Since the Southeastern Conference went on its run of seven straight national championships from 2006-12, it’s been a heated argument: Is there a conference that can stand up to the SEC’s dominance?
More often than not, the time-tested Big Ten has the strongest claim. That’s again the case this season. In all, the two conferences combine to account for 10 of the top 13 teams in the first College Football Playoff rankings of 2016 — headlined by No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Michigan.
In the spirit of debate, SEC Country’s Alec Shirkey and Land of 10‘s Wayne Staats held a back-and-forth discussion about which conference is stronger this season, and why.
Looking at both conferences, each has one elite team (Alabama and Michigan), one team in the next tier down (Texas A&M and Ohio State) and a couple of teams that deserve to be in the Top 25 conversation. Against non-conference opponents this season, the SEC is 33-9, while the Big Ten is 32-10. All in all, both are pretty strong conferences at the top.
But where the SEC sets itself apart is its depth. By ESPN’s FPI rating, no SEC team is lower than South Carolina (No. 69), while the Big Ten has four teams lower than that (Indiana, Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers). And by Bill Connelly’s S&P+ metric, those numbers really don’t like Rutgers (No. 113) and Purdue (No. 115), while the SEC only has one team lower than No. 85 in Vanderbilt.
Also, if you look at the records of the Power 5 non-conference teams both leagues have played, you’ll see that the SEC has faced a tougher group of teams (49-22 combined record) than the Big Ten (57-46). Overall, the SEC is 33-9 in non-conference play this season, while the Big Ten is 32-10.
So, while they’re even in a number of areas, strength of schedule and depth of the league give the SEC a leg up in my eyes.
I don’t have much of a defense for Purdue or Rutgers (not that they play any, either), but I think what makes the Big Ten slightly better than the SEC is it has more elite wins in non-conference games — wins that have looked better and better since they happened.
Since Wisconsin beat LSU, the Tigers have gone 5-1 and are No. 13 in the playoff rankings.
Since Ohio State beat Oklahoma in Norman, the Sooners are 5-0 and 14th in the playoff rankings.
At the beginning part of the season, no one thought much of Colorado. But after Michigan beat the Buffaloes by 17 points, Colorado has gone 4-1 and is 15th in the rankings.
And that’s just in the non-conference — and it doesn’t even bring in Nebraska’s win against Wyoming (who just beat Boise State) or even Ohio State’s win against 6-2 Tulsa.
The Big Ten has some big nonconference wins on its resume, to be sure; it also has a couple of not-so-great losses. Penn State fell to 5-3 Pittsburgh, and Indiana lost to 5-3 Wake Forest.
The SEC has some nice ones in its pocket — Georgia over UNC, Tennessee over Virginia Tech, Alabama over a now-hot Southern California team — but more importantly, none of its losses are bad. Clemson, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Florida State are all Top 25 teams, and two of the SEC teams involved in those games (Ole Miss and Missouri) are currently last in their respective divisions.
That Georgia and Tennessee are a combined 4-7 in SEC play further speaks to the conference’s overall strength. They’re teams that handled their Power 5 nonconference foes convincingly, but struggled within their own conference.
Are Pitt and Wake Forest world beaters? Not by long shots. But there’s no shame in losing to teams with winning records, especially when one is a return to a rivalry for the first time since 2000 and also on the road.
Penn State’s win over Ohio State brought the Nittany Lions back into the national picture. From afar, this may show Ohio State may not be as dominant as originally thought. But to be the best conference, you need as many elite/great teams as possible. The Big Ten started making that point in the non-conference slate and then actually elevated its spot toward the top of the polls since conference play began.
With Wisconsin, the Badgers showed they weren’t a one-game fluke when they played both Ohio State and Michigan to 7-point games, one in the Big House and another in overtime.
So when Nebraska played Wisconsin into overtime last week, the Huskers actually joined the conversation as a team deserving of respect.
To me, the best conference has the most elite or great teams. To have the most great teams, you need great non-conference wins and then to back up those results when you start your conference
And to your earlier point on FPI, while I like looking at it as much as any stat nerd, I can’t take what it says overly seriously because it has 3-5 Ole Miss No. 14. 14! The schedule is obviously tough, but the three wins are against Wofford, Georgia and Memphis. Not great.
The FPI also has LSU ranked ahead of Wisconsin. Again, the FPI is fun to use for predictive purposes (as is its main purpose), but when actual head-to-head results aren’t respected, it loses me.
The FPI isn’t perfect. No performance metric is. But it’s a decent baseline and, since it has six SEC teams among the country’s top 15, it’s a great segue to discussing the SEC’s elite.
Alabama is country’s consensus No. 1 team. With the exception of Kent State and Ole Miss, a much better team than its 3-5 record would indicate, all of the Crimson Tide’s opponents so far have a winning record, and they’ve yet to play LSU and Auburn. Michigan’s standing has been bolstered by blowout wins over Rutgers, Illinois, UCF and Hawaii. Penn State, Colorado, and Wisconsin are great wins, but overall, the Wolverines’ resume isn’t as strong, and they struggled with a bad Michigan State team.
Then you have Texas A&M which, for whatever it’s actually worth, got a nod of respect from the Playoff selection committee when it debuted in the No. 4 spot. The Aggies have beaten Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee, and played Alabama somewhat close on the road.
Outside of its strong wins against Oklahoma and Wisconsin, Ohio State doesn’t have an especially strong resume, and Penn State is undoubtedly a worse loss than Alabama.
After that, LSU, Auburn and Florida are all teams at least in the top-10 conversation. They are comparable to Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State.
So I gotta give the edge to the SEC since Alabama and Texas A&M’s overall schedules look stronger than Michigan and Ohio State, respectively.
I wouldn’t say that Michigan struggled that much. Michigan won by 9, and that’s when the Spartans scored a touchdown with 1 second to play and all-world Jabrill Peppers returned the fumble for 2 points. Michigan also still has the biggest average win margin in college football.
There’s no debating Alabama. I wouldn’t want to get the wrath of Mr. Finebaum.
But I have to question why you’re talking around Ohio State’s wins AT Oklahoma and AT Wisconsin. Heck, if you take away any team’s two best wins, the resume will look so much worse. That could be the best 1-2 win tandem in the nation when taking into account rankings and atmosphere. A team shouldn’t have to be asked for much more before November. And this is for what’s looking like the league’s SECOND best team.
And while I agree that LSU, Auburn and Florida are all top-10 worthy, the Big Ten has a similar argument with Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State. Wisconsin beat LSU and Nebraska, two highly ranked teams. Penn State beat a top-10 team. Auburn’s best wins are LSU…and Arkansas? Florida’s best win is looking like Kentucky. LSU has no Top 25 wins. Looking at these three, LSU-Auburn-Florida combine for ONE Top 25 win: Auburn vs. LSU. Wisconsin, Penn State and Nebraska combine for TWO top 10 wins and a third Top 25 win.
Of course, both of us will find supporting evidence. That’s what makes debating fun — even though it looks like we’ll have to agree to disagree.
Regardless, here’s something we can agree on. The Big Ten and the SEC are the two best conferences and everyone else is playing for third.
That, we can definitely agree upon. Big 12, Pac 12, ACC — there’s a clear divide between that group and these two at the top.
Soon enough, we’ll have SEC-Big Ten matchups back in our midst. Hopefully then, we’ll really be able to settle this debate.