THE BEST FOOTBALL CONFERENCE – A SURPRISE

For the past several college football seasons, there's hardly been a Saturday in the fall when a college football commentator/analyst doesn't mention that the SEC is the strongest conference, plays the best defense, and the Pac-10 is a good offensive conference but doesn't play defense.

While the SEC is certainly a very good conference, I have yet to see any meaningful evidence to support the claims that they are the strongest conference or play the best defense. At best, these perceptions of the SEC, Pac-10, or other conferences are based on anecdotal observations lacking in statistical rigor.

With the above in mind, I developed a database comprised of the games played by all BCS teams for the 2000-05 seasons and cataloged the data by the conference affiliation of each team at the time the game was played and not by their current conference affiliation.

The Overall Record: Here's what we find when we look at the overall record of conference games, OOC games, and bowl games with each conference ranked by their win/loss record.



Conference W/L PF/Gm PA/Gm MOV
Big-12 0.572 29.1 24.8 4.3
SEC 0.566 26 22 4
Big East 0.562 27.3 23.7 3.6
Pac-10 0.561 28.9 25.7 3.2
ACC 0.554 26.2 23.3 2.9
Big-10 0.553 27.5 24.3 3.2


From the above table it looks like the Big-12 is the strongest conference and has the highest-scoring offenses at 29.1 ppg while the SEC has the stingiest defenses allowing only 22.0 ppg. But, the above table doesn't take into consideration the big disparities in quality of competition faced among these conferences.

BCS Teams vs. Non-BCS Teams: The following table shows the record of BCS teams against Non-BCS opponents.

Opponent W/L PF/Gm PA/G MOV
D1-AA 0.951 39.7 11 28.7
D1-A Reg Season 0.82 34.8 17.1 17.7
D1-A Bowl Gms 0.586 28.8 22.9 5.9


Clearly, conferences which play a relatively high number of games against D1-AA and D1-A opponents have padded their records with less than stellar opponents. So, let's see how each conference has padded its overall record by looking at the their regular season D1-A, D1-AA, and BCS games as a percentage of their total regular season OOC games.

Conference D1-A D1-AA BCS Total
SEC 59.10% 12.80% 28.10% 100%
Big-12 53.40% 17.00% 29.60% 100%
Pac-10 51.70% 8.30% 40.00% 100%
Big East 47.90% 10.90% 41.20% 100%
Big-10 52.20% 4.70% 43.10% 100%
ACC 40.00% 11.70% 48.30% 100%


Surprise, surprise – the two conferences, SEC and Big-12, with the best overall records play over 70% of their OOC games against D1-A and D1-AA opponents.

Record Against OOC and Bowl Game BCS Opponents: So let's quit fooling around with padded records and see how each conference has done against BCS teams not in their conference.

Conference W/L PF/Gm PA/Gm MOV
ACC 0.519 24.2 23.4 0.8
Big-12 0.515 24.8 25.8 -1
Pac-10 0.514 27 26.6 0.4
SEC 0.491 24.3 24.4 -0.1
Big-10 0.486 24.6 23.9 0.7
Big East 0.45 23.7 25.8 -2.1


Wow! This really turns things upside down for many fans and pundits of college football. The SEC is neither the strongest conference nor does it play the best defense. Both of those honors go to the ACC. But at least the fans and pundits perceptions of the Pac-10 were correct in that it scores the most ppg and also allows the most ppg.

For those who may want to allege that ppg allowed is not the best measure of a defense, forget it. For the 2000-05 time period of this study, the 10 teams allowing the fewest ppg each season had a collective winning record of 0.794 while the 10 teams allowing the fewest yards/game each year had a collective winning record of 0.739. Clearly, ppg allowed is the best measure of a defense.

Top and Bottom Halves of Each Conference: Some have opined that while their conference may not be the best overall, the top half of their conference is better than the top halves of other conferences. To see if there's any merit to this argument I separated each conference in half according to their respective conference W/L records and then computed the W/L record of each half against their OOC and Bowl Game BCS opponents. Here's what I found:

Conf Top Half W/L PF/Gm PA/Gm MOV
Big-12 0.612 27 24.2 2.8
Pac-10 0.603 28.4 23 5.4
ACC 0.559 24.7 20.7 4
SEC 0.514 23.7 21.9 1.8
Big-10 0.507 24.9 22.9 2
Big East 0.5 26 23.8 2.2


There's two surprises in the above table compared to the overall rankings. The ACC slipped from 1st to 3rd and the Top Half of the SEC is still in 4th place. Now let's look at the bottom half of each conference:

Conf Bot Half W/L PF/Gm PA/Gm MOV
ACC 0.486 23.7 25.6 -1.9
Big-10 0.46 24.3 25 -0.7
SEC 0.45 25.4 28.7 -3.3
Pac-10 0.412 25.4 30.7 -5.3
Big East 0.354 20.4 28.5 -8.1
Big-12 0.333 20.6 28.6 -8


Looking at both of the above tables, the overall strength of the ACC is due to its having a relatively strong bottom half of teams. The Big-12, however, has both the strongest top half of teams and the weakest bottom half while the Big East isn't strong for either category.

What Have We Learned? After filtering out the effects of each conference padding its record with D1-A and D1-AA opponents and focusing on how each conference has performed against its OOC BCS opponents and BCS Bowl opponents from 2000-05, we've learned the following:

1. The ACC, and not the SEC, is the strongest conference and plays the best defense. With the addition of three of the Big East's strongest teams, Miami(F) and Virginia Tech in 2004 and Boston College in 2005, the ACC seems poised to remain the strongest conference for sometime into the future.

2. The Pac-10 really does have the highest-scoring offenses and the worst defenses.

3. From top to bottom, the Big East just hasn't been very good.

4. The Big-12 is a conference of "haves" and "have nots" with the upper half of the conference being very strong and the lower half being very weak.

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