I add up the points? Conferences all have a different number of teams. If I ranked the teams by the average of the entire conference, that would give a good indication of the average rating of all the teams. But the bigger the conference the weaker the grade could possibly be. I did use that as one factor. I added a second factor and that was an average grade of just the Top 5 teams. This would give me an even comparison of all the conferences. The only thing this rating does not show, of course, is the depth of the conference. For example, let's say one conference had 9 bowl caliber teams and 1 non-bowl team and another conference had 5 bowl caliber teams and 5 non-bowl teams. The thinner conference would be rated higher if the Top 5 teams had a higher average, even though the deeper conference was probably tougher. I also rate leagues by the Top 3 and the Top 8. By merging the 4 ratings, I get a fairly accurate assessment of the strength of the conferences.

Basically, after all of that is done, I have 4 different sets of rankings. They break down the conferences based upon the strength of the Top 3 teams in each conf, the Top 5 teams, the Top 8 teams and then the overall strength of the whole conference. I also include other factors like non-conf record, record vs BCS conference teams and bowl records with emphasis on bowl wins over ranked teams. In 2004, I eliminated wins vs FCS schools but did include losses vs them. I also include the number NFL draft picks each conference has.

2011 Final Conference Rankings

Vs BCS Conf Non-Conf -
FCS Wins
# in # In
# of Draft
Rank Conf W L % W L % W L % W L Top 10 Top 25 Picks
1. SEC 42 6 87.50% 9 3 75.00% 30 6 83.30% 6 3 4 5 42
2. BIG 12 27 3 90.00% 6 3 66.70% 21 3 87.50% 6 2 1 4 25
3. BIG 10 35 13 72.90% 6 5 54.50% 26 13 66.70% 4 6 1 4 41
4. PAC 12 23 12 65.70% 5 7 41.70% 16 12 57.10% 2 5 3 3 28
5. ACC 31 17 64.60% 8 10 44.40% 19 17 52.80% 2 6 0 3 31
6. BIG EAST 26 14 65.00% 4 10 28.60% 18 14 56.30% 3 2 0 2 12
7. CUSA 21 28 42.90% 5 17 22.70% 14 28 33.30% 4 1 0 2 10
8. MOUNTAIN WEST 22 18 55.00% 2 8 20.00% 15 18 45.50% 2 3 1 2 12
9. INDEPENDENT 23 21 52.30% 9 10 47.40% 20 21 48.80% 1 1 0 0 4
10. MAC 22 30 42.30% 3 26 10.30% 10 30 25.00% 4 1 0 0 8
11. SUN BELT 12 24 33.30% 2 18 10.00% 9 24 27.30% 1 2 0 0 6
12. WAC 15 28 34.90% 3 13 18.80% 10 28 26.30% 0 3 0 0 11

Last year the SEC was far and away the best again with 4 Top Ten teams at the end of the year, the most NFL draft picks with 42, the best record (9-3) in non conf BCS games, 3 wins over ranked bowl teams and a 6-3 record in bowls that included a loss to an SEC school (LSU to Bama in Title game). The Big 12 rated as my 2nd toughest conference with a 27-3 record in non-conf play including 6-3 vs BCS conf schools. They had an exceptional 6-2 bowl record and also placed 4 of their 10 teams in the final Top 25.

Here is how my computer ranks the conferences for the 2012 season.

Toughest Conferences for 2012

1. SEC
2. Big 12
3. Pac-12
4. Big Ten
5. ACC
6. Independents
7. Big East
9. Mountain West
10. MAC
11. Sun Belt
12. WAC

This year, the SEC is at the top once again. They have at least two legitimate national title contenders in LSU/Bama and the SEC East is much improved this year as 10 SEC teams are in my Preseason Top 30! Just like the last 3 years the Big 12 is #2 as Oklahoma/Texas are title contenders while six of the 10 teams are in my Top 40. The Pac-12 is at the #3 spot with USC/Oregon as legitimate title contenders pushing them over the Big Ten which does not have one title contender this season but a argument could be made that the Big Ten is deeper than the Pac-12 with five teams in my Top 25. The ACC is an improving conference with my national title pick Florida St this year with Clemson, North Carolina and VT all having shots at DD win seasons. A surprise might be the Independents finishing ahead of the Big East and CUSA but keep in mind I have all four independent teams making a bowl game for the first time ever this year! 

Only 48 Days Left Until the First College Football Game!