College football fans used to love their team, hate their rivals and not give a care about what happened to anyone else. However, in the past decade or so, there has been a large movement toward conference affiliation trumping team fandom.
Who can forget the moment we all heard the first "S-E-C" chant?
LSU winning that 2007 title was the second in a row for the Southeastern Conference against Ohio State, and little did we know that the college football world would be hearing that chant for the next seven seasons in a row.
For conferences and the fans of schools in conferences like the Big 12 and Big Ten, the obsession over beating the SEC became almost all consuming. So much so that the other four conferences banded together in rooting for anyone to break the SEC's winning streak.
It happened thanks to Florida State this past season, and for some around the nation, it was cause to point out that the SEC isn't the toughest conference in the country anymore.
But what measure were they using? The SEC will always throw seven national titles in a row in everyone else's faces, but that's more about individual team success than anything the entire conference is about.
It's not as if anyone is claiming the ACC is now the king of the hill because it houses Florida State. There has to be more than one category to consider when looking at the toughest conference to play in.
So, here are the five criteria we used to determine which conference sits atop the standings heading in to 2014:
- SRS (Simple Rating System: a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. The rating is denominated in points above/below average, where zero is average—courtesy Sports-Reference.com)
- Strength of Schedule (rolling four-year average for the conference)
- Returning Starters per team in 2014
- Number of first-team all-conference players returning
- Bowl teams
With each of these categories, we attempt to look at the past to predict the future, as well as give deference to the here and now. Each of the criteria are broken down with five points given to the best in each category on down to one point for the worst number in each category.
So, let's get in to who reigns at the top of the conference ladder.
When you look at the combination of offense, defense and strength of schedule, the SEC comes out on top—and it's not even close. The difference is by nearly two points, and the SEC's four individual year averages rank in the top six overall from all five conferences in the past four years. Only the Pac-12's 2013 season of 10.49 and the 2011 Big 12 season of 9.89 broke up the SEC party.
Speaking of the Pac-12, it made things a little less of a run-away contest in our next category—strength of schedule:
sports-reference.com (zero is average)
While the biggest criticism of the SEC from folks in the Big Ten and Big 12 is that SEC teams aren't willing to play anyone, the actual truth is that the Big Ten has a lot of work to do in the future to up its own strength of schedule. It also appears that the SEC has done a really good job over the last four years of highlighting matchups amongst its best schools, helping to negate any drawbacks from the nonconference schedule.
There's little doubt that the SEC and Pac-12 are giving the college football world some of the best competition we've seen over the last four years, but what about looking at what is about to come?
Let's take a look at the average returning starters per team:
In 2014, the Big Ten could put itself in a good position to be more competitive because it is more experienced on the whole. Not only does the conference lead the average, but it also has the top three teams—Indiana, Maryland and Northwestern—amongst all five conferences in returning players, with 18, 17 and 17, respectively.
What is most interesting is that Florida State's conference is ripe for the picking of a team with a really good recruiting class, as the team with the most returning talent is North Carolina (15). It is the lowest of the high total of any conference in the "Big Five."
With lower numbers returning overall, what about the talent of those returning players—a true indication of just how deep a conference may be. That story is one of the more interesting in our criteria, so let's take a look at it:
|ACC||10 of 26||5|
|Pac-12||8 of 27||4|
|Big 12||8 of 29||3|
|Big Ten||7 of 27||1.5|
|SEC||7 of 27||1.5|
Not only does the ACC lead the overall total, it happens to have perhaps the most explosive of the returning bunch thanks to six returning members of the first-team offense. That's the most of any side of the ball.
With those kinds of numbers for the ACC, one could see why it also happens to lead in our final category—bowl teams from 2013.
The 2013 season was a banner one for the ACC, as not only did it have the BCS national champions, but it also sent the most schools to bowl games in conference history. Even if you take away bowl-eligible Maryland and insert new conference member Louisville into the equation, the total remains at 11 bowl teams for the conference heading into the season.
Only the Big 12 failed to get more than half of its conference into bowl games last season, despite the tight race for the conference crown all season long.
So, when you add it all up, we see one conference that is at the top of nearly every measure available—the SEC. It means the winner is the obvious choice, the one that everyone outside of SEC territory loves to hate the most.
As much as everyone across the rest of the college football world wants it not to be true: The SEC is the best conference in the country heading in to 2014.
However, its grasp on the top rung of the ladder isn't as firm as it once was. Another non-SEC national champion could go a long way toward knocking the conference off its top spot after this year.
No matter your affiliation, one thing is for sure—college football has never been as competitive from top to bottom as it is right now.
Andy Coppens is a national college football featured columnist. You can find him on Twitter: @AndyOnCFB.