The SEC might still be the best conference in college football. In fact, that is probably the case. But the once-giant gulf between the Southeast and the rest of the country grew smaller with each passing week this season.
That's not the SEC's fault, by the way. It's because a formidable new power has emerged out West. I've grappled with calling the Pac-12 the best conference in college football this entire season, and even ranked it No. 1 in a couple editions of my weekly power rankings.
When I did, it's because the conference had earned it.
The SEC finished first in the final regular-season version of those rankings, which it deserved, but the situation is still very fluid. To my mind, there is a strong chance that the Pac-12 pulls ahead for good and ends the season on top with a solid bowl campaign.
Much of that has to do with schedule. The Pac-12 has traditionally easy bowl tie-ins, allowing it to avoid the SEC and Big Ten, for the most part, outside of BCS bowls each postseason.
This year is no different, and with only one team in a BCS game, it's created a situation where the Pac-12 is favored in almost every one of its bowls—not just by Las Vegas, but also by the Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings:
|Pac-12 Bowl Games, 2013|
|Game||Line||Pac-12 F/+||Opp. F/+||F/+ Diff.|
|Washington St. vs. Colorado St.||WSU -5||+2.6%||-2.7%||+5.3%|
|USC vs. Fresno St.||USC -6||+26.6%||+7.7%||+18.9%|
|Oregon St. vs. Boise St.||OSU -3||+5.2%||+11.0%||-5.8%|
|Washington vs. BYU||UW -3.5||+23.4%||+16.9%||+6.5%|
|Oregon vs. Texas||UO -13.5||+30.8%||+10.8%||+20.0%|
|Arizona St. vs. Texas Tech||ASU -14||+31.1%||+1.2%||+29.9%|
|Arizona vs. Boston College||UA -7.5||+15.3%||+3.3%||+12.0%|
|UCLA vs. Virginia Tech||UCLA -7||+25.8%||+21.8%||+4.0%|
|Stanford vs. Michigan St.||STAN -5.5||+41.5%||+29.9%||+11.6|
|Source: Vegas Insider - LVH / Football Outsiders|
Pac-12 teams are favored to go 9-0 according to the Vegas odds and 8-1 according to the F/+ rankings, an advanced metric that measures weighted, play-by-play efficiency. And that one game the Pac-12 is favored to lose—the Hawaii Bowl between Oregon State and Boise State—comes with a big, italic, impossible-to-ignore asterisk.
Chris Petersen is gone.
Boise State's former head coach/program architect left the team to become the head coach at Washington—the Pac-12 gets richer!—and his former Broncos will need to cope with the loss of their leader. Are we sure they'll even show up?
The Broncos opened the game as three-point favorites, but since Petersen left, that line has swung six points in Oregon State's direction, according to Vegas Insider. At this point, the game would have to be called, at best, a complete and utter toss-up.
Other than that, the Pac-12 should find calm waters and relatively smooth sailing for most of the bowl season. USC is dealing with its own lost coach against Fresno State, so that could be a potential land mine, but the Trojans have enough senior leadership to end this wild season on a strong note (I think).
Also, despite the 11-1 record, Fresno State just isn't very good.
In contrast to the Pac-12's easy slate of games, here is what the SEC—the only other BCS conference favored to win the majority of its bowl games—will face this postseason:
|SEC Bowl Games, 2013|
|Game||Line||SEC F/+||Opp. F/+||F/+ Diff.|
|Ole Miss vs. Georgia Tech||MISS -3||+13.4%||+14.9%||-1.5%|
|Mississipi St. vs. Rice||MSST -7||+7.7%||+2.8%||+4.9|
|Texas A&M vs. Duke||TA&M -12.5||+20.2%||+11.0%||+9.2%|
|Georgia vs. Nebraska||UGA -9||+22.5%||+6.8%||+15.7%|
|S. Carolina vs. Wisconsin||PK||+25.0%||+28.9%||-3.9%|
|LSU vs. Iowa||LSU -8||+23.9%||+15.9%||+8.0%|
|Alabama vs. Oklahoma||ALA -15||+44.9%||+19.7%||+25.2|
|Missouri vs. Oklahoma St.||PK||+24.0%||+28.0%||-4.0%|
|Vanderbilt vs. Houston||VAN -3||+3.5%||+8.7%||-5.2%|
|Auburn vs. Florida State||FSU -7.5||+32.9%||+49.7%||-16.8%|
|Source: Vegas Insider - LVH / Football Outsiders|
That F/+ differential, especially as it relates to the Pac-12, is what makes this bowl season so troubling for the SEC and all who defend it.
Overall, the SEC bowl teams are about as good (though slightly worse) than the Pac-12 bowl teams, but because of a difficult schedule, the F/+ rankings project those SEC bowl teams to potentially go 4-5 this bowl season.
Even if it severely outperforms those projections, how will it keep up with the Pac-12 and its flirtation with going undefeated? How will it finish with the best record? A lot would need to go right.
Potential Pac-12 upsets like Colorado State over Washington State, Fresno State over USC, Boise State over Oregon State, BYU over Washington, Virginia Tech over UCLA and Michigan State over Stanford would need to go the SEC's way. At the very least, three of those six Pac-12 teams would have to go down, because the other three games should be easy wins.
From there, the SEC would need to win its Vegas "Pick'em" games—Wisconsin vs. South Carolina and Oklahoma State vs. Missouri—in addition to avoiding "upsets" from Houston over Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech over Ole Miss.
Each of those things happening is very plausible, but all of those things happening is not. The Pac-12 has a distinct advantage as it enters this postseason.
Is there another conference, besides the SEC and Pac-12, that has a realistic shot at enjoying the best bowl season? Probably not. These two leagues have been the cream of the crop all season, so it's right for them to duke things out at the top.
In terms of pure win percentage, though, it might be best not to overlook Conference USA, which has enjoyed something of a banner year in 2013.
Four of C-USA's six bowl teams—Marshall, ECU, Tulane and North Texas—have a higher F/+ rating than their opponent, and Rice and Middle Tennessee State, while underdogs, are not substantially far behind Navy and Mississippi State, respectively.
It's not unthinkable to say that C-USA might go 5-1 in the postseason this year, which might technically be the highest winning percentage in the country. That would be mighty impressive and is something to keep an eye on, but it wouldn't be as impressive, for obvious reasons, as the Pac-12 or SEC doing the same thing.
Even if the Pac-12 does finish with the best record, as I project, that doesn't necessarily mean it will pass the SEC in the final version of conference power rankings.
A lot of that will depend on how each team looks in victory or defeat and the scale of each game that is won and lost. Auburn beating Florida State should obviously mean more than Washington beating BYU.
Still, going something like 8-1 this postseason couldn't hurt the Pac-12's chances.