Mine Is Bigger Than Yours: Quantifying the NCAA Football Conferences Controversy

PaulCorrespondent IOctober 24, 2009

NEW ORLEANS - JANUARY 07:  General view of action between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Louisiana State University Tigers during the AllState BCS National Championship on January 7, 2008 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Tigers defeated the Buckeyes 38-24.   (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

It seems at least two or three times annually we get into contentious discussion about strength of conferences. Most conference supporters cite records of out-of-conference (OOC) games against BCS opponents to support their point. 

Since most SEC teams' schedules are loaded with rent-a-wins sprinkled with an occasional BCS opponent or two, their supporters counter with tough conference games as well as having a championship game more than compensate for the shortcoming.  Pac-10 fans counter with the fact all conference teams must play each other—thus, no team can duck a tough opponent such as Alabama not playing Florida in the SEC until a possible championship game matchup.   

The question is what would be a reasonably fair way to measure relative conference strength at least for the year in question? In what should come as no surprise, bowl game results seem the most logical answer. For the purposes of this discussion, let's use bowls, including BCS, tie-ins, to devise a possible formula. Readers, feel free to offer other and probably better ideas.

Unless I miscounted, the SEC and ACC each have nine bowl tie-ins, the Big XII has eight, the Big 10 has seven, and the Pac-10 and Big East each have six bowl tie-ins. To double-check, feel free to use this link.

The general assumption is teams of comparative strength (at least on paper) are paired in bowl games. One would expect a team from BCS conference A and BCS conference B would be no more than one place higher or lower as a selection from its respective conference. For example, the third-pick  PAC 10 team would play a Big XII team that is the second, third, or fourth pick from its conference. The facts show this is the case in most matchups between BCS opponents.


The exceptions are:

Big XII No. 5 plays Pac-10 No. 3 in the Sun Bowl

SEC No. 5 plays ACC No. 2 in the Chic-Fil-A Bowl

SEC No. 9 faces Big East No. 5 in the PapaJohns Bowl

Pac-10 No. 4 or No. 5 plays ACC No. 7 in the Emerald Bowl

ACC No. 6 meets No. 3 Big East in the Meineke Car Care Bowl


Two possible mismatches could occur in the Cotton Bowl—where potentially the SEC No. 4 would be matched against the Big XII No. 2—and the Music City Bowl, where the SEC No. 7 could face the No. 5 from the ACC.

The next group of bowl games match BCS teams against non-BCS opponents. Since  the best non-BCS team available will probably be in a BCS bowl, I think any game that doesn't designate the non-BCS conference pick is the No. 1 should be suspect. Of course, this is with the understanding the No. 1 pick could be the second-best team if the conference champion is in a BCS bowl game. 

The previous statement is not meant to disparage any of the non-BCS conference. It is meant to illustrate the possibility of a previous mismatch.


There are five such tie-ins:

The Little Ceaser's Bowl matches the Big 10 No. 7 against a Mid-American opponent. 

Eagle Bank has ACC No. 8 playing a C-USA team if Army doesn't qualify.

GMAC matches ACC No. 9 against a MAC team.

International puts the Big East No. 4 against an unspecified Mid-American team.

St. Petersburg Bowl matches the Big East No. 6 against a C-USA opponent


As can be seen, not all bowl matchups are created equal. Thus, not all bowl victories are equal. It is obvious to the most casual observer that losing the BCS championship game is decidedly more significant than winning the Poinsettia Bowl. 

Hence, in order to balance the bowls and thus give a clearer idea of how the conferences rank for a given year, I suggest a weighted point value be given to each bowl game. 

To simplify matters, I divided the bowls into four groups: the BCS Championship, BCS bowls, second-tier bowls (any bowl which has a BCS team no worse than the No. 3 pick from its conference), and all other bowls that include at least one BCS team.


The scoring could go something like this:

BOWL GAME.....................Winning...........Participating

BCS Championship..............50 pts...............25 pts

BCS bowl game..................25 pts...............15 pts

Second-tier bowl................15 pts................8 pts

Other bowls.........................8 pts................5 pts


If a team plays an opponent two or more picks below it, (eg SEC No. 3 plays ACC No. 5) or a non-BCS opponent that finishes worse than second in its conference, one point will be deducted for each differential. In the example above, the SEC team would be penalized one point. If a Big East team played the fourth-place team in the MWC, it would be penalized two points, and so on. 

While the SEC team would be penalized one point in the first example, the ACC team would be given one bonus point. There would be no bonus points for playing a non-BCS opponent, regardless of their conference finish.

The total points a conference receives would be divided by the number of bowls in which its teams participate. The result would determine the relative conference strength for that year only.

This is just one idea of how we can quantify data to support or reject various claims to conference superiority, at least for that year. As I stated earlier, readers comments (constructive please) and other ideas are welcome.