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The SEC's still the best football conference, but the ACC might be next

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Elsewhere in the weekend's best numbers, Arkansas' streak reaches 14, Michigan's defense might be really good, and is Stanford suddenly rid of its biggest weakness?

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

2?

Ranking conferences is a fool's errand. There are too many variables. Should we look at conference averages? The top three or four teams? The median? And how do we compare leagues with 14 teams (with more good teams and more bad teams) to those with only 10 or so?

There is enough gray area that we can basically twist numbers and tidbits to fit our respective points of view. Plus, there's the SEC Factor, which takes everything to stupid extremes not unlike a political argument.

Going down this road is dumb, but we can't help it. It's too much fun.

With all of this year's strangeness -- the inordinate number of injuries to star players, the confusing results (Utah 62, Oregon 20!), the surprisingly awful (Auburn's offense) and great (defenses like Boston College's, Duke's and Northwestern's) -- I had no read on which conferences were actually doing well and which weren't.

Naturally, I went to the numbers.

Ratings Averages by Conference
Conference Avg. S&P+ Rk Avg. FEI Rk Avg. F/+ Rk
SEC 13.4 1 0.120 1 26.5% 1
ACC 9.5 2 0.054 5 14.8% 2
Big 12 8.3 4 0.072 2 14.7% 3
Pac-12 6.3 5 0.072 3 13.4% 4
Big Ten 9.1 3 0.043 6 13.2% 5
Ind 5.7 6 0.056 4 11.1% 6
American -4.8 7 -0.034 7 -10.2% 7
MAC -5.7 8 -0.072 8 -15.4% 8
MWC -7.6 9 -0.076 9 -18.1% 9
Conf USA -8.5 10 -0.097 10 -21.0% 10
Sun Belt -11.8 11 -0.130 11 -28.9% 11

F/+ is the combination of my S&P+ and Brian Fremeau's FEI and tends to be my judgment rating of choice. But I looked at all three here because it highlights the fascinating mess we've stumbled into.

1. The SEC is by far No. 1. Yes, preseason projections still play a bit of a role just four weeks into the season (they account for 10 percent of S&P+ and 43 percent of FEI), so for the "OVERRATED!!" crowd, you can still cling to that if you want. But the Southeastern Conference is leaps and bounds ahead of the field.

According to S&P+, the average SEC team is four points better than the average team in any other conference, and that is despite disappointing teams like Auburn, Arkansas, and Missouri. The top of the conference (anchored by Alabama, Ole Miss, Georgia, and LSU) is still potentially great, and projected bottom teams like Kentucky and Vanderbilt are at least decent.

Every time the conference has a bad result, a good portion of fans and analysts rush to the "Well, the SEC's clearly overrated/sliding/not No. 1!" reaction. But this is still the best league, and it's not even close, no matter which measure you choose.

2. The battle for No. 2 is tight and unclear. Stats like this aren't declarative, especially this early in the season. I don't want you to look at the above table and think, "Is he telling me the ACC is the second-best conference in the land?" I'm not. It's blurry. But ... is the ACC the second-best conference in the land?

According to F/+, the league currently boasts the No. 4 (Clemson) and No. 6 (Florida State) teams in the country, and the conference's typical strength -- lots of solid teams -- is certainly coming to the forefront this year. Georgia Tech, Duke, Louisville, Virginia Tech, and Miami all rank between 18th and 35th, and more importantly, the bottom portion of the conference is improving. Wake Forest (90th) still has a way to go but no longer has the worst offense in the universe. Syracuse (74th) is not amazing but isn't the hopeless team I thought it might be. Boston College (56th) has bottomed out offensively but has had, to date, one of the best defenses in the country. North Carolina (54th) doesn't have a hopeless defense!

Personally, my No. 2 vote would go to the Big 12, which is having its averages dragged by the Kansas albatross. The league boasts three known, elite-or-close-to-it teams (Baylor, Oklahoma, and, if it can survive an absurd number of injuries, TCU), a fourth team kicking statistical ass at the moment (West Virginia, third in S&P+), and three teams that are either drastically improved or improving (Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Texas).

The numbers are as unsure as I am. But with FSU and Clemson both looking like potential 11-1 or 12-0 teams and strength of schedule no concern, the ACC's chances of getting a team into the College Football Playoff look infinitely better than I thought they did before the season. Both of those teams still have work to do to prove they are among college football's elite this year, but they've looked the part through four weeks.

3. Your top five conferences according to average Off. S&P+: Big 12 (36.3), SEC (35.6), Pac-12 (33.2), ACC (31.2), Big Ten (31.0). The SEC is surprisingly high considering Auburn, Missouri, etc., but call this a reminder that when you've got 14 teams, you're going to have a lot of good and bad.

4. Your top five conferences according to average Def. S&P+: ACC (21.7), Big Ten (21.8), SEC (22.2), Pac-12 (26.8), Big 12 (28.0). Florida State's defense is experienced and devastating, Clemson is thriving despite turnover, and teams like Boston College and Duke are bringing some serious defensive chops to the table.

5. The MAC is the second-best mid-major! And it's not incredibly close! Toledo (No. 49), NIU (No. 51), Bowling Green (No. 67), Ohio (No. 73), and Ball State (No. 77) all look the part, and despite a disappointing start for WMU (No. 85), there aren't as many awful teams dragging down the averages -- only EMU (No. 119) and Miami (Ohio) (No. 122) rank worse than 103rd.

We are living in a second golden age of MACtion. Hopefully that means we've got some fun mid-week ESPN games on the horizon. The last couple of years have been lacking in that regard.

3.5

Through four games, Michigan is allowing just 3.5 yards per play, third in FBS. And each of the two teams ahead of the Wolverines on this list -- Boston College (2.3) and Kent State (3.4) -- both had their numbers boosted by dominating not only FCS competition, but bad FCS competition. BC allowed 11 total yards to Howard (and 91 to Maine, a second FCS opponents), while Kent State allowed minus-33 to Delaware State. Michigan, meanwhile, has played Utah, Oregon State, and BYU (and, yes, UNLV).

We knew this Michigan defense would be a relative strength while the offense weighed Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines down. We didn't know it would be this good, however. BYU's offense is creative and interesting, and the Wolverines allowed them just 105 yards in a 31-0 destruction in Ann Arbor.

The No. 5 teams on the yards per play allowed list, by the way? Duke! And the Blue Devils just played Georgia Tech! They stifled Tech as well as or better than Notre Dame did, holding the Yellow Jackets to just 3.9 yards per play and a 31 percent success rate.

Duke ranks seventh in Def. S&P+ through four weeks. Seventh! The Blue Devils are 3-1 and 19th overall, and they have their worst offense in years! Up is down! Left is right! While David Cutcliffe had made plenty of strides offensively in Durham, he has never boasted a defense this strong. If the offense gets its act together, Duke could wind up in another ACC title game.

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6

Stanford created a healthy seven scoring opportunities against Oregon State Friday night in Corvallis. On average, that should result in about 27.5 points. But for Stanford, a team that was dramatically held back by a lack of drive finishing ability last year and averaged just 2 points per scoring opportunity against Northwestern, points were not a guarantee.

But this is apparently New Stanford! A week after finishing in clinical fashion against USC, the Cardinal did the same: seven scoring opportunities, six touchdowns, and an easy 42-24 win. A Stanford that can finish drive is a top-10 team and the easy Pac-12 North favorite.

Stanford may have actually just passed its bad-finishing karma to Arizona State. The Sun Devils created seven scoring opportunities in Saturday night's home battle against USC, just as USC did. USC's seven chances turned into 35 offensive points. ASU's turned into 14 points for ASU ... and seven for USC.

It's hard to create an equal number of chances and lose by four touchdowns at home. Kudos to ASU for creativity, at least.

12

On Monday, ESPN Insider's Travis Haney surveyed some coaches to talk about Butch Jones' decision not to go for two when Tennessee went up 26-14 over Florida with 10 minutes remaining. One coach said "It could go either way. Split decision." Another said "Our sheet says [go for] two. But I’ve seen different ones ... It’s a tough choice."

If your "sheet" says to kick the PAT up 12 with 10 minutes left, find a new sheet.

What happens if you go for two and don't make it? You're up 12. If the opponent scores, you're still up more than a field goal. If the opponent kicks a field goal, you're still up by two possessions.

There is almost literally no downside to going for two up 12 unless you fear the other team is going to create a turnover and return it for two points. (And while coaches are paid big bucks to fear every possibility ... if you're scared of THAT, you might want to find a new, calmer profession.)

The only reason not to go for two points up 12 is if you think there's no way in hell your opponent will score twice, and you simply forget that points are still a concern. That's not a legitimate reason, mind you, but it's the only one that makes sense. From a math standpoint, going for two up 12 is one of the safest calls you can make when time is limited.

When South Carolina went up 20-7 against Missouri, and Mizzou's feckless offense suddenly found a spark and scored two touchdowns to win, Steve Spurrier basically admitted the obvious -- he thought the game was over and didn't even think about a two-point conversion. The honest answer is the only good answer here.

14

Bret Bielema teams have now lost 14 consecutive one-possession games and 16 of 18. Arkansas is 0-9 in such games since Bielema took over in 2013, and the last one he won came in early 2012 at Wisconsin, when his Badgers watched Utah State miss a makeable field goal at the buzzer.

Close-game records are tricky. There is a major element of randomness involved, enough to make us assume that things will even out over time. From 2006-10, for instance, Bielema's Badgers were 18-7 in such games. Still, when you fall into this much of a funk, be it because of a little or a lot of randomness, it creates of a crisis of confidence. When Arkansas finds itself in a tight game late, the Hogs cannot call on previous experience to help them pull through. And even when they surged ahead of Texas A&M on Saturday -- two touchdowns in five minutes gave them a 21-13 advantage -- the lead never felt safe.

The Razorbacks' last three possessions after taking the lead: punt, fumble, turnover on downs, and a 28-21 overtime loss.

This should make Tennessee fans feel a little better. Granted...

...but hey, the Vols are now only 4-7 in one-possession games under Butch Jones! It could be worse!

73

After his 14th career three-score game in a 28-18 win over UConn, Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds has now scored 73 rushing touchdowns in his career, second-most all time in FBS. With five more, he'll pass Wisconsin's Montee Ball for sole possession of the record.

Navy has had a lot of good option quarterbacks through the years, but Reynolds has been the best. (No, I'm not counting Roger Staubach as an option quarterback, even if he ran quite a bit.) As impressive as Ken Niumatalolo's tenure has been in Annapolis, his Midshipmen were staggering a bit before Reynolds took over. They had lost 11 of 17 games before he took the job full-time and have gone 27-11 since.

169

It has to be the worst feeling in the world preparing for one kind of offense and then finding yourself defending something completely different. With revenge on its mind, Virginia Tech started off its game against East Carolina about as well as one could hope. The Hokies picked off ECU starter Blake Kemp on the second play of the game, recovered a Kemp fumble on ECU's second possession, and took an easy 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter.

Kemp, a decent passer who is no threat on the ground, responded with a couple of nice drives to tie the game back up, but as a change of pace, ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill inserted backup James Summers into the game in the second quarter ... and he proceeded to rush 21 times for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Three of his first four possessions resulted in touchdowns as ECU built a 35-21 lead in the third quarter, and his rushing helped the Pirates repeatedly pin VT deep with punts in the fourth quarter.

Tech was prepared to stop one offense and got gashed by another. And the Hokies have now dropped two straight to ECU.

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