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Which college football conference is really the best top to bottom?

We're all sick of noting how good the SEC is at football. But one assumed break in the SEC's armor might not exist at all, whether Bob Stoops likes it or not.


I'm trying to work with you here. But it's just not going well.

The traditional parries to the SEC fan's ever-louder claim to universal college football supremacy are more or less limited to variations on the following three:

  • "They're cheating. Our conference doesn't cheat."
  • "Their players can't read. Our rosters are brimming with intellectuals."
  • "The SEC is top-heavy. Our conference is better top to bottom." (Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is currently making part of this claim.)

Surely you hear at least one of these things every day. Cases can be made for or against elements of the first two. The SEC fan can sometimes retort with a GOTCHA of your own conference's misdoing, and then we're getting nowhere.

The point is these arguments sometimes make people feel better, and that's fine. But let's look into the third, which briefly tacked an unofficial verse onto our national anthem when 2011 Big 12 champion Oklahoma State missed the BCS National Championship behind the likewise one-loss Alabama.

The claim resounded that the SEC is nothing but a couple good teams and a trough of slop. And that year, it was true. The Big 12 has been amazingly deep two years in a row, while the SEC's worst teams have started to slip, all despite the SEC raiding that very Big 12 for Texas A&M. And another school to be named later. I believe that's the arrangement.

Without being at all interested in the SEC fan's backlash to the non-SEC fan's backlash to the [repeat], here's an attempt to measure whether that top-to-bottom claim is usually true. I saw it tossed around again this week and hope to put it to the test.

But here's the bad news. I'm sorry.

The numbers

Based on Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings over the past eight years (the F/+ era happens to coincide with the SEC's title reign, so blame FO, maybe), the SEC's cellar tends to be better than that of any other power conference's, whether we define its cellar as its worst team, its worst few teams, or its bottom half or so.

Averaging the worst team, three worst teams, six worst teams, and whole conferences from each season, the SEC is the strongest on each list:

Worst team Three worst AVG Six worst AVG Conference AVG

SEC 93.29 SEC 75.8 SEC 60 SEC 36.43

ACC 95.43 ACC 79.37 ACC 67.27 Big 12 44.34

Big Ten 95.57 Big Ten 84.54 Pac-12 68.61 Big Ten 46.7

Big 12 105.29 Pac-12 86.29 Big 12 68.7 ACC 47.03

Pac-12 107.29 Big 12 86.71 Big Ten 70.23 Pac-12 47.97


Thanks to Chris Fuhrmeister and Steven Muma for help with this table.

One concern with this would be the number of teams in each conference. The SEC was at 14 last year, while the Big 12 was at 10, and others have fluctuated throughout the past eight years. I'm not sure how much that matters. Not enough to change any of the rankings, right?

How else can we try to measure conference depth?

We could look at out-of-conference games over the past 10 years. Putting that together would take a very long time. We aren't trying to be lazy here. But that would take a very long time.

Bowl game records

Bowl games are also out-of-conference games, and much easier to track. Bowls can't measure total conference strength, but do mean throwing together a bunch of .500-or-better teams in OOC games. Over the last decade, here is each current power conference's record and winning percentage in bowls:

W L Win%

SEC 53 30 63.9

Pac-12 32 27 54.2

Big 12 40 39 50.6

ACC 35 40 46.7

Big Ten 28 47 37.3


That's more bowl teams (which can soooort of imply better regular season OOC performance), more bowl wins, and a better winning percentage in bowls than any other conference. Plus seven national championships. Also, the two conferences that looked pretty good above, the ACC and the Big 12, look not good here. I don't know what more I can do.

A quibble here: bowls aren't necessarily evenly matched, either in seeding or in locale. The ACC's second-best team usually draws the SEC's fifth-best in the Chick-fil-A, for example, while the Big Ten has to surrender any possible cold-weather advantage and play almost all of its bowls in SEC states.

Semicircle group discussion

Are you convinced that most years (but not every year) the SEC is at least as good top to bottom as any other conference? If not, is it because I picked the wrong math? Am I stupid?

Do you see this apparent course changing for any emerging reason? What's the biggest factor either way?

HOW BAD ARE THEY CHEATING No, no one cares how badly you think they're cheating.

As far as numbers and such, what else can we throw at this wall?

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