The end of the season is nigh, and with bowl season looming in the not-so-distant future, it's only a matter of time before we get to see elite non-conference opponents square-off (consistently) for the first time since early fall.
Those head-to-head matchups will go a long way in determining how each conference has truly stacked up this year—as they do every postseason—but in the meantime, it doesn't hurt to make a guess.
If you've watched enough football and mined enough data, certain trends start to emerge, hinting at which leagues might truly be the best this season.
We'll know more in a little over a month, once the top-tier bowls with the top-tier teams from the top-tier leagues start kicking off.
But for now, here's a shot in the dark.
FEI-Plus numbers courtesy of Football Outsiders
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, Florida State is currently the No. 1 team in the rankings, checking in with an F/+ score of 48.6 percent. Conversely, Florida International is the worst team in the rankings, checking in with an F/+ score of -42.9 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.
Average FEI-Plus: -18.4%
Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 11th
The Sun Belt is the only conference that doesn't have a single "above average" team, according to the F/+ ratings. And that should come as a surprise to no one.
A perennial bottom-feeder, this league is led by a semi-respectable team in Louisiana-Lafayette, which has only lost games at Arkansas and Kansas State this season. Kudos for scheduling hard, and even bigger kudos for running the rest of the table.
But beyond the Ragin' Cajuns, things get bleak in a hurry. It's hard to find another team that won't get rolled in a bowl game. The best bet would likely be Western Kentucky, which at least has a superstar running back in Antonio Andrews.
Average FEI-Plus: -16.9%
Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 10th
There's a reason Northern Illinois—which has won an astonishing 21 consecutive conference games—gets so little national respect.
The MAC is pretty darn' bad.
Things are okay at the top, where Ball State, Toledo, Bowling Green, Buffalo and the aforementioned NIU Huskies can all do some things well. Any or all of those teams should make the conference proud this postseason.
But man, there's a pretty severe drop-off after that. Buffalo is No. 5 in the conference's F/+ ratings at minus-1.8 percent; the sixth-ranked team is Ohio at minus-19.6.
Average FEI-Plus: -12.7%
Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 9th
Excluding the two Independent powerhouses (BYU and Notre Dame), East Carolina is the highest-ranked team from a non-BCS conference, according to the F/+ ratings.
The Pirates put up huge offensive numbers, won by 20-plus points at North Carolina earlier this year, and have only lost to Virginia Tech (by five) and at Tulane for the season.
Still, their year will be defined by a season-ending road game against Marshall, which will (likely) decide which one makes the C-USA Championship game. Rice or North Texas would await the winner.
The four teams mentioned all check-in with an above-average F/+, which is more than the AAC—a BCS league (for the time being)—can claim. That's some pretty impressive stuff.
Average FEI-Plus: -6.7%
Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 7th
Old Dominion is not calculated in the F/+ rankings, ostensibly because it is in an "FBS transition year," and not technically part of the subdivision.
But that doesn't matter (much). The Independents and the Mountain West are really conferences No. 7a and 7b; the order you put them in is merely a matter of preference.
I love the powerhouses at the Independents' top tier, and I also applaud how scrappy and competitive Navy is each year. But it's hard to look past the fact that Army, Old Dominion, Idaho and New Mexico State make up over half of this non-league.
The MWC is nothing to write home about, but it still gets the nod...for now.
Average FEI-Plus: -8.0%
Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 8th
Like Northern Illinois fans, Fresno State fans likely feel that their team—one of just six remaining un-beatens in college football—gets far too little respect.
Boise State always got the respect of pollsters when it was undefeated in the Mountain West. Why doesn't that translate to the Bulldogs?
There is an answer—and a pretty good one, at that. The Mountain West is not nearly as good or deep as it once was. Beyond Boise State (which Fresno State beat by one point at home) and Utah State (which Fresno Stat got to avoid), no other teams rank as above average in the F/+ ratings.
In fact, despite its undefeated record, Fresno State actually ranks below Boise State and Utah State, checking in at No. 3 in the conference
Bold prediction: Whoever wins the (horrifically named) Mountain Division, whether it be the Broncos or Aggies, will go on to beat Fresno State for the conference championship.
Average FEI-Plus: -1.7%
Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 6th
In some ways, the AAC is just like some of the other BCS leagues.
Louisville and Central Florida both score better than 21.0 percent in the F/+ ratings, giving the conference just as many teams above that mark as the Big 12 (and only one less than the ACC and Big Ten). There is BCS-level quality at the top.
But the mess at the bottom of this conference makes it hard to respect. Temple, UConn and South Florida would all be the worst team in the ACC, Big 12 and SEC; only BCS chum like Purdue, Colorado and Cal rank below that unholy trinity.
If Fresno State or NIU finishes undefeated, either would likely finish ahead of Central Florida and Louisville in the final BCS standings, which could take an at-large spot away from a much more deserving power conference team like Wisconsin.
Thanks a lot, AAC.
Average FEI-Plus: +8.3%
Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 5th
The Big 12 is looking more and more like a two-team race between Baylor and Oklahoma State, which makes this Saturday's game in Stillwater one of the most important of the season—in any conference.
That Texas is 6-1 in league play right now says everything you need to know about the Big 12 in 2013. The Longhorns are not a good football team by any stretch, and they've proven it on numerous occasions.
They could also be tied for first at the end of the week.
On the bright side, because of the Big 12's down year, Kansas was finally able to sneak in a conference win over West Virginia last week—its first in 28 tries.
Plus-sized Gatorade baths for everyone!
Average FEI-Plus: +8.8%
Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 4th
The ACC cut into the Big Ten's lead for third place, but it hasn't made enough of a dent to warrant a move up the rankings.
Florida State is as good as advertised, ranking No. 1 overall in F/+ (though its lead over Alabama is microscopic). But below the Seminoles, no other team checks in with a score over 25 percent—something the Big Ten has three of, while the SEC and Pac-12 have four.
North Texas from mighty C-USA ranks No. 52 in the ratings, a spot that seven teams in the ACC—exactly half of the conference—places below. That is, North Texas would be an above average team in this year's ACC.
There are some good teams at the top, but it's hard to rate a league like that, which has no discernible middle tier, among the three best in America.
Average FEI-Plus: +9.0%
Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 3rd
Purdue is the worst BCS-conference team in college football—an unabashed outlier that brings shame upon the Big Ten, weighing down its F/+ numbers considerably.
And the conference still manages to rank third.
Without the Boilermakers anchoring it down, the Big Ten's average F/+ would be 12.1 percent, well above the fourth-place ACC. Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State are three legitimately good teams at the top; below that, everyone except Purdue is semi-competitive.
No other conference can boast that kind of middle-tier depth, which is why the Big Ten places comfortably ahead of the ACC and Big 12. Knock it all you want—the style of play makes that part easy—but there are a lot of teams here playing decent football.
Average FEI-Plus: +14.5%
Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 2nd
I went into further depth on this issue last week, when I officially pulled the trigger and moved the SEC down to No. 2.
The short version goes like this: The SEC is not bad, by any means, and it's not necessarily having a "down year." Another conference just happens to be playing better. By no fault of its own, the SEC has been bypassed by another league.
I do like that the SEC is so deep on its second tier; Alabama is the only team ranked in the F/+ Top 10, but six other teams (seven overall) rank in the F/+ Top 25. Even the No. 1 league can't make that claim.
But having just one team in the Top 10 should speak for itself. Last year, in the final F/+ rankings, the SEC finished with five.
Average FEI-Plus: +15.9%
Average FEI-Plus Ranking: 1st
Here's yet another reason that the Pac-12 is this year's SEC: Cannibalism.
In year's past, SEC fans have complained about the league swallowing itself whole. There was a time last year, for example, when it appeared Alabama would not play for the national championship, even though it would likely have been undefeated in any other conference.
The SEC was too good for its own good.
Now, the exact same thing has happened in the Pac-12—though only time will tell if Oregon, like Alabama, catches enough breaks to play in the national title game. The depth of the league has caught up on Stanford twice now, effectively eliminating it from the hunt.
With borderline elite teams like Arizona State, USC and UCLA all looming, national title contenders like Oregon and Stanford needed to be on alert at all times. That was the M.O. of the SEC for so many years, but now it has far less depth behind Alabama (though injuries are partially culpable).
I know some people will take issue with this, but I'll let the numbers speak for themselves. There's a reason the Pac-12 is favored by the F/+ rankings, and I think that speaks volumes.
If you prefer to use the BCS standings—which the SEC is predictably dominant in—as your metric, feel free to disagree with me and argue for SEC vindication.
(If you're an Auburn fan, though, don't expect me to ignore the irony).