Ohio State Football, Sports

Which Conference is Worst?

09.27.07 | 31 Comments

STOP – This data has been updated for the entire season in this entry. Enjoy.

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Disclosure: I am an Ohio State fan and I have a Big 10 bias. I admit it up front, but, that being said, I’m attempting to be as objective as is possible in this post drawing conclusions based on data from performance on the field vs. media driven perception.

College football is one of the last great sports. You’ve got people who play for the love of the game, passionate fans, a limited season, and generally great product. It’s a team sport where the experts are frequently wrong when assessing any particular game (like Miami thumping Texas A&M last week) but are frequently right when looking at the bigger picture.

One of the great arguments in college football is which conference is strongest (and the converse, which is weakest.) Apologies to the other 900 teams out there, but when I talk about this subject, I’m talking about the conferences entitled to compete for the Division I-A mythical national championship each January, technically 119 teams, but practically it’s limited to the members of the 6 “power conferences” – ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, SEC, and Pac 10 – and Notre Dame (though I don’t think Notre Dame is going to be in this discussion this particular year.)

Perception often is reality, so let’s just be plain here. Last season, Michigan and Ohio State, the two perennial Big 10 powers stunk it up in their bowl games. They didn’t just lose, they were rolled by better prepared and more focused adversaries on national tv in front of the biggest audiences of the year. On the basis of watching just those two games I can understand anyone saying “the Big 10 sucks” – frankly, in those two games, you get no argument from me or any other rational human being. But news flash, that was last season, and amounted to two games.

It’s a new season and the mantra now is that “Big 10 sucks”, the SEC is the “best” and the Big East and Pac 10 are ascending. That’s what seems to be the prevailing wisdom from fans and experts. So I decided to set aside the hyperbole and actually focus on data. Thus far, 80% of the non-conference schedule (excepting bowls) has been played. That means we now have a body of work on the field to be able to get a preliminary answer to the which conference is best question. Not that it can ever be answered definitively.

Let’s start with the presumed super conference, the SEC, [sarcasm]where the only good college football on the planet is played[/sarcasm]. Through the first four weeks of the season it’s clear through on-field performance that LSU is everything people predicted them to be. They’re 4-0 and haven’t really been tested, they destroyed an over-rated Virginia Tech team and easily handled at good defensive team in South Carolina. Defending national champion Florida has performed better than people expected, also sitting at 4-0, but coming within a whisker of losing to, Mississippi, that perennially feared juggernaut of college football. The biggest surprise is Kentucky at 4-0 (or Auburn at 2-2 or Arkansas at 1-2.) Overall, the conference is 32-14, a 69.6% winning rate. The out of conference record is 21-3, a 87.5% winning rate. Digging a little deeper, backing out the IAA teams the record drops to 15-3, a 83.33% winning rate. Now here’s where it gets interesting, when factoring only BCS competition, the SEC’s record is 4-3, 57.1% win rate.

Next up, the Big East. I have some degree of sympathy for the Big East after the ACC raid taking Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College. So in a certain sense, it’s nice to see some good football being played there. However, it is a basketball conference and the football games from top teams has looked like basketball on grass, not much defense with a couple of exceptions. West Virginia is living up to the hype thus far, Rutgers is a question mark, Cincinnati and South Florida have been pleasant surprises. Louisville and Syracuse, well, you just shake your head. Thus far, the conference is 23-7 with a 76.6% win rate. The out of conference record is 21-5, or a 80.7% win rate. Dropping out the IAA teams yields a 15-5 record and 75% win rate. When factoring only BCS competition, the record is 5-5, or a 50% win rate.

The Pac 10, like the Big East, I have some degee of sympathy for the conference. All the East Coast media bias, the lack of respect from other regions over decades does tend to grate. The Pac 10 plays good, hard-nosed football – most of the country doesn’t get to see it though, just the highlights. USC, Cal, and Oregon are all heavy-weights in this conference and are all playing well. Arizona State has been a pleasant surprise. Oregon State, not so pleasant. Thus far the conference has an overall record of 26-12 and a win rate of 68.4%. The non-conference record is 20-6 for a 76.9% win rate. Backing out the IAA teams, the record is 18-6 for a 75% win rate. When including only BCS competition, the record is 5-3 with a 62.5% win rate. For performance on the field, the Pac 10 has made a strong case for being considered the toughest conference.

Moving on to the Big 12, there hasn’t been much press on the conference other than Oklahoma tearing it up, Texas barely getting by, Nebraska’s self-destruction, and the tirade by Oklahoma State’s coach. The conference’s overall record is 35-12 for a 74.5% win rate. Its non-conference record is 34-11 for a win rate of 75.5%. Backing out the IAAs, the record is 29-10 for a win rate of 74.4%. And only factoring BCS competition, the record is 5-6, a win rate of 45.5%. The conference is getting the job done overall, but has been less than impressive against fellow big boys…

The ACC surely must bring something to the table, also a southern super conference. Miami must be holding up the standard, no, then it must be Virgina Tech. No, it’s Boston College and Clemson? Go figure. The conference’s overall record this season is 28-19, a win rate of 59.6%. The non-conference record is 19-10, a win rate of 65.5%. Backing out the IAA competition the record is 13-10 for a win rate of 56.5%. Factoring only BCS competition, the record is 3-6 for a win rate of 33.3%. The worst conference in football? Ahem, perhaps the ACC should be getting a little focus from the media.

Notre Dame, the one independent eligible for BCS play, is 0-4. That’s a 0% win rate. Say what you will about Ty Willingham, but at least he won some games in his third season. Charley Weis’ third year ND team is looking at an 0-8 start. Enough said.

Now that all the data on the other conferences has been displayed, we should look at the Big 10. Surely the Big 10 with all the negative publicity should be last in all of these categories. Well as a famous television announcer might say “not so fast my friend.” The whole conference has been a surprise this year. Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, and Illinois have been pleasant surprises. Ohio State and Wisconsin have been mild surprises (good and bad respectively.) Michigan, Northwestern, Minnesota, and Iowa have stunk the joint up and are unpleasant surprises. The conference’s overall record is 32-12 with a 72.7% win rate. The non-conference record is 27-7 for a 79.4% win rate. Backing out the IAA teams, the record is 21-6 for a 77.7% win rate. And against BCS competition, the record is 5-4 for a 55.5% win rate.

This is a long article, so what does it all mean? Let’s do some ranking tables starting with:

Conference ranking by overall win rate

  • Big East – 76.6%
  • Big 12 – 74.5%
  • Big 10 – 72.7%
  • SEC – 69.6%
  • Pac 10 – 68.4%
  • ACC – 59.6%
  • Notre Dame – 0%

Obviously, I’ve made a mistake. The SEC and Pac 10 aren’t at the top. Funny what happens when performance on the field is actually taken into account. But this is not the only view, there are others we should consider. What about:

Conference ranking by non-conference win rate

  • SEC – 87.5%
  • Big East – 80.7%
  • Big 10 – 79.4%
  • Pac 10 – 76.9%
  • Big 12 – 75.5%
  • ACC – 65.5%
  • Notre Dame – 0%

That’s more like it, the SEC is on the top as the media say they should be. But look, the horrible, slow Big 10 conference isn’t last. Isn’t that interesting…Perhaps we should back out the patsies, those IAA schools and see what the ranking would look like?

Conference ranking by non-conference win rate (excluding W/L from IAA)

  • SEC – 83.3%
  • Big 10 – 77.7%
  • Big East – 75%
  • Pac 10 – 75%
  • Big 12 – 74.4%
  • ACC – 56.5%
  • Notre Dame – 0%

How can the Big 10 be #2, didn’t Michigan lose to Appalchian State? Yep. Still, the rest of the conference won the games that they should have. Perhaps there’s another outlier (besides Notre Dame that’s sticking out?) The most interesting ranking I think is:

Conference ranking by non-conference win rate (only BCS competition)

  • Pac 10 – 62.5%
  • SEC – 57.1%
  • Big 10 – 55.5%
  • Big East – 50%
  • Big 12 – 45.5%
  • ACC – 33.3%
  • Notre Dame – 0%

Against the big boys, the Pac 10 owns the best and the ACC has the worst record. That’s where you make your money on being the toughest, how does the conference perform against competition with equal access to talent, facilities, and coaching?

Now, I stated earlier in the article the prevailing sentiment from experts and fans seems to be: the “Big 10 sucks”, the SEC is the “best”, and the Big East and Pac 10 are ascending.

The Big 10 Sucks. FALSE. The data does not support the hypothesis. That being said, it’s embarrassing to have losses to IAA teams and Duke…

The SEC is Best. FALSE. The SEC is having something of a down year.

The Pac 10 is ascending. TRUE. At this point in the season, the data suggests Pac 10 is the strongest conference.

The Big East is ascending. MAYBE TRUE. If by ascending one means the Big East is no longer the doormat of the power conferences, true. If by ascending one means the Big East is among the top 3 conferences, false.

As for the best conference right now, I’m going to say it’s the Pac 10 based on BCS win rate. The data speaks very strongly about which conference is the weakest right now, it’s the ACC by a mile. When one looks at the grouping of performance, really, the top conferences are all bunched tightly except for the ACC which is an outlier toward the bottom of the scale. With all the press and publicity, I would have believed that the Big 10 occupied that spot. While the Big 10 is not the first, it’s not the worst either. What the data suggests is that the current conference pecking order is: Pac 10, SEC, Big 10, Big East, Big 12, ACC, and Notre Dame. There is a huge gap between Notre Dame and respectability and a large gap between ACC and respectability. The other conferences are pretty tightly grouped in terms of performance on the field.

The point to this long post? When listening to the talking heads yammer on about this and that, don’t lose sight of what’s actually transpired on the field. The data often tells a different story than the perception molded by the media. I’d like to thank Yahoo Sports and The Colley Rankings for the raw data used in this analysis. Enjoy the rest of the season, we’ll revisit this issue after the bowls are complete.

October 30: The conference data has been updated in this entry.