Ranking Every College Football Conference Post Bowl Season

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2017

Ranking Every College Football Conference Post Bowl Season

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    Conference allegiance is, for the most part, a myth during the season. After all, most of your die-hard college football fans aren't rooting hard for their hated division rivals just because they're battling against a team from another league. 

    Everybody may hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" in Upward Basketball leagues, but that doesn't happen in the rugged SEC, the high-flying ACC or the gritty Big Ten. 

    Still, when the season is over and all the cheering is done, fans of hated foes stand together in heated harmony on message boards and in comments sections across the internet, blaring their horns about which conference is the best.

    Everybody around the country hates hearing chants of "S-E-C! S-E-C!" and having to deal with the vocal Southern masses pointing out all the recent national champions. Likewise, folks from the South scream of Big Ten media bias till they're blue in the face.

    The Pac-12 boasts its all-sports championships, while the ACC quietly builds quite the stable of stud programs.

    It's an arms race, and every conference wants to come out on top. 

    So, which one did in 2016? Factoring in elite teams at the tops of each division, out-of-conference records, bowl outcomes, star power and depth of quality teams, let's power rank the top college football leagues of the past year to find out the undisputed conference kings.

10. Conference USA

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    Bringing up the rear of the rankings is a conference that would have a valid argument that it at least belonged in ninth place.

    Pretty much one team (Western Michigan) gave the slight nod to the MAC over the Conference USA in the battle for the bottom, but that doesn't mean the league didn't have its share of highlights.

    Western Kentucky continued to be one of the best "Group of Five" teams in the country, finishing 11-3 only to see its head coach Jeff Brohm get tabbed to be the next head coach at Purdue.

    The Hilltoppers promptly went out and hired Notre Dame offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford to be their next head coach, making a brilliant decision to continue being a quality steppingstone spot for up-and-coming coaches.

    Old Dominion also finished 10-3, proving it has the offensive firepower to hang in a pass-happy league, while Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech did plenty of running and gunning, too.

    Overall, the league finished with a 4-3 bowl record, which easily could have put it ahead of the MAC in the final rankings, if it weren't for the Broncos flexing their muscles (barely) to give the MAC the edge.

    Beyond those teams, however, Southern Miss at 7-6 was the only other team to finish with a winning record. 

9. Mid-American Conference

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    It's not just football, it's MACtion.

    You've heard it. You've spent many a Tuesday and Wednesday night watching it, because it was college football and it was on TV. But this year, the pizzazz was missing from the conference.

    Much like the SEC with Alabama, the league had Western Michigan, and the rest of the conference wasn't very strong.

    Of course, head coach P.J. Fleck's Broncos were exciting, going undefeated all the way until a loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl, leading to Fleck getting nabbed by Minnesota to become the Golden Gophers' new head coach. But the rest of the league lacked star power.

    Ohio coach Frank Solich's Bobcats played a boring brand of football, but it was effective in getting them to the conference championship game and keeping them in a close loss to WMU. They finished the year 8-6.

    Toledo rode its rushing attack to nine wins in the first post-Matt Campbell year, but the Rockets didn't finish the year the way they'd hoped. Eastern Michigan was the only other team to finish with a winning record, and though Central Michigan had the huge upset of Oklahoma State, the Chippewas lost their bowl to fall to 6-7.

    Northern Illinois and Bowling Green having down years really hurt the conference, and while Miami (Ohio) won its final six regular-season games to get into a bowl, losing to Mississippi State cost it a winning season.

    Overall, the conference finished 0-6 in the bowl season.

    So, it wasn't a year the MAC would like to hang on its proverbial wall of fame, to say the least.

8. Sun Belt

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    Despite the MAC boasting a New Year's Six bowl participant in Western Michigan, the Sun Belt had a better season overall.

    The league didn't have anybody who could compete with the Broncos for national headlines, but in a head-to-head showdown in bowls, the league went 2-0 against the MAC. That's why they get the nod over the conference with the better team.

    That's not to say there will be many Sun Belt banners hung for 2016. 

    Appalachian State boasted the best season of any league teams, beginning the year with a near-upset of Tennessee in Neyland Stadium and concluding with a 10-3 record. Troy matched that tally and finished the season with a Dollar General Bowl victory over Ohio.

    The conference wound up 4-2 in the postseason, and it was a quality showing for a conference that overall had a difficult regular season. Wrote ArkansasOnline.com's Troy Schulte:

    The Sun Belt placed six teams in bowls and won four of them, both highs for the league that was formed in 2001. The performance was enough for the league to expect a jump from fourth place to third place in the year-end rankings of Group of Five conferences, which are calculated to determine distribution of a portion of revenue coming from the College Football Playoff.

    Nonconference victories by league member South Alabama over Mississippi State and San Diego State helped, but Arkansas State, Appalachian State, Troy and Idaho winning bowl games has the league expecting a jump when the rankings are finalized after Monday's national championship game.

    It was a solid year for the league, even if it didn't boast as many winning teams as it would like.

7. Mountain West

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    The Mountain West always has a couple of college football equivalents of "bracket busters," who are capable of becoming national household names each year.

    A consistent bet to belong in that conversation did so again this year as Boise State went 10-3. The Broncos lost to Air Force, then they ended the year with a lopsided setback to Baylor in the Cactus Bowl to sour the season, but Bryan Harsin's team still had a good year.

    "All that being said, there’s still that disappointment at the end of the season," Harsin told Idaho Press reporter B.J. Rains. "We didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish. We didn’t get ourselves into the championship game like we wanted to be in and we didn’t finish with a bowl win. That’s something that’s extremely important."

    Perhaps the top team wound up being San Diego State, which boasted the NCAA's all-time leading rusher in Donnel Pumphrey and won 11 games. The Aztecs could win games with a running attack and solid defense and was a quality team all season.

    Air Force took a back seat to Navy when it came to noise from the service academies, but the Falcons actually wound up with a better season, finishing 10-3 with that win over the Broncos. 

    New Mexico surprisingly won nine games, Wyoming behind quarterback Josh Allen—who is expected to be a very high pick in the NFL draft if he comes out—used its passing game to get to eight wins and play an exciting brand of football in Laramie.

    Colorado State also finished with seven wins, so there were quite a few good teams in the league.

6. American Athletic Conference

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    From here, a lot of the rankings can get subjective, but the AAC should hold a pretty firm grasp on the No. 6 spot.

    A big reason for that is South Florida and star quarterback Quinton Flowers, who ran former coach Willie Taggart's high-powered offense to perfection for a Bulls team that had to outgun opponents to win and usually did.

    They finished 11-2 and beat South Carolina in overtime in the Birmingham Bowl to complete a strong season that ultimately sent Taggart to become Oregon's next head coach.

    But the Bulls weren't the only good team the league boasted.

    Matt Rhule's Temple Owls went 10-4 and won the league, while Navy spent a portion of the season ranked before faltering late and falling to 9-5.

    Tulsa's high-powered offensive attack led it to a 10-3 record, and Memphis also won eight games behind JUCO quarterback transfer Riley Ferguson in the first year of Mike Norvell's tenure.

    We've made it all this way without even mentioning Houston, which was a dark-horse pick to play in the College Football Playoff at the beginning of the year, especially after upsetting Oklahoma. The Cougars fell to 9-4, but that still isn't a bad year.

    Central Florida also made a bowl game, though the Golden Knights lost to fall to 6-7.

    That's a lot of quality teams for a mid-major conference, but the AAC plays some big-time football, and it proved so in 2016.

5. Big 12

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    As much as the SEC would like to erase 2016 from memory, it was even worse in the Big 12.

    The conference entered the season with a legitimate national title contender in Oklahoma, which promptly started the year 1-2 with losses to Houston and Ohio State, ending any shot the Sooners had at a championship. 

    Yes, they finished strong, enjoyed a quality season and had two Heisman Trophy finalists in quarterback Baker Mayfield and receiver Dede Westbrook, but anything short of a playoff berth was disappointing.

    Oklahoma State and West Virginia had respectable seasons at 10-3, but the Mountaineers' bowl loss to Miami dampened their season. The Cowboys dominated Colorado 38-8 in the Alamo Bowl to solidify itself as the second-best team.

    Kansas State's nine wins were surprising as the Wildcats upended Texas A&M in the postseason to guarantee another good year for head coach Bill Snyder. After that, the top teams were Baylor (7-6) and TCU, which wound up 6-7.

    The Bears disappointed in the wake of the rape scandal under former coach Art Briles, and interim Jim Grobe couldn't muster the same kind of offensive firepower. Baylor will try to regain that success after plucking Temple coach Matt Rhule away.

    Matt Campbell looks like he's got the coaching chops to bring Iowa State out of the doldrums, and Texas made a splash hire, trading Charlie Strong for Tom Herman.

    Next year could be a lot better for this league. It needs to be.

4. SEC

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    The 2016 SEC story went something like this:

    Alabama…and…um…well, at least there was Alabama!

    It was that kind of year for a conference that had zero teams with fewer than four losses outside of the national runner-up Crimson Tide. And when UA lost the national title game against Clemson on Monday night, that ended any chance the league had of sneaking into the top three.

    From top to bottom, from somebody who watched more SEC football than that of any other conference, the league was average.

    It was supposed to be Tennessee's year in the East, but the Volunteers disappointed drastically. That led to Florida repeating in the division despite battling a slew of injuries (like the Vols) and having very little offense.

    Georgia sputtered along under first-year coach Kirby Smart. LSU underwhelmed, fired Les Miles and enjoyed a bit of an uptick under Ed Orgeron. Auburn made it to the Sugar Bowl, where it promptly was beaten soundly by Oklahoma and finished 8-5. Arkansas and Kentucky laid eggs in bowl losses.

    The year overall was a resounding "Meh."

    At least only two programs failed to make a bowl appearance, so that was good. But the SEC wound up 6-7 in the postseason.

    The future appears in strong hands with quality recruiting classes and some young, exciting quarterbacks, which is a position that has failed the SEC in recent years. But the present wasn't memorable at all.

3. Pac-12

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    In a really close battle with the SEC, the Pac-12 gets the slight nod based on the firepower at the top of the conference.

    The league doesn't have anybody who could hang with Alabama (just ask USC), but the Trojans were a different team once redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold announced his name on the college football scene as a rising star.

    That's why they wound up surging to a No. 3 ranking following their Rose Bowl win over Penn State. Then there was College Football Playoff participant Washington, which rode its stellar defense and a breakout year by quarterback Jake Browning to make it to the Final Four.

    The Huskies ran into an Alabama buzzsaw, but that shouldn't take anything away from head coach Chris Petersen's team's year. The only two teams they lost to were the Crimson Tide and Trojans.

    Beyond those two, there were still plenty of good teams, though none of them fall in the "great" category. Colorado won the South division with a 10-4 record despite losing its final two games. 

    Stanford didn't have its best season but still wound up with 10 wins. Mike Leach's Washington State Cougars wound up with eight victories and took a major step as a program. Utah won nine games, too.

    The bottom part of the league nearly killed the conference in these ratings because SIX teams finished with losing records. But the top-heavy bunch barely gives it the edge over the SEC.

2. Big Ten

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    Taking into account the full body of work, the Big Ten could certainly make a claim for college football's conference crown this year.

    After all, the big four of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin were near the top of the rankings for most of the season. The big game between the Buckeyes and Wolverines was an instant classic, and so was the Nittany Lions' upset of OSU.

    It was truly a fun year to watch that league up north with all those quality teams, great coaches and elite players.

    Then came bowl season.

    Penn State blew the Rose Bowl against Southern Cal. Ohio State was obliterated in very un-Urban Meyer style, getting shut out in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Michigan lost to Florida State 33-32 in another great game in the Orange Bowl.

    The only one of the big four to win its bowl was Wisconsin's 24-16 nail-biter against Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl.

    Ouch.

    The finish was forgettable, but the season was strong. Nebraska, Northwestern and Minnesota helped make up for Michigan State's down year, and some young coaches could strengthen the bottom half of the league, too. It was a good year for the Big Ten, but that last couple weeks knocked it out of the top spot.

1. ACC

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    Talk about coming out of nowhere.

    Nobody really expected the Atlantic Coast Conference to finish at the top of the country's Football Bowl Subdivision conference power rankings, but once the smoke cleared on the bowl season, that's exactly where it stood.

    Not only did the national champion Clemson Tigers unseat Alabama with a final-second, go-ahead touchdown to claim their first title in 35 years, the whole conference was solid.

    The ACC surged to the best conference postseason record, finishing 9-3 in the bowls. Against the former top conference, the SEC, the league went 10-4. Six teams had at least nine wins, and there was plenty of star power such as Deshaun Watson and Dalvin Cook.

    Arguably the biggest of those stars was Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who won the Heisman Trophy, and Watson, who should have. 

    In a year that started so poorly, Florida State rebounded with 10 wins and an Orange Bowl victory over Michigan, and Virginia Tech stormed from behind against Arkansas in the Belk Bowl to finish with double-digit wins in Justin Fuente's first season as head coach.

    Just three teams finished with losing records, and the conference finished strong. It's really hard to say anything besides the ACC is 2016's best conference.