When we talk about the best conferences in the country, it's only natural to focus on the top teams.
We all know the SEC has claimed a spot atop the college football mountain, but what happens when we remove Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina?
How does the Pac-12 shape up without USC, Oregon, and Stanford?
We've decided to power rank the conferences in preparation for the 2012 season, but we'll do so without regard to each conference's top performers.
Will the SEC still come out on top?
Not surprisingly, one of the worst top-to-bottom conferences comes in as our lowest-ranked conference when ignoring the top half of the conference.
Last season, only one Sun Belt team—Arkansas State—had double-digit wins, and second-place Western Kentucky came in with seven wins.
And when the second-place, seven-win team still doesn't earn a bowl bid, you know you have a painfully weak conference.
Of the Sun Belt's nine teams, the bottom four combined for just 10 wins in 2011, with Florida Atlantic bringing up the rear with a 1-11 finish.
As unsurprising as the Sun Belt's selection at the bottom of our power rankings is, so too is seeing the MAC close behind—or is it ahead?
The MAC was actually a pretty entertaining conference last season with offensive explosions at seemingly every turn.
MAC champions Northern Illinois finished with 11 wins on the year, and Ohio, which won the MAC-East, finished with ten.
A total of seven teams were bowl-eligible last season (although only five received bids). But we're not talking about the teams that did well. And when you compare the bottom of the MAC, it's just as bad as you might expect.
In the bloated 13-team conference, the bottom six teams combined for 21 wins, or 3.5 per team. That just edges out the Sun Belt's 2.5 wins per bottom half team.
But what really sets these two conferences apart from the rest of the nation is the fact that so many of these losses came against other lackluster teams from these weak conferences.
Suffice it to say that the lowest of the lowly non-AQ conferences really set themselves apart from the SECs and Big Tens of the world, even when we ignore the powerhouse programs.
With the top teams bolting the WAC for the Mountain West, the prestige of this struggling non-AQ conference has taken a possibly fatal blow.
No longer does the WAC boast teams like Boise State or Fresno State, or even teams like Nevada and Hawai'i.
Now, the WAC consists of Idaho, San Jose State and newcomers Texas State and Texas-San Antonio.
It's a little too soon to tell how well TSU and UTSA will handle the transition, but if history is any indicator, we'll have quite a bit of time before we see either program earning a bowl berth.
In reality, it's only this unknown factor that keeps the WAC from being the worst of the worst. In all honesty, the WAC is likely to become the new cellar-dweller of the FBS conferences.
Of the four bottom teams from 2011 (of which three return to the WAC in 2012), the average was just 3.75 wins on the season.
And while that's a little better than the MAC, it's not always about statistical comparisons. We also have to consider the general reputation of the programs at the bottom of the conference.
So what are your opinions of Idaho, New Mexico State, and San Jose State?
From a football standpoint, probably not good.
And when we again consider that the WAC is adding not one, but two new FBS programs in 2012, it's likely that before all is said and done, the WAC could suddenly find itself lagging behind the perennial laughing stock conferences.
We find yet another non-AQ conference in the bottom half of our bottom half power rankings.
Conference USA has enjoyed some impressive success over the past couple of seasons.
Last year in particular was a great year for the conference, as Houston stiff-armed their way through much of the schedule to enter the conference championship game as a nationally-ranked top ten team, a heavy favorite, and a likely BCS participant.
Then along came Southern Mississippi with its own ideas and provided one of the more entertaining football games of the 2011 season, beating the Cougars in Houston to win the Conference USA title.
Unfortunately, none of that matters in this particular ranking.
Regardless of the fact that C-USA finished with two teams ranked in the final AP Poll of last season—half of the total number of non-AQ programs to finish ranked—we're going to take a look at programs like Tulane and Memphis.
There wasn't a single bowl-eligible team in the bottom half of this conference, a theme that's about to be broken from hereon out. And none of the bottom teams—Tulane, Memphis, Alabama-Birmingham, Rice, Texas-El Paso, and Central Florida—are programs from which we could ignore a bad season. In fact, it's really what we've come to expect from most of the bottom programs in the conference.
Luckily, a couple of those programs are within spitting distance of a bowl berth. With enough returning talent for 2012 and some big opponents in nationally-televised games, we might see a little more competitiveness from the conference.
At least enough to warrant a bottom half power ranking ahead of conferences like the WAC.
The Mountain West Conference has arguably been the top non-AQ conference over the past couple of seasons.
With the addition of Boise State in 2011, the MWC made a giant leap towards earning that long-coveted status as a BCS Automatic Qualifying conference, but defections from TCU and BYU ended any serious consideration.
But the MWC still finds itself leading the charge of the non-AQ conferences, even when it comes to comparisons of the bottom half of the conference.
Along with Conference USA, the MWC finished the 2011 season with two teams ranked in the final AP Poll Top 25, and Boise State finished in the top ten (No. 8).
The bottom half of the conference, meanwhile, included a wide range of teams, like Air Force, which finished the regular season with a 7-5 record.
While the number of wins per team (3.25) is less than that of the WAC (3.75) or Conference USA (3.5), the MWC benefits from a relatively higher level of prestige, and the fact that only one team—New Mexico—failed to win a non-conference game in 2011.
The first BCS Automatic Qualifying conference appears on our power ranking with the ACC coming in with the sixth-best bottom half.
The ACC has traditionally been viewed as a weaker cousin of the rest of the AQ conferences, but has made great strides over the past few seasons. The ACC now has several teams capable of national championship runs, and the conference has put a good deal of distance between itself and the Big East in national perceptions.
But when we look at the bottom six teams in the ACC, there's enough reason to put the ACC in the No. 6 spot on our power rankings—last place among the ranks of the AQ conferences.
Still, the ACC is leaps and bounds beyond its closest non-AQ conference, the Mountain West; North Carolina State qualifies as a “bottom half” ACC team*, but still managed to post eight wins in 2011. No non-AQ conference can boast an eight-win team in the bottom half of the conference.
Maryland and Boston College still struggle mightily as each program managed just a single non-conference win in 2011—both against FCS opponents.
Duke also continues its typical existence at the bottom of the ACC, to be joined by sanction-laden teams Miami and North Carolina.
As those sanctions begin to ease over the next few seasons, don't be surprised if the bottom half of the ACC makes a surging comeback; it won't be long before the ACC climbs out of the doghouse.
*It's worth noting that we chose NC State as a bottom half team over Wake Forest based on conference standings. Wake Forest, which finished tied for second in the Atlantic Division finished with an overall record of 6-7. NC State was fourth in the Atlantic, but had an overall record of 8-5.
The Pac-12 makes its appearance on our list in the fifth spot.
Why is the generally powerful and very competitive Pac-12 so far below other AQ conferences, particularly the Big East? For now, it's because of the soon-to-be-rectified problem of having teams in the bottom half of the overall conference standings winning divisional titles.
Sure, there was a myriad of reasons why mediocre UCLA won the Pac-12 South Division title in 2011. USC was on probation and banned from the Pac-12 Championship Game. Arizona State suffered through a monumental collapse. Utah was impressive until it came time for conference play.
In the end, it was 6-6 UCLA that was the South Division team with the best conference record while also maintaining its eligibility to play in the postseason.
But don't be fooled: UCLA, with its 6-8 final record, was a clear bottom-half Pac-12 team in 2011.
The Pac-12's bottom half also gets a boost from the fact that only Oregon State was unable to win a non-conference game in 2011.
With West Virginia gone, there's really no longer a question about which AQ conference doesn't measure up to the rest.
The Big East was weak even with a power program like West Virginia. Now that the Mountaineers are in the Big 12, there's not much left in terms of top-tier programs, nationally speaking.
But lucky for the Big East, this power ranking list ignores the top teams. For the Big East, that eliminates teams like Cincinnati and Louisville, but that's a much easier pill to swallow than losing the records of a team like Alabama or Michigan or USC.
And while the top half of the Big East isn't that great, the bottom half isn't that bad. In the end, you could probably call the Big East the land of mediocrity.
The worst the Big East has to offer for our bottom half list is a trio of 5-7 teams and 6-7 Pittsburgh. Among those five-win teams, both Syracuse and South Florida managed to win four non-conference games, while Connecticut and Pitt each won two.
Even statistically, the Big East won more games per bottom half team (5.25), managing to beat out both the ACC (5.0) and Pac-12 (4.33).
The Big Ten has all the appearance of a conference on the rise.
New powerhouse teams like Michigan State are taking their brand of football on the road, beating teams like SEC-East champion Georgia in the 2012 Outback Bowl. Wisconsin has won at least a share of the last two Big Ten titles, and is looking for a third-straight trip to Pasadena in 2012.
Meanwhile, traditional power programs like Michigan and Ohio State appear to be on the verge of a massive comeback from the edge of the abyss, and the Wolverines even managed to find their way to a BCS bowl at the end of last season.
And even when dropping down the bottom half of the conference, we still find programs with names that carry weight: Purdue, Illinois, and Iowa.
While the bottom of the Big Ten still managed to win five games per program, there was enough reason to keep the conference from going any higher than third.
First, as prestigious as the conference is, we can't ignore the fact that programs like Minnesota and Indiana still manage to serve up embarrassing loss after embarrassing loss to non-conference opponents—including to FCS programs in the case of Minnesota (2-3 against FCS teams over the past five seasons).
The only thing keeping the Big Ten from slipping into the fourth spot on our list was the ability of the bottom half teams to remain relatively competitive with the top teams in the conference.
The SEC may be king of college football, but it's hard to make the same case when you ignore the exploits of teams like Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Auburn.
In fact, if you take the top six teams in the conference away, the SEC has not only lost every ranked program from 2011, but it has also lost four top ten programs.
While not ranking the SEC number one in anything is usually enough to send a southern football fan into an apoplectic fit, there's two big reasons why the SEC comes in second.
First, statically speaking, the SEC's bottom six were able to win 5.33 games per program in 2011—which is second amongst all conferences.
Second, we have to take in the qualitative area of program prestige.
While no one can argue that the SEC is home to some of the greatest college football programs the nation has to offer, it's also home to programs that are still an afterthought to most fans around the country.
Kentucky may be home to one of the top basketball programs anywhere in the United States, but the top football recruits don't go looking for scholarship offers from the Wildcats.
Vanderbilt may be one of the brightest academic stars east of Mississippi, but that star is considerably more faint when talking about the gridiron.
And while we understand SEC fans will vehemently disagree, especially given the strength of the top half of the conference, we're placing the bottom have of the SEC in our number two spot.
After all, getting blown out by Alabama isn't something to brag about, is it?
The Big 12 was eager to make the case that it was the next big thing in college football.
While the conference fell a little short of reaching the BCS National Championship Game, there was more than a little drama for the 2011 Big 12 season.
It was Oklahoma State that finally emerged as conference champion, beating out preseason national No. 1 team Oklahoma, which eventually finished 10-3.
Kansas State also turned heads, and typical Big 12 doormat Baylor finished the season at No. 12 in the final AP Poll thanks to the exploits of Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.
But the bottom half of the conference was a curious mix of usual suspects and surprise basement occupants.
For the first time in memory, both Texas and Texas A&M found themselves in the bottom half of the Big 12 standings at season's end.
And while Texas A&M is off the SEC for 2012, Texas will desperately try to dig itself out of the hole it has dug over the past two unexciting seasons in Austin.
But the Big 12 gets a major boost from the fact that of the bottom five teams in the conference, three managed to earn bowl berths in 2011. It was only Texas Tech and Kansas that failed to participate in the postseason last year.
And while the top half of the conference wasn't quite able to break through to beat out the SEC, the bottom half sure looks like it did.
With 5.6 wins per bottom half team, the Big 12 makes its way to the top spot by both reputation and statistics.