Ranking Every College Football Conference After the 2017 Season
The SEC sent two teams to the national championship, but the Big Ten only lost one postseason game. Both the ACC and Big 12 watched one program reach the College Football Playoff.
In 2017, the battle for college football conference supremacy enjoyed a tight race at the top. In fact, the only Power Five league to lack a realistic case this season was the Pac-12.
However, postseason success is simply one part of a larger conversation. While bowl games are never meaningless, most of them have no greater reward than being an enjoyable exhibition. The regular season is a major part of our ranking.
And, we're sorry, independents, but you've chosen the spot on the sideline. Army and Notre Dame, congrats on 10-win seasons.
10. Sun Belt Conference
The good: Troy pulled off a stellar upset at LSU en route to 11-2 and a split of the Sun Belt crown. Appalachian State recorded its third straight nine-win season, and Georgia State earned its first bowl victory in program history. Plus, New Mexico State ended a 57-year drought between postseason wins.
The bad: Half of the conference finished 4-8 or worse, and Sun Belt schools mustered a Football Bowl Subdivision-worst .333 winning percentage in nonconference play. Three programs—Georgia Southern, Georgia State and Coastal Carolina—lost to lower-level opponents.
Why it's here: Troy and Appalachian State defeated the MAC's two division winners, but the middle and lower tiers of the Sun Belt didn't match up to the Mid-American Conference. The other three Group of Five conferences had a clear edge on the Sun Belt.
9. Mid-American Conference
The good: Led by a high-powered offense, Toledo surged to an 11-3 record and conference title. Three other programs—Ohio, Northern Illinois and Central Michigan—recorded at least eight wins, while a total of seven teams earned bowl eligibility.
The bad: Toledo went undefeated within its division and walloped Akron in the MAC Championship Game. This was a one-team league at the top. Additionally, each of Ball State, Bowling Green and Kent State trudged to a 2-10 mark.
Why it's here: The MAC had a strong middle tier, considering nine of the league's 12 teams notched at least five victories this season. Although only the American had more major-conference wins than the MAC, three of those occurred against Kansas and Rutgers—not exactly the class of the Power Five.
8. Conference USA
The good: In his debut season at Florida Atlantic, Lane Kiffin propelled the team to an 11-win campaign. Fellow first-year coach Butch Davis took Florida International to 8-5, which Bill Clark and UAB matched in the program's return from disbandment. North Texas, Marshall and Southern Miss all won eight-plus games, too.
The bad: Out of 130 FBS schools, just six ended the season with a 1-11 or 0-12 record. Three teams—Charlotte, Rice and winless UTEP—were part of Conference USA.
Why it's here: While the bottom of C-USA was undeniably horrid, an impressive 11 teams of the 14-member league tallied at least five victories. Ten earned bowl eligibility, and eight received a bid. What stops C-USA from rising higher is the lack of another FAU-caliber team, whereas the Mountain West and AAC have multiple.
7. Mountain West Conference
The good: Boise State capped an 11-3 season with a victory over Oregon, while both Fresno State and San Diego State achieved double-digit wins. SDSU sprung upsets on Arizona State and Stanford, too. Wyoming, Colorado State and Utah State each reached a bowl game.
The bad: Hawaii, New Mexico and San Jose State all mustered a single conference triumph, and Nevada joined the trio with a 3-9 record or worse. The Mountain West compiled a .436 winning percentage in nonconference play, the third-worst clip in the FBS.
Why it's here: Three 10-win teams and SDSU's pair of victories over Pac-12 bowl qualifiers boosts the league past Conference USA. As will become clear momentarily, though, the Mountain West can't present a compelling case to be higher than the AAC.
6. American Athletic Conference
The good: Central Florida celebrated a perfect 13-0 season and defeated Auburn in the Peach Bowl. South Florida and Memphis both won 10 games, combining for power-conference victories over UCLA, Texas Tech and Illinois. Houston—which knocked off Arizona—Navy, SMU and Temple all attained bowl eligibility, as well.
The bad: Memphis, SMU, UConn, Tulsa and East Carolina each ranked 117th or lower in total defense, so five of the AAC's 12 teams were among the nation's 14 worst defenses. Along with Cincinnati, the latter three schools mustered four wins or fewer.
Why it's here: UCF put together a sensational campaign, while USF and Memphis would merit season-ending spots in the Top 25. But the combination of an inconsistent middle group and four-team lower tier keeps the American a notch below the Power Five despite its push for a "Power Six."
5. Pac-12 Conference
The good: USC, Washington, Stanford and Washington State all registered nine-plus victories, and both USC and Washington deserved New Year's Six bowl berths. Five more programs—Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA and Utah—reached the postseason.
The bad: The Pac-12 had the lowest nonconference winning percentage (.644) of all Power Five leagues. And while Stanford topped Notre Dame, the league's next-best nonconference victories were against seven-win Texas, Texas A&M and West Virginia teams. Oregon State was 1-11, and the Pac-12 finishing 1-8 in bowl season didn't help.
Why it's here: Although the Pac-12 didn't have an elite squad like UCF, the upper portion of the conference is no worse than comparable to the AAC. But the only truly awful program was Oregon State. The muddled middle tier both saved the Pac-12 and ensured it wouldn't rise any higher.
4. Atlantic Coast Conference
The good: Clemson reached the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive year, and Miami finally appeared in the ACC Championship Game. NC State and Virginia Tech posted nine wins apiece, and both Louisville and Wake Forest ended 8-5. Boston College, Duke and Virginia made respectable charges to bowl eligibility.
The bad: Miami was short-handed by the conference title game, but the gap between the 'Canes and Clemson was easily apparent. No team endured a larger injury-caused "what-if" than Florida State, which lost quarterback Deondre Francois in the season opener and barely qualified for a bowl. Syracuse lost to Middle Tennessee, North Carolina went 3-9, and Navy dismantled Virginia in the postseason.
Why it's here: The three remaining conferences enjoyed a richer top-level group than the ACC. Still, the league had a playoff representative and defeated three of the four programs the Pac-12 would claim as its best nonconference triumphs. Throw in wins over Auburn, Northwestern, South Carolina and Arizona State, and the ACC has an obvious edge on the Pac-12.
3. Big 12 Conference
The good: Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield propelled Oklahoma to the CFP, guiding the Sooners past 12-win Ohio State, 11-win TCU and 10-win Oklahoma State. TCU and Oklahoma State knocked off Stanford and Virginia Tech in bowl season, too. Iowa State and Kansas State had eight wins, followed by bowl-eligible squads in Texas, West Virginia and Texas Tech.
The bad: Baylor lost to UTSA and Liberty, Kansas fell to Central Michigan and Ohio, and both struggling programs limped to a 1-11 record. Plus, the league's .658 nonconference winning percentage only bested Pac-12 among Power Five factions.
Why it's here: The ACC had a CFP delegate and comparable ratios of quality nonconference wins and bowl-eligible teams, but the Big 12 showcased three legitimate top-15 teams. The bottom of the league was undeniably ugly, however, and that weakness left the Big 12 out of the No. 1 conversation.
2. Big Ten Conference
The good: Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State each accumulated 11-plus victories and capped their seasons with impressive New Year's Six bowl triumphs. Michigan State and Northwestern hit the double-digit mark, too. Michigan and Iowa reached eight wins. Purdue soared to a seven-win year after going 3-9 in 2016.
The bad: Despite having three excellent teams, no Big Ten program reached the playoff. Call it parity if you'd like, but Ohio State's 31-point loss at Iowa and Penn State's defeat at Michigan State were problematic. Michigan underperformed, too. Illinois (2-10) continued its downward spiral, and Nebraska (4-8) plummeted to its worst season in 56 years.
Why it's here: Conference supporters will be quick to point out Alabama barely made the CFP over Ohio State, but a pair of Top Four teams outweighs what the Big Ten offered. And while the league represented itself wonderfully in bowls, the Big Ten's best regular-season nonconference wins were Iowa State, FAU and Army.
1. Southeastern Conference
The good: Georgia and Alabama received CFP nods, and the Tide took home the national championship. Auburn finished 10-4 and toppled both SEC powers. Mississippi State and South Carolina ended with commendable 9-4 records, which LSU matched. Kentucky, Missouri and Texas A&M all won seven games.
The bad: LSU lost to Troy en route to a forgettable 9-4 year, and poor seasons at Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee resulted in coaching changes. Texas A&M fired Kevin Sumlin as well. Vanderbilt went 5-7 and only defeated Tennessee in conference play.
Why it's here: In addition to the pair of CFP representatives, the SEC offered a similar top-tier group to the Big Ten while boasting a better collection of regular-season nonconference wins. One year after losing its place atop the college football world, the SEC has reclaimed its spot as the No. 1 conference.