According to ESPN, the Big 12 is the best conference in college football.
But how do you define "best"?
I've always defined it as the conference with the most competitive inter-league play, and for the last five of six years, I'd say the SEC has been the "best" conference. I'd say that without any hesitation.
But last year, the SEC didn't look quite as deep. Tennessee and Georgia, both historically good programs in the East, underachieved in 2011. In the West, Auburn still hadn't recovered from the loss of talent from their 2010 championship team, and Arkansas got clobbered by both LSU and Alabama.
This year, Arkansas is a mess, Auburn has a 1-3 record and Mississippi State struggled in its wins over Troy and South Alabama. Texas A&M, so far, looks like a player, but against LSU and Alabama, I see two losses—they just don't look "there" yet.
Florida looks like it has improved greatly over last year, but the Gators have a tendency to only show up in the second half of a game. South Carolina looked uninspired in both of its road games at Vanderbilt and at Kentucky. Georgia's offense looks fantastic, but its defense has given up a lot of points, usually an SEC strength.
The Big 12, on the other hand, looks strong. Of the Big 12's 29 non-conference games, the conference has gone 26-3. The one remaining non-conference game is an October 27 contest between Oklahoma and Notre Dame.
The SEC has played 37 non-conference games thus far and has gone 30-7 with 20 games still to play (including the postponed Texas A&M vs. Louisiana Tech contest). So far, the Big 12 has outperformed the SEC in non-conference games.
You can claim you beat each other up in the SEC and that's the reason why a couple of conference losses shouldn't carry as much weight, but when your non-conference record also has losses, there will be doubters.
Kansas State looks like the most balanced team in the Big 12 conference, with both solid defense and offense. The Wildcats held Oklahoma to just 19 points at Norman, Oklahoma. The Sooners, believe it or not, look like the only question mark among the conference crown contenders, but they did keep their game against Kansas State fairly close, losing 24-19.
Texas looks like it has solved its quarterback problem with David Ash, and the only real concern is its defense giving up big plays. Oklahoma State, despite its loss against Texas, looks like a huge threat in its contests with TCU, Kansas State, West Virginia and Oklahoma.
There are no words to describe West Virginia other than "soft defense" and "mind-blowing offense." When you can score 70 points on an ACC champion in a BCS Bowl and follow it up the next year against a conference foe (Baylor), you're for real.
TCU isn't that exciting of a team, but their defense is solid, and they are flying under the radar. Even Texas Tech is looking improved this year—the Red Raiders have the best total defense in the Big 12, allowing just 167.5 yards per game. Finally, both Baylor and Iowa State are capable of upsets.
Look, the SEC has Ole Miss, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and (usually) Mississippi State. The Big 12 has Kansas. Iowa State is no longer a lower-tiered team after it took Oklahoma State out of the BCS Championship game last season.
The fact that the SEC has two big powerhouses in Alabama and LSU is not being dismissed. In fact, Alabama would probably be favored against most, if not all of the Big 12 teams. Same with LSU. But having two teams that are among the five best in the country doesn't point to a superior conference.
It does imply that the SEC may have two of the best teams in the country, but even that's a stretch. LSU looked lethargic at Auburn and underwhelming against Towson.
The Sagarin ratings agree with ESPN's analysis as well. The Big 12 currently leads all conferences with an 82.58 simple average, while the SEC had an 81.45.
So if Alabama wins the BCS Championship, does that mean the SEC is the best conference? No. It simply means Alabama is the best team in the country.
It's still early in the season, and if Georgia, Florida and South Carolina all come away with only one or two losses, then the SEC should probably leapfrog the Big 12, because at least five teams would have solid records in a tough, tough conference.
Perhaps bowl games are the best indicator of which conference is the best. Unfortunately, not all bowl tie-ins pit top conferences against each other. The SEC doesn't have a tie-in with the Pac-12 and the Big 12 only has one tie-in with the SEC, although a new agreement has been made between the two conferences which takes effect following the 2014 season.
With the a playoff system finally coming to FBS football in 2014, we might have a better idea of which conference can call itself the best in the land.
Until then, enjoy the carnage.