Best Conferences 2001-2008: Rethinking Strength Of Schedule

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Best Conferences 2001-2008: Rethinking Strength Of Schedule
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

College football fans have debated the strength of the different conferences for generations.  Pac-10 fans have long alleged an East Coast bias, costing teams like USC national championships.

With the rise of the BCS, the perception as to the quality of a conference is extremely important to placing teams in the BCS championship game. Actual game results only matter occasionally, as hype and reputation guide the selection of the BCS title game participants.

This beauty contest is not just for the team, but the conference.  Recently, USC has been hurt by the perception that the Pac-10 is weak.  Of course, the adoption of the round-robin has served as a self-inflicted wound for the last three years.

Likewise, the perceived wisdom regarding conference strengths has kept out undefeated teams from non-Automatic Qualifier (AQ) conferences from the BCS championship game, such as Utah last year or Boise State, three of the last five years.

SEC fans love to throw numbers out about teams in bowl games and number of teams with winning records. 

Infamously, Sagarin, who judges conference strength by the strength of the middle of the conference, called the ACC the strongest conference last year.

While thinking on the subject, I decided on a simple idea: for a team to be good, it should win at least seven games against FBS (formerly D-IA) competition during the regular season.  With a twelve game regular season, a team should be above .500 to be considered good.

Of course, this standard knowingly penalizes teams that have decided to schedule FCS schools.  I view that as an appropriate punishment for those schools, as this is a horrible disease spreading (largely from the SEC) throughout college football.

If seven wins against FBS schools makes for a good season, then only games against the good teams should count towards strength of schedule.

That way, teams would be encouraged to schedule good teams, as schools did in the pre-BCS years.

In order to evaluate this idea, I created a spreadsheet covering the last eight years of college football.

Right away, interesting things developed.

For example, last year Florida and Alabama each only played two games against good teams (that won seven games against FBS competition in the regular season).  This shocked me completely.

Under the normal SoS calculations, Florida had one of the hardest schedules in the country, but a closer look should just how weak the schedule really was.

In comparison, Oklahoma played seven regular season games against good teams.  Texas—six.  USC—five.  Utah—four.  Texas Tech—five.  TCU—four. The list goes on.

So, perception of a difficult SEC largely carried Florida into the title game over teams such as Utah, Texas, and USC.  As long as humans make up the majority of the BCS standings, perception will decide championships.  And so, the BCS is just a beauty contest.

Now, I decided to look back over the last eight seasons to determine what conferences really were the strongest over the long-term and for each year.  How many good teams did a conference have?  The results were extremely shocking.

Last year, the SEC had its weakest conference in the last eight years, with only four teams that earned the title of good.  This is in spite of the fact that for several of those eight years, teams had one less game to play with the eleven game season.

2002 was the SEC's most competitive year, with eight of twelve being good.  It's worth noting that 2002 was the first year of the twelve game seasons.  Few SEC teams scheduled FCS schools, so the SEC teams used the extra game to play non-AQ schools.

2002 was also the Pac-10's best year, with seven of ten schools being rated good. Of course, that was before the Pac-10 adopted the round-robin nine game conference schedule. 

The ACC's two best years were following the Great Raid in 2006 and 2007, where the ACC came in first place for best conference.  Interesting enough, it was behind a non-AQ conference five other times, including the years leading up the Great Raid.

Prior to the ACC's Great Raid, the Big East never fell below the fourth best conference and took first place in 2001.  Over the last four seasons, the Big East has only gone above sixth place one time, in 2006.

For all the talk of the Pac-1 plus Nine, the Pac-10 has largely held an extremely competitive position.  Last year, it tied the Big 12 for best conference, with half of its teams being good.  In 2003,, the conference was marginal at best, with only three good teams and placing seventh out the eleven FBS conferences.

The Big Ten and Big 12 are all over the map.

Among non-AQ conferences, some interesting things have also developed over these years. 

In 2001, the WAC was the strongest non-AQ conference and one of the best in the country (coming in second only to the Big East).  The MAC surpassed the Big Ten that year as well, which it did again in 2004.

The WAC led the non-AQ conferences from 2001 to 2006, placing behind only Conference USA in 2003 and the MAC in 2002.  The conference has since fallen hard, placing in ninth and tenth place respectively the last two years.

The MWC, for all of its bluster before Congress, stayed just above the Sun Belt for the first six of these eight years.  The last two years, it took third overall among all conferences each season.

The MAC suffers from conference size as much as anything.  In just numbers of good teams (as opposed to percentage), it has fallen below an AQ conference only in 2006 and 2007.  Even on a percentage basis, the MAC has beat or equalled an AQ conference in five out of eight seasons.

Conference USA has a couple of good seasons, but has rarely led the non-AQ rankings.  In 2003, it placed fifth overall.

The Sun Belt was rarely place above last, but did have its best year in 2007.  With some good teams, we may see the Sun Belt make it out of the cellar this year.

So the following rankings are based upon percent of good teams in each conference.  As such, it provides a much better idea of how difficult a conference is compared to other FBS conferences.  

Of course, I do not count bowl games or conference championship games here, as the focus is on the regular season.   Now on to the standings!


1.       Big East

2.        WAC/Pac-10/SEC

5.       ACC

6.       MAC

7.       Big Ten

8.       MWC /Big 12

10.     CUSA

11.     Sun Belt


1.       Pac-10

2.       SEC

3.       Big East/ACC

5.       Big Ten

6.       Big 12

7.       MAC

8.       WAC /CUSA

10.      MWC

11.      SBC


1.        Big Ten

2.       SEC/Big 12

4.       Big East

5.       CUSA

6.       ACC

7.       WAC/Pac-10

9.       MAC

10.     MWC

11.     SBC


1.       Big 12

2.       Big East

3.       SEC

4.       WAC

5.       ACC

6.       Pac-10

7.       MAC

8.       Big Ten/CUSA

10.      MWC

11.     Sun Belt


1.       SEC

2.       Big Ten

3.       WAC

4.       ACC

5.       Pac-10

6.       MAC/CUSA/ Big East/ Big 12

10.      MWC

11.      SBC


1.       ACC

2.       Big East/Pac-10

4.       Big Ten

5.       WAC

6.       Big 12/CUSA/SEC

9.       MWC

10.      MAC

11.      SBC


1.       SEC/ACC

3.       MWC

4.       Big Ten

5.       Big 12

6.       Pac-10

7.       Big East

8.       CUSA

9.       WAC

10.     SBC

11.     MAC


1.       Big 12/ Pac-10

3.       MWC

4.       Big 10

5.       ACC/SEC

7.       MAC

8.       Big East/CUSA

10.      WAC

11.      SBC

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