About this time each year, things begin to sort themselves out. You’ve seen the teams; the losses have come, or you can see them on the horizon, and by now you have established a solid basis of who’s good and who’s not.
Well, at least until that team or teams lose, and then you have to scrap it and start all over. You know the routine.
As we begin to establish our own opinion of the nation’s finest, the strange college football formula suddenly pops back into the picture. The BCS—which is currently descending slowly toward its final plug-pull—has once again surfaced with a new batch of results for 2012.
The initial outlook will look far different from the final standings, but there are some familiarities with this first number crunch and trends over the past few seasons. And yes, you've probably heard of the teams near the top before.
Commence your “S-E-C” chants now, but perhaps you should expound on them a bit.
The Now: It's the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 Party, and It's BYOB
Instead, it’s the teams and the conferences that are dominating these rankings, and more specifically, the very top. Or perhaps it’s the lack of other conferences when it comes to overall presence. One comes with the other.
The SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 have an absolute stranglehold on the Top 25, and all the realistic shakeups imaginable in the next few months likely won't drastically change that.
While what we see now will look very different from what we have at the end of the season, it is a fascinating trend that may not be going away. In fact, although this three-conference domination is more exaggerated at the moment, it’s not exactly new.
Of the teams currently in BCS Top 25, 18 come from the SEC, Big 12 or Pac-12. The Big Ten is currently being shut out, although Ohio State’s bowl ban should be noted. The ACC has two teams in, and the Big East currently has three. Notre Dame (Independent) and Boise State (Mountain West for one more round) are the only two schools not from a major conference to be included.
The Now and Then: Trending Up, and Away We Go
The last four years (including the current rankings as a gauge) have looked like this when it comes to conference representation in the Top 25. Follow the path up. Well, for some it’s up, others (cough, Big Ten, cough) it's down, and in some places it's stagnant. But really, we've been headed this way.
The SEC and the Big 12 have both been trending upwards at a different pace and path. The renovated Pac-12 has a fresh new coat of marketing paint and new offensive masterminds to stand beside it, and it appears to be on the path to resurgence in 2012 and beyond.
We only have a small sample size of the actual results in 2012—and you can expect teams within the SEC and Big 12 to beat each other up as conference play moves along—but the absence of other conferences isn’t exactly shocking.
Finishing in the Top 25 of the BCS doesn’t tell the whole story, but it is telling. More telling, however, is a glimpse at the Top 10—the teams that were in contention (or at least close) when it comes to competing for a national title.
Looking a Little Closer at the Three-Horse Race
Focusing in on the Top 10 gives us an idea of who is truly in contention, and even that is a stretch at the later points of the season. As of right now, however, the Top 10 consists of one team not in the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12: Notre Dame. Again, this concrete is wet. Don't touch it yet, but just make note of it.
Let’s zoom in a little closer and widen our timeline. Forget about competing in the Top 25 or being pegged as a top team according to the formula. What about the game itself?
Although the BCS rankings stretch down to 25, in reality, this championship-game decider serves one purpose: to decide the title game. It can also help the likes of Boise State and others sneak their way into a BCS bowl if they reach a certain threshold, but its goal is to get us two teams.
The two best teams.
Since the BCS was birthed in 1998, 14 title games have been set up courtesy of a formula. Of the 28 teams featured in this game, only nine have come outside the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. The last team not from these conferences to make it into this game was Ohio State back in 2007.
Barring massive amounts of chaos, this will not change in 2012.
We Know the Who, but How?
The basis of this three-conference dominance can start at the most simplistic and important part of college football: coaching and recruiting. Without this, you will not succeed.
The SEC has out-recruited every conference, and frankly, it’s not all that close. And in terms of geographical advantages for the big three, just look at Florida, Texas and California. These states are deeply rooted with talent, and much of that talent chooses not to leave the state or at least not stray away very far.
That’s where the Pac-12 and Big 12 come into play.
There are exceptions, of course, but this has worked greatly in these conferences’ favor. They also have a solid foundation of coaches who are able to recruit these players so they don’t go very far.
Perhaps even a simpler form of reason, however, are the programs. The likes of Alabama, Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas, USC and Oregon—and there are plenty more worthy of being in this conversation—are almost always in the Top 15 and nearly guaranteed to take these spots from someone else. I’m glaring hard in your direction, Texas.
Better players, better coaching, more football resources—it's football science, and this formula has proven results over the long haul.
OK, I See the How? But Will It Change in the Future?
Yes... and no. The SEC is recruiting at a higher clip than ever, the Big 12 is absolutely thriving with new additions, and the Pac-12 will likely build off their success in 2012 to carry the conference forward.
But there are teams outside these three conferences that will test this dominance. Ohio State and Michigan are soaring, and the recruiting that they’re doing will pay dividends soon. It already is for Ohio State, and Michigan’s 2013 class is shaping up to be one of the nation’s best. These two will be a factor beyond Big Ten Championships sooner than later.
The ACC has cuddled up with Notre Dame, and Florida State is very close to being back. If the Seminoles can avoid losing road conference games they shouldn’t, they will very much be back on the front page. Clemson is also doing plenty on the recruiting side, although the question of whether it can take that next step remains.
The Big East is interesting, and new leadership has brought some life into a conference that has desperately needed it. They may not be ready to compete for national titles just yet, but they might not be as far along as you’d think, at least with a few teams. Both Louisville and Rutgers appear poised for more than just short-term success.
Will further expansion shuffle this picture once again? I don't believe I'm going out on limb when I say we're not done yet. There’s plenty to like with the teams above, and they will test the national-championship drought some point soon. Unless it’s Notre Dame, however, that streak won’t be snapped this year.
Perhaps the death of the BCS will mean the death of the three-conference dominance. 2014 isn't that far away, right?