Week 12 College Football Conference Power Rankings

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistNovember 12, 2013

Week 12 College Football Conference Power Rankings

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    Eleven weeks into the 2013 college football season, if you've watched enough games, it's become clear that some conferences are stronger than others.

    Every team in the country has played a large enough sample from which to draw conclusions, using both the eye test and advanced numbers, the latter of which is useless until around this part of the season. 

    There is still plenty of time to go, and so many things can change, but as teams enter Week 12, some leagues have proven themselves to be among the elite, while others have struggled to find their footing.

    Here's a look at how they stack up.

    FEI-Plus numbers courtesy of Football Outsiders.

Explaining FEI-Plus

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    FEI-Plus (or F/+) is an advanced metric tool used by Football Outsiders that combines two separate ranking systems to create one, encompassing college football power rating.

    A full explanation of the method (along with the current rankings) can be found here, but in its simplest terms, F/+ is a play-by-play and drive-by-drive metric that measures a team's efficiency in all three phases of the game, then adjusts for strength of opponent.

    The notation for F/+ is a percentage score, where anything above 0.0 percent is above-average play and anything beneath it is below-average. The further away you move from zero, in either direction, the better or worse the performance.

    For example, Alabama is currently the No. 1 team in the rankings, checking in with an F/+ score of 48.8 percent. Conversely, Florida International is the worst team in the rankings, checking in with an F/+ score of -40.4 percent.

    These numbers were used as a guideline for the conference power rankings, though they were not treated as gospel. It is simply another data point—albeit a very strong one—to look at when analyzing teams and leagues.

11. Sun Belt

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    Average FEI-Plus: -16.1%

    Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 10th

    The Sun Belt, surprisingly, in a mild upset, does not rank last among FBS conferences in average F/+ but still finishes at the bottom of these rankings.

    The reason? Unlike the conference it places ahead of—which is only so low because it's weighed down by some of the worst teams in college football—the Sun Belt doesn't have a single team that rates above average.

    In a bizarre turn of events, South Alabama actually checks in as the highest-ranked Sun Belt team in terms of F/+, despite having a 1-3 record in conference. 

    The Jaguars won at Tulane and lost by seven points at Tennessee in non-conference play, which helps explain their favor in the advanced numbers.

10. MAC

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    Average FEI-Plus: -17.4%

    Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 11th

    So much for #MACtion.

    The Mid-American Conference ranks dead last in terms of average F/+, mostly by virtue of the flotsam at its lowest tier.

    Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and UMass all check in among the five worst teams in college football, and Western Michigan checks in close at No. 118 (out of 125).

    These numbers help affirm why Northern Illinois has gotten so little national respect, as the Huskies have struggled with teams like Akron and FCS Eastern Illinois this year, despite their 9-0 record.

    The F/+ numbers have NIU rated as a slightly below-average team, which seems to suggest that Ball State—ranked ahead of it as the No. 1 team from the MAC—has a shot to win in DeKalb this Wednesday.

9. C-USA

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    Average FEI-Plus: -12.0%

    Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 9th

    Conference-USA is enjoying a mild renaissance this season—not enough to earn or warrant any mainstream attention, but enough to be considered a building block for the league.

    Not counting the FBS Independents, East Carolina is the highest-ranked team from a non-BCS league, checking in at No. 32 in the F/+ rankings. 

    North Texas and Marshall are also valued as above-average teams, while Rice, Tulane and Middle Tennessee are not far behind.

    For C-USA to have six capable teams—a half-dozen squads that it trusts to represent the conference well should they make it to a bowl game—is a mild coup and represents an "up" year for the league.

8. Mountain West

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    Average FEI-Plus: -8.3%

    Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 8th

    The F/+ numbers indict Northern Illinois as a fraud, which would seem, at first, to be good for its de facto rival, Fresno State.

    The current MWC leaders, however, are also looked down upon by the F/+ rankings, which place the Bulldogs at No. 46, behind 4-5 BCS teams such as Northwestern, Florida and North Carolina.

    Utah State and Boise State both actually check in higher than Fresno State does, though neither is operating at full strength right now, which would seem to give the Bulldogs an advantage over both in the conference championship game.

    Either way, though, Mountain West is a shell of its former self.

7. Independent

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    Average FEI-Plus: -7.2%

    Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 7th

    This number is a little bit flawed for two reasons: (1) Old Dominion, ostensibly because it's in an FBS transition year, is not accounted for in the F/+ rankings, and (2) the sample size was small to begin with.

    Still, no non-BCS conference has top-end teams as good as the Independents, which allows the non-league to overcome some poor teams at the bottom.

    Notre Dame and BYU are the two best non-BCS teams in America, according to both the F/+ rankings and my own subjective eye test.

    Here's a list of quality BCS teams that the Irish and Cougars have beaten this year, along with their F/+ ranking:

    • Arizona State (6)
    • USC (9)
    • Michigan State (15)
    • Georgia Tech (27)
    • Texas (40)
    • Houston (47)

    I can forgive the presence of Idaho and New Mexico State, albeit begrudgingly, to reward a couple of teams that would do well in any conference.

6. AAC

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    Average FEI-Plus: -2.5%

    Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 6th

    The AAC was almost the first league with a positive average F/+, but alas, thanks to some truly awful teams at the bottom, it has to settle for being the last league with a negative average.

    Louisville and Central Florida both rank among the 15 best teams in America, checking in at Nos. 10 and 12, respectively. That ties the AAC with the ACC for fourth-best in America, ahead of the Big 12 (1) and trailing the SEC (3), Big Ten (3) and Pac-12 (4).

    Still, despite that fantastic duo at the top, America's newest conference also includes teams such as Temple, UConn and South Florida—three programs that, at least in 2013, have sullied the good name of all BCS leagues.

    Work on the bottom, AAC, before you start to brag about the top.

5. Big 12

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    Average FEI-Plus: +8.3%

    Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 5th

    The Big 12 finished neck-and-neck with the ACC in average F/+ ranking, placing just one-tenth of a percentage point behind it.

    In what amounts, essentially, to a coin-flip, I down-marked the Big 12 for having roughly the same amount of bad teams as the ACC, despite having four less teams overall.

    TCU, West Virginia, Iowa State and Kansas all rate below one percent in F/+, meaning that four-tenths of the conference is below- or essentially average. The ACC only has five teams like that, giving it an easier-to-swallow ratio of 36 percent.

    I'd take the ACC's top three over the Big 12's top three also, which gives the former a slight edge. Again, though, in a race this close, the two leagues could flip-flop every week.

4. ACC

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    Average FEI-Plus: +8.4%

    Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 4th

    The ACC just edges out the Big 12 for the right to be ranked fourth, but after a fast start to the season, even that feels like a mild disappointment to the conference.

    Florida State, Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech have all flirted with being elite teams at certain points this season, but now it's unclear if any besides the Seminoles deserve that title.

    Virginia Tech ranks well in the advanced numbers, checking in at No. 11 despite losses to Duke and Pittsburgh in conference play. But Clemson and Miami both rank pretty low, the former at No. 23 and the latter at No. 29.

    There's still time for the ACC to work on some of its top-end problems; it wouldn't be a shock for the conference to reach No. 3 by season's end.

    For now, though, this is rightfully where it belongs.

3. Big Ten

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    Average FEI-Plus: +9.2%

    Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 3rd

    The Big Ten ranks above the Big 12 and ACC in the F/+ rankings, a number that might come as a shock to those who bash Ohio State's cupcake schedule.

    True, the Buckeyes haven't had to play the hardest opponents en route to a perfect record, but they have had to beat Wisconsin, which F/+ rates as the eighth-best team in America.

    Michigan State checks-in at No. 15, too, boasting the third-best defense in college football. If Sparty wins the Big Ten Legends and plays Ohio State in the conference championship, the Buckeyes will have a chance to score two very impressive victories this season.

    Really, though, the Big Ten is aided by its depth, not its eliteness. Only Purdue ranked outside the top 70 teams in America, while only Penn State and Illinois joined it with a negative F/+ rating.

2. SEC

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    Average FEI-Plus: +14.4%

    Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 2nd

    I've flirted with making this switch all year, but I didn't think it was warranted until looking at the numbers. The SEC isn't down, per se, and it might even be deeper than it was in 2012; it's just not the best conference in the land.

    Interestingly enough, the SEC's average F/+ has gone up since last season, when it finished at 12.6 percent, but the lack of top-end depth in 2013 is disturbing.

    Last year, the SEC had three of the top four; four of the top six; five of the top 10; and six of the top 13 teams in America, according to the final F/+ rankings.

    This year, it has one of the top four; one of the top six; one of the top 10; and two of the top 13 teams in America, a troubling downward trend, where only Alabama and Missouri have played well enough to be ranked among the top baker's dozen.

    Yes, five of the top 11 teams in the current BCS standings hail from the SEC. If you choose to use that as your metric, by all means, feel free to disagree with me.

    I prefer to use F/+, which is immune to preseason perception and regional bias because I think it more accurately reflects what has happened on the field. I do not think, for example, that Auburn is the seventh best team in the country; I am more inclined to agree with an assessment that it's in the mid-teens.

    The SEC is still very good. Its teams that don't rank as highly have essentially the same F/+ score as last year—that is, they're playing about just as well. There's a reason their raw scores are similar but their relative scores are lower.

    A different conference is playing incredible football.

1. Pac-12

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    Average FEI-Plus: +16.1%

    Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 1st

    If you're living on the east coast, and you've decided to call it a night before most of the Pac-12's late kickoffs, the joke, as they say, is on you.

    You've been missing the best football in the country.

    The Pac-12 doesn't just harbor some of the best teams in America, it harbors some of the most balanced. Of the 15 teams that ranked top-30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, 40 percent of them—Stanford, Arizona State, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Arizona—hail from the Pac-12.

    That number doesn't even mention the two Los Angeles teams, USC and UCLA, both of which ranked in the F/+ top 25. The Trojans placed a surprising No. 9, boasting the fifth-best defense in college football, while UCLA checked in at No. 24.

    Only two teams, Colorado and Cal, placed below No. 65 in the current rankings, which means that almost every week of Pac-12 play presents at least a modest challenge.

    We'll see if this can hold up, especially in bowl season, but for now, despite the fact that SEC football has dominated for so many consecutive years, the Pac-12 is the best conference in America.