Bowl season might not count, but it sure helps build bragging rights. After a slow 1-4 start to the slate, the SEC finished an average 6-6. The conference has enjoyed a lofty perch atop college football for years now, but bowl season said otherwise.
Elsewhere, the Big 10 had four teams ranked in the final 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings. The ACC surprised everyone, going 8-3 in its bowl games. While the SEC still boasts the top-ranked team in the nation, it’s time to re-evaluate the hierarchy.
We asked our panel of college football experts to look at the landscape of college football and answer what should be an easy question: Which is really the top conference in college football after the 2016 season?
Andrew Astleford (@aastleford): ACC
Before bowl season, I would have said the Big Ten for this. But I can’t ignore that 3-7 record in bowl play, which looks as pretty as 3-month-old milk.
The ACC has gained strength in recent years, particularly by tweaking the SEC’s nose over and over. I like so much about what that conference offers. Sure, LSU ripped Louisville in the Citrus Bowl, but Lamar Jackson was fun to watch all season. Florida State had a fantastic performance in the Orange Bowl and could be even better next year. Maintenance workers are still scrambling to clean up the field in Glendale, Ariz., after the mess Clemson made of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
If Clemson beats Alabama, that would serve as a fine accomplishment for the ACC and give it a strong argument as the best conference this season. The Big Ten did everything but stick the landing. Because of that, an opening was created for the ACC to take the biggest bow.
Ken Bradley (@KenBradleySEC): SEC
The choice isn’t as easy as it’s been in recent years, but it’s still the SEC. Alabama is the nation’s No. 1 program. The Crimson Tide don’t have slip-ups like the top teams from the Big Ten (Michigan losing to Iowa) or ACC (Clemson losing to Pittsburgh). They certainly never get embarrassed like top teams in the Big Ten (Ohio State to Clemson 31-0 in the playoff or Penn State losing 49-10 to Michigan) or the ACC (FSU losing to Louisville 63-20 or Louisville losing to Houston 36-10).
That’s not to say the SEC’s second tier — everyone besides Alabama — doesn’t have its share of bad performances, but when you stack up the best against the best, it’s advantage SEC. The rest of the SEC has been hit and miss all season. Some of the misses are ugly. In fact, I’d give the Big Ten and even the ACC the edge in teams 2 through everyone else vs. the SEC. But you can’t overlook the weight No. 1 carries and that’s enough to keep the SEC on top.
Shehan Jeyarajah (@ShehanJeyarajah): ACC
Was there a worse year for SEC to drop its “It Just Means More” tagline? Alabama is probably the best team in the country, but the rest of the Southeastern Conference was tremendously underwhelming. Ten of the 14 teams in the league finished with between six and eight wins. That could mean the league was so competitive that it cannibalized itself. It didn’t.
There isn’t a great candidate to take over the SEC’s perch, but the ACC quietly forced its way into the picture. The top two teams, Clemson and Florida State, are known hot commodities. Despite the finish, Louisville also managed to force its way into the College Football Playoff conversation at different times. Alabama might be the best program of the group, but Clemson proved on Saturday it at least deserves to be mentioned among the nation’s best.
And after the top teams, the ACC boasts plenty of depth. The conference went 8-3 in bowl season, including 3-1 against the SEC. Six teams finished with nine or more wins. Granted, Virginia and Duke were shockingly bad this year, but every conference has its underclass. If Clemson can sneak past Alabama on Monday, it will officially wrest the crown away from the SEC.
Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff): ACC
One game decided this for me: Clemson’s 31-0 win over Ohio State last weekend. I thought the Big Ten was the country’s best conference throughout the regular season, but it’s impossible to give it that title after the East division went 0-5 in bowl games and OSU got destroyed in the Fiesta Bowl.
The ACC’s best two teams asserted their dominance over the Big Ten’s best two teams this bowl season, and several other conference members pulled off big wins. Sorry, SEC; you have the best team in the country, but this was a down year for the rest of the squad.
Wayne Staats (@WayneStaats): Big Ten
The Ohio State performance was bad. There’s no doubt there. But bowl games — a one-game sample size — shouldn’t matter more than 12- or 13-game regular seasons. Through that stretch, four Big Ten teams ranked in the top 8 of the final College Football Playoff rankings. Out of conference, Wisconsin beat LSU, Ohio State destroyed Sugar Bowl champion Oklahoma on the road at night and Michigan beat Colorado. It’s also likely four Big Ten teams will rank in the Top 10 of the final polls. No other conference will come close to competing with that.
Ohio State’s loss to Clemson was definitely ugly, but both Penn State and Michigan were a play or two away from winning their New Year’s Six Games – and Wisconsin did. The sheer number of New Year’s Six teams (four) also stands far above the rest, as no other conference had more than two.
Even if you take into account other bowl results, the Big Ten did OK. Northwestern upset a ranked Pitt team and Minnesota beat 8-win Washington State. Indiana also proved it belonged by hanging in there with a ranked Utah squad.
What did the bowl results do? To me, it means there’s more of a valid debate when trying to find the best conference in the country. But that doesn’t change the answer: It’s the Big Ten.