Is the SEC still America's best conference?
It's a simple question, albeit one that seemed crazy to ask in earnest before the year. The SEC—as its fans will so eagerly remind you—has won seven consecutive national titles and is generally regarded as the class of the college football world.
But in 2013, with Alabama its only remaining unbeaten and the Pac-12 enjoying a season for the ages, the question of SEC supremacy does warrant some investigation. As does the ranking of all of the leagues behind it, especially since every BCS conference still has one undefeated team contending for a trip to Pasadena.
Here's a look at how all of the leagues stack up.
Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette are on a collision course for regular-season Sun Belt supremacy, hurtling toward an end-of-the-season matchup that could decide who wins the conference.
That Pelican State rivalry has become one of the sneaky best small-school matchups in America, but outside of that one upcoming game, there is little to be excited about in this conference.
Having said that, there is also little to be embarrassed about, as no team besides woeful Georgia State is a train wreck, and most games feel like ones in which both teams legitimately have a chance to win.
It may not be much, but parity is at least something for the Sun Belt to hang its hat on.
C-USA has been a pleasant surprise this year.
The league hasn't been any good—not by a long shot—but the race for the conference championship is both deep and competitive, bolstered by unexpected competence at Tulane, Rice and North Texas.
East Carolina and Marshall are still the two best teams, which is what the preseason magazines projected, and the victor on Nov. 29 will likely play for the conference title.
But the thought of playing any of those three teams mentioned earlier, which before the season would have sounded like a cakewalk, is now much more difficult than anticipated.
Diehard proponents of #MACtion—myself included—cannot wait for the start of bowl season, when only the league's quality teams will be on display, and people can forget about the anchors that weigh this conference down and prevent it from realizing its true potential as the best non-BCS confederation in college football.
If you can view the league roster selectively, which is easier said than done, the MAC is filled to the brim with pleasing-to-watch teams.
Even beyond No. 18 Northern Illinois, programs like Ball State, Bowling Green, Ohio, Buffalo and Toledo are all worth taking some time from your busy schedule to watch.
But the dregs of the MAC like Miami (OH), Kent State, UMass and all of the Michigan directionals—Eastern, Central and Western—put a defined ceiling on how well we can properly regard this conference.
What an absolute shame.
Instead of lobbing potshots at Notre Dame, let's take a second to talk about Navy, which continues to field a competitive outfit despite the limitation of trying to recruit at a service academy.
That sheer inferiority of athletes was made vivid on Navy's game-losing 4th-and-4 against the Irish last Saturday. A perfect play was called, but Shawn Lynch couldn't turn the corner on outside linebacker Jaylon Smith—the No. 2 prospect in America last year—who tracked him down on the sideline and won the game for Notre Dame.
Still, the Midshipmen were right there until the end in South Bend, a testament to how well-coached and disciplined this program is and continues to be.
Combined with Notre Dame and BYU, Navy gives the Independents a third football team to be very proud of. Old Dominion is slowly morphing into a fourth.
There's not much to love about the Mountain West this year, which might be just bad enough to propel an average Fresno State team into the BCS, where it would likely get smacked a la Hawaii in 2008.
But it didn't have to be this way. The injury bug has bitten this conference especially hard, particularly at the quarterback position, which could have rivaled even BCS leagues had guys like Chuckie Keeton and Joe Southwick not gone down.
Still, future second-day NFL draft picks like Derek Carr and David Fales deserve to be recognized, as do underrated college passers like Wyoming's Brett Smith and Nevada's Cody Fajardo.
If nothing else, solid quarterback play at least makes the MWC worth watching when nothing better is on TV.
The AAC is stuck floating in purgatory, trapped somewhere between being a legitimate BCS conference—which its top three teams could all compete in—and the sorriest collection of programs in America.
Central Florida, Louisville and Houston have all proven themselves against palatable competition this year, and it's unlikely that either of that trio will lose to anyone but each other. Houston plays at UCF on Saturday before traveling to Louisville the following week.
Cincinnati continues to be decent, and SMU continues to get quality play from quarterback (and one-time BCS National Championship Game cameo actor) Garrett Gilbert. Beyond that, this conference gets ugly in a heartbeat.
Temple, Memphis, Connecticut and South Florida are legitimately four of the worst teams in college football, something that no conference outside of C-USA—and maybe the MAC—can claim to possess among its ranks.
Enjoy your automatic BCS bid while you can, AAC. And join us in saying "good riddance" once it's gone.
The ACC has plummeted in recent weeks, as Florida State has exposed teams like Clemson and Miami to be worse than we thought, while Virginia Tech has fallen flat on its face and deprived the league of having a legitimate fourth-best team.
The Seminoles might just be really, really good, which would excuse the blowouts from Clemson and Miami's point of view, but neither of those teams has been overly impressive over the course of the whole season anyway.
Clemson struggled to beat Boston College at home, while Miami needed late-game heroics to beat North Carolina and Wake Forest. The Tigers can still be trusted as a legitimate top-10 team, but does anyone feel like betting on the Hurricanes?
Despite a rosy start to the season, the ACC is invariably what we thought it was: A two-team league with a couple of competent squads behind them and a whole mess of awful ones at the bottom.
Ohio State has been hoping and praying for another Big Ten team to start playing with some semblance of proficiency, scared that the conference's down year would consign it to a second consecutive season with an undefeated record but no chance to win the national title.
But the Buckeyes should be careful what they wish for, because the way Michigan State and its record-breaking defense are going, Ohio State's once sure-fire 13-0 season might actually be in some trouble.
The Spartans lead the nation in total defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. According to Matt Hinton of Football Outsiders, this season could be one for the history books:
Since the turn of the century, the only defense that allowed fewer yards per game or per play over a full season than Michigan State has allowed through nine games is Alabama in 2011, en route to the national championship.
There isn't much depth to speak of in the Big Ten, but there is more than the ACC can boast. Now that a legitimate No. 2 team has emerged, the top doesn't look quite so barren and awful.
This feels like the right choice at No. 4.
There are five legitimately good teams in the Big 12 this year, flanked by one decent team (Kansas State) and four varying degrees of dumpster fire.
What's interesting, though, is that for the most part, that quintet of good teams has avoided each other during the first part of conference play. They all have backloaded schedules, and things inside this conference are about to get very interesting.
That all starts on Thursday night, when Baylor faces its hardest test of the season, a home game with Oklahoma. From there, the Bears face off against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State back-to-back before heading to Austin for a game with Texas to end the year.
You can run for a while in this conference, but because of its round-robin format, there is no place to hide. We're about to find out vividly if Baylor is for real.
Oregon and Stanford might be (and probably are) the best one-two punch of any conference in America, and their collective talents will be on display for all of the country to see on Thursday night in Palo Alto.
But this year, the Pac-12 has also excelled with depth. Oregon and Stanford have been consistently great this past handful of years, but now the conference has an impressive next tier.
Arizona State is a computer darling and the front-runner to win the South division. It's flanked by prospective challengers like UCLA—which has lost only to teams ranked in the current BCS Top Five—and USC, which has a defense that no team in their right mind would envy facing.
Oregon State and Washington are a pair of quality teams behind Stanford and Oregon in the North, and so long as you avoid Berkley and Boulder, you'd be hard-pressed to find an easy win anywhere in this conference.
The Pac-12 is closer to being No. 1 than people realize.
The Pac-12 is mighty close—closer than any other conference has been in a very long time—but there is still no league quite like the SEC, which boasts six teams inside of the BCS top 15 and eight inside of the Sagarin top 26.
Florida State and Oregon both have legitimate claims to be the No. 1 team in America, but until someone beats Alabama, the Crimson Tide still hold the championship belt.
Fortunately for those in Tallahassee and Eugene, Nick Saban & Co. still have to play LSU this weekend, Auburn to end the season and then probably either Missouri or South Carolina—three very losable games, no matter how talented one's roster.
But, hey. That's just life in the SEC.