Conference Call: Who’s On Top of the 2016 College Football Conference Rankings?
With the end of the college football season, it’s time for the age-old off-season arguments, er… I mean, discussions to begin. Chief among them in recent years is the discussion on which conferences were the toughest conferences of the previous season.
We saw an apparent shift in the balance of power in the conference competition this season. Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin led a resurgent Big Ten in highly visible wins against top teams from the Big 12 (Oklahoma), Pac-12 (Colorado), and SEC (LSU). The ACC continued its trend of besting the SEC with Clemson, FSU, and Georgia Tech both getting two regular season wins against SEC teams. It would seem the SEC had a down year, with the continued struggles against ACC opponents and LSU’s loss to Wisconsin. And what about the Pac-12 and Big 12? Where do they measure up?
We’ll use a simple empirical measurement to see how the conference stacked up against each other in the 2016 campaign.
Why Is This Even Important?
Some people discount conference affiliation. Some people rally around conference banner. While conference fandom isn’t a real thing everywhere, and certainly doesn’t factor into this evaluation, it is important to compare the strength of conferences. As we’ve written before, college football is an inherently unbalanced system. Without rehashing the narrative, college football doesn’t utilize a format scheduling like professional football, so it is necessary to measure the conferences when you can. Especially when there’s four spots for five conferences in the sports championship tournament. The more we can empirically and objectively measure an inherent system, the better we can assess the true performance of teams.
We do this for all regular season games and then again for bowl match-ups. Bowl match ups are important because they allow the best measurement of both like-ranked teams and, since teams have about a month to prepare, the best measure of a team’s true potential. Teams are healthier and better prepared than at any point after week one during bowl season.
A detailed description of method of measurement follows the article. In short, we assign each team a score for each win or lose for all out-of-conference (OOC) games they play in the regular season. The basic math is such: a win is worth a starting value of 14 and a lose is worth a starting value of -14. Then, the difference in the teams’ standing in their conference alters that worth. A Power 5 loss to a Group of Five team is doubled and a win is halved. A Power 5 win against an FCS team is worth 0 points and a loss is worth -28.
Alabama beat USC. Alabama starts with a score of 14. But because USC finished third in the Pac-12, we subtract 2.5 from their win and add 2.5 to USC’s loss worth. Alabama finished first in the SEC and USC finished third in the Pac-12 (we normalized the 12 places in the Pac-12 to 14 spots to even out the rankings across the Power 5 conferences).
Illinois lost to Western Michigan. Illinois starts with -14 points, but because Western Michigan finished first in their conference and Illinois finished 11th, the loss value moves to -4 (11-1=10; -14+10=-4). Because Western Michigan is a G5 team, we multiple -4 by two. If Illinois had won, their win value of 24 (14+(11-1)) would have been halved.
So, a conference score of 14 essentially means you could expect each like-ranked team from that conference to beat each like-ranked team from another conference. A score of 0 means half of a conference’s teams should beat another conference’s like-ranked teams. A score of -14 means you could expect each conference team to lose to another conference’s like-ranked teams.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a way.
Conference Call: Who’s On Top of the 2016 College Football Conference Rankings?
|Conference||Regular Season Score||Bowl Season Score||Total Score|
The SEC was the best conference during the regular season, which was surprising, by a decent margin. The ACC and Pac-12 were virtually even with the Big Ten close behind. As has been the case lately, the Big 12 lags way behind. In the Bowls, the ACC dominated, with the Big 12 a surprising second, the SEC a distant third, Pac-12 a distant fourth, and the Big Ten a very disappointing last place. Overall, the ACC edges out the SEC, with those separated from the rest of the P5. Pac-12 and Big Ten close to even and the Big 12 bringing up the rear.
We’ll focus mainly on the regular season here in this article. One, because it’s much more complicated of a measurement and two, because it’s probably the most surprising. Before the accusations of homer-ism come out (which I know they will), let’s look into the numbers.
Power Five Opponent Analysis
|Conference||Total OOC Games||Total OOC W-L||Total P5 Opp||% of OOC Opp||P5 W-L||AVG OPP Conf Rank|
We’ll start by looking at the overall OOC records and the OOC records against Power 5 (P5) opponents. Obviously, with only eight conference games, the ACC and SEC play more total OOC games.
The biggest thing that stands out in this first look is the Big Ten and ACC both being 60% winning percentage against P5 opponents. And look, the SEC comes in tied with the Big 12 at a 40% winning percentage. So if the SEC lost 20% more games against P5 opponents than the ACC and Big Ten, how can they have the highest score, regardless of how well they did against G5 and FCS teams? The key is the last column. The SEC’s opponents had an average ranking of 4.64 in their own conference. That’s two positions better than the next best conference. While the SEC lost to more P5 teams, those losses didn’t hurt them as bad because they played a significantly higher level of P5 competition.
Notre Dame, one of two independents considered “P5” increased both the ACC’s numbers and the Pac-12’s numbers because of their nominal status as non-conference for the ACC and their historical match-ups with Stanford and USC in the Pac-12. BYU plays a similar role in the Pac-12.
There’s certainly an argument to be made that performance against Power 5 teams should be weighted. That would obviously close the regular season gap between the SEC and the ACC and Big Ten in the overall regular season score. The fact that the SEC played the fewest percentage of P5 OOC games and had the lowest winning percentage, is something that cannot be overlooked.
Group of Five Opponent Analysis
|Conference||Total OOC Games||Total OOC W-L||Total G5 Opp||% of OOC Opp||G5 W-L||AVG OPP Conf Rank|
While maybe not as important as the Power 5 analysis, we must consider Group of Five (G5) teams as well. We have inherently weighted G5 wins by halving their win values. However, we’ve heavily penalized losses by doubling a loss value. Power 5 teams — especially good ones — just can’t lose to G5 teams when measuring conference power.
Here’s the first learning point: You cannot look at teams, you must look at conference placement. The Oklahoma loss to Houston is a case in point. By the eye test, Oklahoma shouldn’t be punished too harshly for a loss to Houston. But remember, we are looking at conferences, not teams. So it is viewed as “The Big 12 Champion lost to a fifth-place G5 team” rather than “Oklahoma lost to a good and talented Houston team.” Oklahoma’s loss to Houston was the biggest loss-value of any team this season. To add insult to injury, Oklahoma State’s controversial loss to Central Michigan was almost as costly. Even if we had capped those loss values, the Big 12’s scores still would not have been competitive.
The SEC fared best against the G5 and played about the same level of competition as the Pac-12 and Big Ten. The strength of opponent value for the Pac-12 and Big Ten were helped by Boise State and Western Michigan, respectively.
|Conference||Total OOC Games||Total OOC W-L||Total FCS Opp||% of OOC Opp||FCS W-L|
The only area where FCS opponents matter are losses. An FCS loss contributes approximately 2 points to a conference’s final regular season score. The two Big Ten losses absolutely killed the Big Ten. North Dakota State and Illinois State may be good teams, but a P5 team just can’t lose to an FCS team, especially the 6th- and 8th-placed teams (Iowa and Northwestern). If those two games were wins, the Big Ten would be less than one point behind the SEC’s leading score.
Surprisingly, the Big 12 had the highest percentage of FCS opponents, followed by the ACC.
Overall Conference Analysis
Here’s where it gets interesting. Again, we are measuring conferences here. Teams 1 through 14. We didn’t weight any team or segment more than any other. The reason most people consider the Big Ten and ACC to have the best seasons is because of the signature wins mentioned above. It’s once you get down into the conference where you see the difference between the conferences.
Tales of Two Conferences
|Conference||Top Half||Bottom Half|
When we break the conferences down into halves, we can see how unbalanced most conferences are. The Big Ten, behind great OOC performances by Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin, scores very high on the top half. The bottom half, however, is close to last. The ACC and Pac-12 are opposite. And the SEC is the only conference that seems balanced across the totality of teams.
But let’s break it down further:
|Conference||Top 1/3||Middle 1/3||Bottom 1/3|
When we break the conferences into thirds, we again see the volatility in most conferences. Not surprisingly, the Big Ten again scores very high at the top — almost twice as high as the second highest and one of only two conferences in the positive territory at the top of the conference. But those FCS losses suffered by Iowa and Northwestern sink them in the middle. For the ACC, Clemson and Florida State’s success couldn’t carry Louisville’s disaster of a score after losing to G5 Houston and lower-ranked Kentucky out of the SEC. Houston was clearly the “conference killer” this year. But Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, and N.C. State had strong scores to bump up the ACC in the middle third. And the Pac-12 dominated the last third.
Interestingly, the high scores of the middle third indicate a growing parity and competitive balance in college football. Again notice the balance of the SEC, where the top and bottom score is separated by 8.99 points. The next most balanced conference is the Big 12 at 20.57. With scores as bad as theirs, that’s not a good thing.
An even further break down:
Here’s A Quarter…
|Conference||Top 1/4||Upper Middle 1/4||Lower Middle 1/4||Bottom 1/4|
Same story here. Big Ten top heavy. ACC and SEC strong in the middle. Pac-12 strong at the bottom. Only one conference with positive scores throughout: the SEC.
The Real Story
And that’s really the story here, the consistency of the SEC. If you rank each of the conferences by the break-outs above, the SEC doesn’t have a single top score. However, they are second in every breakdown except bottom half, where they are a close third. It’s this consistency from the top of the conference to the bottom that produced such a surprising score.
|Top 1/2||Bottom 1/2||Middle 1/2|
|ACC||-0.11||Big Ten||-3.79||Big Ten||4.17|
|Big 12||-16.33||Big 12||-5.31||Big 12||3.82|
|Top 1/3||Middle 1/3||Bottom 1/3|
|Big 12||-20.39||Big Ten||-7.74||Big 12||-15.93|
|Top 1/4||Up Md 1/4||Low Md 1/4||Bottom 1/4|
|Big Ten||7.92||Big Ten||16.08||ACC||17.08||Pac-12||11.17|
|Big 12||-39.78||Big 12||-0.7||Big Ten||-11.68||Big 12||-23.01|
Every other conference had at least one four-place swing (being first in one category to being fourth in another). This is what propelled the SEC’s score above everyone else’s in the regular season scoring.
Bowl season was a different story. The ACC, with nine wins against three losses, dominated the conference comparison here. While they had an average advantage of 0.68 (meaning that their team was, on average, 0.68 higher in ACC standings than their opponents in their own conference standing), their impressive performance set them far apart from the other conferences. The Big 12, with impressive wins by Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, surged into a clear second place finish. The SEC, reversing bowl trends of the previous two years, came out right at even at 0.61. The Pac-12 and Big Ten had disappointing bowl efforts at -2.83 and -5.69, respectively.
Added together, the ACC edges out the SEC for best conference performance — at least by our metric — for the 2016 season. The Pac-12 finishes third and Big Ten fourth, a full eight points behind the leaders. And Big 12 finishes fifth approximately two points behind the Big Ten. In the end, it wasn’t the marquee match-ups that decided the conference pecking order. It was the strength of the middle of the pack and a consistent out-of-conference performance from top to bottom within the conference.
Let the arguments begin.