Week 15 College Football Conference Power Rankings
Championship Week is officially upon us, mere days separating now from the release of the final BCS rankings and the assignment of all the bowl games.
How each conference performs in the postseason will go a long way in determining how the final version of league power rankings shape up. So many teams have gotten better as the season has progressed; it's hard to know if an entire conference has improved until it starts playing teams from other leagues.
Still, using quantitative metrics like numbers and qualitative metrics like the eye test, it's not impossible to order each league based on what has happened so far this season.
Here's an attempt to sort through the chaos.
11. Sun Belt
The Sun Belt lost some ethos at its top level in Week 14, when both of its leaders, UL-Lafayette and Arkansas State, came up in defeat.
The Ragin' Cajuns lost to rival UL-Monroe, which can typically be forgiven, but not in a year where the Warhawks have struggled so mightily. But ASU was unable to take advantage, losing to Western Kentucky and crippling its chance to win the conference.
In some ways, this represents what is good with the Sun Belt. Save Georgia State, every team is competitive, and parity is not a bad thing to boast.
It would just be better for at least one team to step up and carry the banner.
C-USA loses off-field points this week for the conduct of its league office, which created some sort of arcane formula and contrived a situation where Rice, not the more-deserving Marshall, would host this week's conference championship game.
In a close battle with the No. 9 conference on this list, that is enough to drop C-USA back to the 10th spot, even though 2013 has been something of a banner year for the league.
Marshall's 59-28 win over East Carolina last week was one of the most impressive results I've seen all season—from anyone, not just a team from a "lesser" conference.
December is the season of MAC football, the time of year when its bad teams are no longer eligible to play, but its shining stars are all preparing for the postseason.
That is good news for a conference that struggles with the biggest talent discrepancy in America. Teams like undefeated NIU (obviously), Bowling Green, Ball State and Buffalo are as scrappy as they come; teams like Miami (Ohio), UMass and the Directional Michigans are...well, not.
It would be great for the conference if Jordan Lynch could orchestrate one more win against Bowling Green this weekend, likely pushing the Huskies back into the BCS for a second consecutive year. But the Falcons will not go down without a fight.
The Independents didn't have their strongest week at the top, with Notre Dame competing well before falling short at Stanford, and BYU struggling to beat a pretty bad Nevada team.
What's worse, Army traveled out to Hawaii and lost to the previously winless Rainbow Warriors, sparing them the shame of finishing a season 0-12. Norm Chow's team is better than the record indicates, but that is still nothing for the Knights to be proud of.
Hopefully Notre Dame can restore some of its former glory in 2014, when quarterback Everett Golson is expected to re-enroll in the university and be back in the starting lineup.
Sans Tommy Rees, the Irish should again be ready to lead this conference.
The Mountain West lost its only outside chance at crashing the BCS on Friday, when San Jose State beat Fresno State by the tidy score of 62-52.
I'd been saying all season that the Bulldogs were overrated; it was a long time coming for their defense to finally catch up with them. The fact that it took this long for someone to beat Tim DeRutyer's team speaks to the relative weakness of this league.
Utah State is good enough to win the conference championship game this week, even on the road and even without Chuckie Keeton. That says everything you need to know about this year's MWC.
Cincinnati has gone on one of its patented late-season surges, playing well enough to prevent UCF from clinching a conference title in Week 14.
The Knights should be able to accomplish that feat this weekend, though, needing just a win over SMU or a Louisville win over the Bearcats to do so. If neither of those things happen, UCF probably doesn't deserve to crash the BCS over Cincinnati.
Between Louisville, UCF, Cincy and Houston, this conference has four teams that it can be rightfully proud of—squads it can feel confident about heading into bowl season. But beyond them, the rest of the conference is...well, woof.
Hopefully next year's league will be deeper, even with Louisville out of the equation.
Clemson hasn't exactly "breezed" past every non-Florida State opponent in the ACC this year, but none have truly tested it nor matched its physical talent.
The Tigers are clearly the second-best team in the conference, and even though they fought hard at South Carolina—probably the fourth-best team in the SEC—the game eventually turned ugly. The Gamecocks forced six turnovers and had their way with Clemson's offensive line for the full 60 minutes.
Florida State has been carrying this league's banner this entire season, but even boasting the nation's top team isn't enough to forgive the rest of its teams. Duke is a great story and all, but it is not, by any means, a 10-win team on paper.
Only in the ACC...
4. Big 12
The Big 12 is nothing if not symmetric, with good, decent and bad teams organized perfectly, as if across an axis, in 2013.
Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma are all ranked in the BCS top 25 and can all be rightfully called good; Kansas State and Texas Tech are bowl-eligible teams that can rightfully be called decent; West Virginia, TCU, Iowa State and Kansas are pretty darn bad.
Even though the league no longer has a conference championship game, this should be the best week of Big 12 football to date. All four of those "good" teams are playing each other: Oklahoma State hosts Oklahoma while Baylor hosts Texas.
At least this year, which was a weird one, will go out with a bang, not whimper.
3. Big Ten
There are two ways to look at what happened in the Big Ten last week, when Ohio State and Wisconsin—two of the conference's three supposed great teams—either struggled to beat or didn't beat mediocre opponents in Michigan and Penn State.
One could chastise the Buckeyes and Badgers as overrated, calling the state of the conference into disrepute at its highest level. Or, alternatively, one could applaud the Wolverines and Nittany Lions, two traditional powerhouses, for finally playing up to their potential.
I'm choosing to go with the latter. Not because I have any sort of bias, but because I watched both of those games. Michigan and Penn State both looked nothing like they did all season; if they can carry that momentum into 2014, the Big Ten could compete with any conference in America.
A banner year for the Pac-12 will end with a highly intriguing championship game, a rematch of Stanford's thorough beatdown against Arizona State earlier this season.
But the Sun Devils have gotten so much better as the year has gone on, strengthened by the weekly gauntlet of conference play. They have risen to the occasion and beaten a number of quality teams, which, in a conference this stacked, is the only way to win a division.
The winner of Saturday's game will likely join Oregon in one of the BCS bowls, while the loser will join teams like UCLA, Washington, USC and Arizona in the rest of the bowl field.
It's a shame more SEC-Pac-12 bowls don't exist. Without watching the two leagues square-off, how is one rightfully supposed to decide which is better?
The BCS is a deeply and inherently flawed system; it is by no means the best metric for determining the strength of one team compared to the next, as we have seen, time and time again, over the past decade-plus.
Still, heading into championship week, the fact that the SEC has three plausible entrants into the BCS National Championship Game is ridiculous. The rest of the country only has two.
I've taken some heat for putting the Pac-12 above the SEC in earlier versions of these rankings, and even now I think the leagues are essentially equals. Given how both conferences perform during bowl season, their spots atop this list are fluid.
But for now, it's hard to argue with what the SEC is doing. Auburn is not a better team than Alabama, but it has a stadium capable of swaying the odds that dramatically in its favor; and in the SEC, that is the rule, not the exception.