What do college football fans do when they don't have games to watch? Argue about whether their schools are more virtuous than their rivals and about whether their conferences are better than specific others.
They apply history to these arguments. If your conference is up, it's because its teams have gotten their priorities in order and unlocked their resources; things will never change. If your conference is down, it's because these things are cyclical and you've just now dumped dead weight; things will soon change.
That cyclical claim is an interesting one. Do conferences really take orderly turns at the top, or are there prolonged trends that suggest long-term pecking orders?
Using the SRS stat via Sports-Reference.com, which is good enough at evaluating team strength and goes back as far as you want, here are the rolling 10-year averages for each current FBS conference.
This is based on the teams that competed in each conference at the time and doesn't adjust for post-realignment. Instead of single seasons, which can mean hard-to-follow spikes in a sport without much of a sample size, 10-year averages let us see sustained strength over time.
1896: The Big Ten is founded as the seven-school Western Conference, the first major college athletics league. "Western" is a funny word to describe a conference that now includes a school in New Jersey. It makes sense in football terms; the Midwest was near the frontier of a sport that had begun on the East Coast 27 years earlier.
1907: The Big Eight is founded in the Heartland, with the Texas-centric Southwest appearing in 1914. The two merged in 1996 as the Big 12. Their schools spent enough time together that combining their stats makes sense; 13 Big Eight or SWC schools have been in the Big 12.
1915: The Pacific Coast Conference would later disband, reform and expand, but it's had the same core throughout.
1921: The Southern Conference is founded, spawning the SEC's original 13 in 1933 and the ACC 20 years later. The SoCon would eventually rule Division I-AA/FCS for a while, so only the numbers from 1921-32 are included here.
1949: Many schools stopped playing football in the '40s because of World War II. Military academies and big universities, like the Big Ten's, were better able to handle the losses of potential players. Michigan going 19-0 in 1947-48 also helped.
1953: The ACC will somehow one day be entrenched as a power despite rarely having more than one or two good teams at a time for the next 50 years. According to numbers, it was Danny Ford's overhaul at Clemson, not Florida State joining in 1992, that changed the course. It's hard to imagine the ACC as a power today minus FSU, of course. Either way, things were bad.
1971: Real bad.
1974: The SEC had become the first conference to overtake the Big Ten, thanks in part to Bear Bryant's second-to-last peak. It is no coincidence that during the SEC's 1965-74 rise, every team in the conference desegregated.
1994: When people tell you the Pac-12 is better than ever because of TV money or coaching hires, suggest it's long been about this good. You'd have stats on your side. This 1985-1994 decade includes at least the two best Washington teams ever and one of USC's best runs.
2002: The amazing thing about the Big Ten's 1993-2002? It doesn't include eventual member Nebraska nearly pulling a fourpeat. Ohio State won the BCS in 2002, Michigan split with the Huskers in 1997 and Penn State went unbeaten in 1994.
Today: The numbers say the SEC's the best over the past decade. The numbers always say this, even when it makes the numbers look silly. The numbers say the Big Ten is around the bottom of the second tier over the past decade, yet Big Ten fans have bragging rights to the entire offseason. The numbers do not understand or care about rings, and it's up to you to decide how to feel about that.