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Every college football division, ranked by performance in 2016

The SEC West was, indeed, a lot better than the SEC East.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama vs Florida Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Its best team didn’t win the national title, but the SEC West was college football’s best conference division during the 2016 season. The average ranking of a West team by opponent-adjusted S&P+ was a full 14 points higher than that of any other division. The ACC Atlantic, featuring national champion Clemson, was next.

Divisions by average S&P+ ranking, 2016

Division Average S&P+ Rk.
Division Average S&P+ Rk.
SEC West 24.7
ACC Atlantic 38.1
ACC Coastal 39.6
Pac-12 North 43.5
Big 12 45.9
Big Ten East 46.7
Pac-12 South 51.2
Big Ten West 54
MWC Mountain 55.2
SEC East 56.7
AAC West 64.2
MAC West 68.5
Independents 70.3
AAC East 78.3
C-USA East 94.4
Sun Belt 94.5
C-USA West 98.3
MWC West 98.7
MAC East 108.3
Bill Connelly, SB Nation

A full, team-by-team ranking is here. The Big 12 and Sun Belt don’t have divisions, and I’ve included the nation’s four independents just for kicks.

The SEC East clocked in dead last among divisions in the Power 5 conferences. The best team in the division was Florida, which lost four games and finished 15th in S&P+. Nobody else was even in the top 25. S&P+ is an advanced metric based on play-by-play data, and it didn’t like South Carolina (No. 79) or Vanderbilt (No. 71), even though both of those teams qualified for (and lost) bowl games.

The Big Ten East had some heavyweights, with Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State all finishing in the top eight. But that division suffered from having a lot of mediocrity and dead weight at the bottom: Indiana and Michigan state slotted in the 50s, while Maryland was 87th and Rutgers was 114th. Having three elite teams is great, but a conference won’t look great if the teams after them aren’t at least somewhat good.

There was real parity between the ACC Atlantic and Coastal, even though the Atlantic had the league’s best teams: Clemson, Florida State, and Louisville. The Coastal had no clear-cut best teams, but five of the division’s seven schools were in the top 45. And of those, four were in the top 21. It might’ve been the deepest division anywhere.

The picture by full conferences, using raw ratings, not average ranks:

2016 average college football S&P+ ratings

Conference Avg. S&P+ Rk Avg. Off. S&P+ Rk Avg. Def. S&P+ Rk
Conference Avg. S&P+ Rk Avg. Off. S&P+ Rk Avg. Def. S&P+ Rk
SEC 8.91 1 32.6 3 24.0 3
ACC 8.70 2 32.4 4 23.7 2
Big Ten 6.22 3 28.8 6 22.7 1
Pac-12 5.85 4 33.5 2 27.7 4
Big 12 5.61 5 35.4 1 29.8 6
AAC -1.16 6 28.2 7 29.4 5
MWC -2.98 7 29.3 5 32.7 8
MAC -6.15 8 26.9 9 32.7 9
Conf USA -7.96 9 27.4 8 35.2 10
Sun Belt -8.29 10 23.5 10 31.5 7
Bill Connelly, SB Nation

In the SEC, the West was dragged down by the East to the extent that the ACC and SEC were roughly equals, even with the West being by far the sport’s top division. With the two leagues being basically tied, it’s fair to nudge the ACC ahead in “who was best?” arguments because Clemson beat Alabama in the championship game.

The American Athletic was the best Group of 5 league, but it wasn’t far ahead of the Mountain West. Conference USA and the Sun Belt were the two worst leagues by a long shot, with the MAC sitting around par for a non-power conference.

This is just one way to measure teams’ level of play.

It’s adjusted based on strength of opponent, which helps, but there’s more than one way to skin this cat. A difference of a few S&P+ rankings isn’t able to definitively tell us which conferences were best, just like win-loss records can’t.

But this test aligns pretty closely with what your eyeballs would tell you if you watched all of the 2016 season: the SEC and ACC were the best leagues, followed by the Pac-12 and Big Ten, who are probably a little bit ahead of the Big 12. But it’s close.