SEC Football: Debunking the Conference Superiority Myth

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SEC Football: Debunking the Conference Superiority Myth

Question: How do you reconcile the belief that the SEC is the best conference, with a background in statistical math?

Answer: You don’t.

Almost all SEC football fans are convinced—beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt—that the SEC is the best football conference, and not only that, it’s a big step down to second place.  The media seems to agree, even after their brief flirtation with the Big 12 in 2008, which came to an abrupt end when the Big 12 South went 1-3 in bowl games. 

The reality doesn’t match the perception—at least not if you try to compare “apples to apples”, a key tenet of statistical comparison.  How does one go about that?

Forget the overall records—conferences play varying numbers of non-BCS teams, and it’s hardly fair to compare playing MAC or Sunbelt teams, to games against BCS conference teams.  We’ll just look at games against BCS teams.

Second, let’s throw Notre Dame (a BCS team) out of the equation and make this a zero-sum game between the BCS conferences.  When one conference wins a game, another loses it.  Notre Dame just muddies the water for this discussion.

Throw out bowl games.  The long layoff affects teams differently, the conference tie-ins don't result in equal quality (or quantity) of opponents for each conference, and some conferences have geographic advantages (proximity) in bowl games.  Let’s neutralize those effects by just looking at what are (mostly) home-and-home series during the regular season.  Over longer periods of time, the percentage of home and away games was pretty even for each of the conferences.

So, we’re left with regular-season games against BCS conference opponents.  What does last year look like?

Conference  Win Pct.  Opp. Win Pct.
ACC            0.620     0.657
Big East       0.500     0.579
Big Ten        0.500     0.564
Big 12          0.467     0.506
Pac-10         0.455     0.628
SEC             0.400     0.568

A few points certainly jump out.  The ACC was pretty good!  They played the toughest BCS schedule, and had—by a large margin—the highest win percentage.  Second, the Big 12 played the weakest schedule, especially compared to the ACC and the PAC 10 (zero opponents that finished the year in the top 10 for the Big 12, compared to five for the ACC).  Something that doesn’t show up is that the SEC played 10 of 14 games on the road.  That happens with one-year snapshots.

Everyone agreed the SEC was down last year (at least before the bowls).  How about looking at the last three years?  During that stretch, the SEC has won three straight BCS titles, and is an amazing 19-7 overall in bowl games.  Surely the SEC's superiority will reveal itself?

2006-2008

Conference  Win Pct.  Opp. Win Pct.
PAC 10        0.552     0.636
Big Ten        0.552     0.497
Big East       0.532     0.536
SEC            0.500     0.596
ACC            0.481     0.630
Big 12         0.405     0.572

That’s puzzling.  During what might be the best three-year run for the conference, the SEC was exactly 0.500 against BCS teams during the regular season.  It wasn’t just strength of schedule that dragged them down either—the PAC 10 played a tougher slate and won at a higher rate.

Similar results exist for the last five years; note the SEC mired in the bottom half, right at 0.500. 

2004-2008
Conference  Win Pct.  Opp. Win Pct.
Big Ten       0.549      0.508
PAC 10       0.522      0.628
ACC           0.506      0.626
SEC           0.500      0.599
Big 12        0.481      0.586
Big East     0.459      0.536

Finally, a look at the entire 11 years of the BCS:

BCS Era
Conference  Win Pct.  Opp. Win Pct.
PAC 10        0.543      0.597
ACC            0.525      0.596
Big Ten        0.519     0.505
Big 12          0.492     0.575
SEC             0.468     0.591
Big East       0.445      0.561

The SEC, 5-0 in BCS Championship Games, is second from the bottom in regular season win percentage against BCS foes during the BCS era.  Who would have thought that?

The SEC’s reputation, even over the last few years, is built largely on two components: First, they beat non-BCS Division 1A (FBS) teams at a higher rate than any other conference.  The SEC is number one in win percentage against non-BCS FBS teams over the one-year, three-year, five-year, and BCS-era periods. 

Secondly, the SEC is very good in bowl games.  The SEC—while playing the toughest bowl slate of any conference—is in the top two for every time period of the BCS era, against BCS teams.  The PAC 10 is in first for the one and three year periods; the SEC is first for the five year and entire BCS periods.

How to reconcile the SEC’s excellent bowl record with their very mediocre record during the regular season?  That depends upon your conference affiliation.  If you’re non-SEC, it’s proof of the “home-field” advantage of playing bowl games in the South.  As further “proof”, the PAC 10 is excellent in bowls—and also plays a lot of bowls close to home. 

If you’re pro-SEC…it’s a little more challenging.  I think the reasonable observer has to question why a superior conference can’t dominate during the regular season; not just for a single year, but at any point over the BCS era.  Maybe some of the things we “know” aren’t as clear upon closer examination.

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