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Why the Big Ten isn’t college football’s best overall conference in 2016

If it’s not the SEC, it’s probably the ACC.

Rutgers v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

When it comes to college football, let’s face it: we tend to measure things in stupid ways.

  • We get wooed into using stats like yards per game or points per game as gospel for measuring quality offenses and defenses, even though we know tempo matters.
  • We arbitrarily discount the stats of a team in a bad conference or division, preferring to yell, “THEY AIN’T PLAYED NOBODY,” instead of trying to glean what we can from who they have played.
  • Worst of all, we get sucked into using bowls as a way of gauging conference supremacy.

ESPN has done a lot for the world of sports analytics, but it also created one of the silliest contests imaginable when it created the Bowl Challenge Cup in 2002. Every year during bowl season, we get running standings for each conference’s win-loss record in bowl season. The conference with the best record (and at least three bowl teams) wins.

In 2013 and 2015, the SEC — the best conference in the country in both years — won the Bowl Challenge Cup, posting a gaudy combined 16-5 record. In 2011, 2012, and 2014, Conference USA either won or tied, going a combined 12-3.

Safe to say, not many thought Conference USA was up to the SEC’s standard overall.

But we still pretend like this is a real thing. And even if we understand that this Cup is silly, we still decide that the 40 FBS bowls (41 including the CFP finale) are our best opportunity to measure conferences against each other, even though we already had far more than 40 non-conference games during the regular season.

When the SEC struggled in bowls in 2014, we used that as a reason for why the conference was “down” or a “disappointment.” But from top to bottom, the SEC may have been stronger in 2014 than ever before.

Part of the draw of analytics is to make sure we’re measuring things as well as we can.

That means, in most cases, adjusting for tempo and opponent. It means figuring out measures that go beyond simply looking at how many yards you gain or points you score (though if that’s all you have, it’ll get you pretty far, as long as you’re adjusting for opponent).

Granted, it does not result in fewer people yelling that a team “AIN’T PLAYED NOBODY.” But it still creates a better playing field for fair measurement.

It also provides us with the easiest way of measuring conference supremacy. And if you’ve been following the narratives over the last few weeks, you know there indeed might be a new conference atop the totem pole.

It’s just not who you think it is.

S&P+ conference averages

Conference S&P+ avg Rk Off. S&P+ avg Rk Def. S&P+ avg Rk FEI avg Rk F/+ avg Rk
Conference S&P+ avg Rk Off. S&P+ avg Rk Def. S&P+ avg Rk FEI avg Rk F/+ avg Rk
ACC 7.50 1 32.1 3 24.5 2 0.064 2 15.2% 2
SEC 7.49 2 31.9 4 24.8 3 0.072 1 16.1% 1
Big Ten 6.65 3 29.0 6 22.5 1 0.043 4 11.8% 4
Pac-12 6.03 4 33.7 2 27.7 4 0.053 3 12.2% 3
Big 12 4.01 5 34.7 1 30.8 6 0.030 5 7.1% 5
American -0.09 6 28.9 7 29.0 5 0.009 6 -0.3% 6
MWC -2.22 7 29.7 5 32.3 7 -0.049 7 -9.1% 7
MAC -5.84 8 27.1 9 32.5 9 -0.054 8 -14.4% 8
Conf USA -7.63 9 27.4 8 34.9 10 -0.103 10 -21.9% 9
Sun Belt -10.25 10 22.4 10 32.4 8 -0.095 9 -23.9% 10
S&P+ conference averages

Using my S&P+ ratings as our guide, we head into bowl season with the ACC exactly 0.01 opponent-adjusted points per team ahead of the SEC for tops in the conference rankings. Meanwhile, incorporating Brian Fremeau’s FEI (and the S&P+/FEI mashup called F/+) into the mix, the SEC is still holding onto the top spot by a few decimals.

In this way, bowl season is actually important. This year, it could actually determine superiority between these two nearly tied conferences.

Of course, this assumes there’s only one way to measure superiority.

“This is silly. The Big Ten is the best conference this year.”

That’s what we’ve been hearing. And to be sure, if we were to simply average together the top teams in every conference, that’s the story we’d get.

S&P+ conference rankings, top five teams only:

  1. Big Ten (20.7)
  2. SEC (18.7)
  3. ACC (18.2)
  4. Pac-12 (15.0)
  5. Big 12 (10.0)
  6. AAC (8.7)
  7. MWC (6.8)
  8. Conference USA (3.0)
  9. MAC (1.4)
  10. Sun Belt (-2.0)

The rise of Penn State, in addition to the sustained heights of Michigan and Ohio State, has given the Big Ten its deepest set of elite teams in quite a while.

The conference nearly became the first to land two of the four spots in the College Football Playoff and boasts not only two of the top three teams in S&P+ (No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Ohio State) but five of the top 20. The SEC and ACC can only boast four such teams.

That said, you still have to count Rutgers.

The Scarlet Knights are part of the Big Ten roster, and they rank a cool 120th in S&P+, out of 128 teams. In all, the conference has four teams ranked 87th or worse; the SEC, which also has 14 teams, only has one worse than 75th. That’ll hurt your averages.

(Side note on this list: the Big 12 is closer to the No. 7 Mountain West than the No. 4 Pac-12. Not a great look.)

Yeah, but ... Bama bump!

It helps your averages when you’ve got the top team in the country. You can find plenty of people who say the SEC’s “strength” should have only so much to do with Alabama.

If you remove each league’s best and worst teams, you get a pretty good idea of conference depth. S&P+ conference rankings, with best and worst teams removed:

  1. ACC (7.4)
  2. SEC (6.7)
  3. Big Ten (6.5)
  4. Pac-12 (5.9)
  5. Big 12 (4.2)
  6. AAC (-0.1)
  7. MWC (-2.6)
  8. MAC (-5.0)
  9. Conference USA (-8.8)
  10. Sun Belt (-9.7)

When you take out the extremes, the power conferences mash together. The Big 12 still brings up the rear (though it ends up far closer to its power conference brethren), but the No. 2 SEC, No. 3 Big Ten, No. 4 Pac-12 end up separated by just 0.8 points on average.

The ACC begins to stand out. Obviously the league has a national title contender in Clemson, but it also boasts two more S&P+ top 10 teams (No. 7 Louisville, No. 9 Florida State), plus five more between 13th and 28th.

The ACC also benefits if we simply look at the midpoint of each conference.

S&P+ conference rankings, median teams:

  1. ACC (10.1)
  2. Big Ten (6.6)
  3. Big 12 (5.8)
  4. SEC (5.4)
  5. Pac-12 (4.8)
  6. AAC (-0.4)
  7. MWC (-1.4)
  8. MAC (-4.7)
  9. Sun Belt (-7.2)
  10. Conference USA (-11.7)

This reflects the relative strengths of the ACC and Big 12 (they’re both deep in the middle) and relative weaknesses of the SEC.

By any definition, the SEC is struggling at the moment.

Just because a league is down, that doesn’t mean anybody else is up.

With a decent bowl season, the SEC might end up with the top S&P+ average in the country. It would be the eighth straight year. The last time a conference other than the SEC ranked first was 2008, when the Big 12 did it. Back then, the ACC was barely better than the Mountain West. Fortunes change, but the SEC’s has stayed mostly the same.

Still, this is the worst SEC since probably 2005, and that’s with maybe the best Alabama team of Nick Saban’s tenure. The ACC could end up first.

But the real story of 2016 is conference parity. The top four conferences are closer together than they’ve been in quite a while.

average conference rankings
Average S&P+ by conference, 2005-present

The SEC is the best long-term conference in college football because it is the most consistently strong. It still holds that mantle, but the slippage of the last two seasons has been undeniable.

Meanwhile, the ACC has stabilized nicely over the last four years, thanks to both elite play from teams like Clemson and Florida State and a healthy midsection of teams ranked in the 20s and 30s.

And while the Big Ten has gotten better at the top, it’s gotten worse at the bottom.

So yeah, anti-SEC forces have evidence on their side. But if you could do me a favor and refrain from yelling, “Bama ain’t played nobody,” I would appreciate it.