Which Is the Top Conference in College Football?

Michael CollinsAnalyst IDecember 14, 2009

Scheduling for Success

Once again we’ve reached the part of the season that is consumed by boasting. Who has the best conference—mine or yours? We’re all biased even though we try to be objective about non-conference scheduling.

Complicating the process is that fewer top teams are playing each other, more teams are taking advantage of the 12th game to increase the number of home games, and conference teams schedule FCS teams and non-BCS teams in varying amounts. They also have differing amounts of non-conference games from the Big East (five per team) to the Pac-10 (three per team).

Playing in front of your home crowd or a large amount of your fans at a nearby visiting game confers a distinct advantage. Teams with seven or eight home games as well as those teams who travel with significant amounts of their fanbase have a decided advantage. Another advantage schedulers use is “cupcake” scheduling.

A Pac-10 Non-Conference Schedule Analysis

As an example, let’s look at the Pac-10, which has a 21-9 (67.44 percent, 10 teams) non-conference record this year, third best to the SEC (42-6, 72.8 percent, 12 teams) and the Big East (32-8, 69.14 percent, eight teams).

The worst conferences rated by their win-loss records are the FCS teams and Sunbelt conference year in and year out (I’ll term the FCS teams a conference). Not far behind are the MAC and C-USA, which usually win less than 40 percent of their non-conference games. Scheduling those four does wonders for your records.

The Pac-10 was 7-0 against those four conferences this year. Subtract those games and the Pac-10 record is reduced to 14-9 (60.87 percent). Against BCS teams only, the Pac-10 is 8-7, 53 percent. Perhaps using those figures is a more accurate representation of how strong the Pac-10 is.

One caveat: those 15 games against BCS opponents represent 50 percent of their non-conference games, ranking first in all BCS conferences. (Source: Colley’s Bias Free College Football Rankings)

An SEC Schedule Analysis

The SEC, on the other hand, will have Alabama playing in the national title game, had two of the top three ranked teams nationally, and can boast the best non-conference record in college football. Are they the top conference? How has SEC scheduling contributed to their success?

SEC teams do not schedule many BCS opponents—they constitute 29 percent of their non-conference games. That ranked as fifth of the six BCS conferences, exceeding only the Big 12’s paltry 23 percent. 

The SEC prefers conference competition against the FCS (11 games), Sunbelt (10), C-USA (six), MAC (four), and ACC (seven).  The SEC record against the FCS, Sunbelt, C-USA, and MAC is 30-1. Subtract those games, as we did with the Pac-10, and their record is 12-6 (67 percent). Against only BCS opponents, the SEC still had an admirable 10-4 record (71.4 percent)—5-2 against the ACC and 5-2 in games against the other four BCS conferences.


Home Cooking

One fact overlooked by the statistics is that SEC teams do not play many games outside their region. The ACC provides natural rivals to some SEC teams with teams also located in the Deep South. Similarly, the Pac-10 plays Mountain West and Western Athletic conferences and the Big 10 schedules the MAC.

In fact, of those 14 non-conference BCS games in 2009, SEC teams played only three games outside of the Deep South—LSU vs. Washington, Georgia vs. Oklahoma St., and a neutral site game between Arkansas and Texas A&M in Dallas (about a 260 mile drive for Arkansas). The SEC’s record was 2-1.

Out of 48 non-conference games only three games (6.25 percent) in 2009 were played outside of the Deep South!


SEC Against BCS Opponents Outside the South

Over the last five years, how many games do SEC teams play against BCS opponents outside of the Deep South? Not many. Over a span from 2005-'09, SEC teams played 17 regular season games outside of their region—or about seven percent of all non-conference games over the past five years. Their record in those games is not very good: 6-11 (35 percent).

That means that each of the 12 teams in the SEC only has to stray far from home to play a BCS opponent an average of 1.4 times in five years!


SEC Non-Regional Games Over Five Years

From 2005-'08, these non-conference, regular season, non-regional games were against BCS opponents. That habit changed in 2009 when non-BCS Rice, Miami (Ohio), and Army were added to away games with Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, and Washington. Four of those six games were wins. Vanderbilt lost at West Point and Georgia lost in Stillwater.

Over the five years from 2005-'09, the SEC’s regular season record against only BCS teams in games played outside the Deep South is 4-10 (28 percent). Which SEC teams rarely leave the Deep South? Over the last five years:

  • South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida have not played any away games outside of the Deep South
  • Mississippi, Mississippi State, and Auburn have only played one game
  • LSU, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky have played only two games each
  • Only Arkansas and Vanderbilt have played three games outside the Deep South in the last five years

What if the SEC played more away games outside of their comfort zones? What would their non-conference record be?


Home Game Comparison

Only one SEC team (Vanderbilt) played a six home, six away schedule. Georgia played six home games and one neutral site (Jacksonville) schedule. Eight SEC teams played seven home games with three of those (Alabama, Florida, and Arkansas) playing an additional neutral site game (Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Dallas, respectively). Two SEC teams had eight home games (Tennessee and Auburn).

As for the Pac-10, six of their 10 teams played a six home, six away schedule. Four Pac-10 teams played seven home games. None played eight home games nor any friendly, nearby neutral site games.


Against the Top 25—A Comparison of the SEC and Pac-10

While the SEC had two of the top five teams in the nation in the final national rankings and three in the Top 25, the Pac-10 had five teams in the Top 25. Half of the Pac-10 teams are in the final Top 25.

The SEC had four teams with records better than 7-5 (33 percent). The Pac-10 had six teams with records better than 7-5 (60 percent).

The SEC played five games against teams outside of their conference who finished in the Top 25 (No. 9 Georgia Tech–twice, No. 11 Virginia Tech, No. 16 West Virginia, and No. 19 Oklahoma State). Two were home games, two were away games and one a neutral site game. Their record was 3-2 in those games.

Those five games represent 10.4 percent of their non-conference schedules. One out of every ten SEC non-conference game was against a Top 25 team.

The Pac-10 played six games against teams in the final Top 25 (No. 3 Cincinnati, No. 6 Boise State, No. 8 Ohio State, No. 10 Iowa, No. 12 LSU, and No. 23 Utah). Four of those six teams will play in BCS games. Three games were away and three at home. Their record was 2-4 in those games. Those six games represent 20 percent of their non-conference schedules. One out of every five Pac-10 non-conference game was against a Top 25 team!


Cupcake Scheduling Argument

One argument made by SEC conference scheduling advocates is that conference teams need to schedule a light non-conference schedule because the SEC conference schedule is so difficult. In 2009, only three teams in the SEC had a conference record better than .500 (Alabama, Florida, and LSU).

The Pac-10 schedulers clearly have a different philosophy. Six Pac-10 teams had a conference record better than .500, twice as many as the SEC. With 20 percent (six games) of their non-conference games (30 games total) against the final Top 25 teams, with five of their 10 conference teams in the Top 25, and with the each Pac-10 team playing each other annually, each Pac-10 played a Top 25 team at an average of 5.6 out of their 12 games this year.

Imagine playing a Top 25 team almost every other game! Especially, when most conference teams play a 6-6 home-away schedule and are willing to travel to Columbus, Iowa City, Knoxville, Minneapolis, and South Bend to play before hostile crowds that can reach over 100,000.


Future Scheduling

Will this scheduling philosophy continue for SEC teams? It appears so. Florida, South Carolina, and Kentucky will not be playing any away games outside the region. Alabama will only venture out to Penn State (2011). Currently, only five SEC teams (Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi, and Vanderbilt) have scheduled two games each outside the Deep South over those five years.

Only Tennessee stands apart so far. The Volunteers have scheduled away games at Oregon, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Connecticut, and Ohio State in addition to North Carolina State over the next 10 years.

The Pac-10 will continue to play a national non-conference schedule with half their games against BCS teams. In the next few years, the Pac-10 teams play Texas, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, BYU, Boston College, Kansas State, and Notre Dame. That may limit the “home cooking” for their fans, but, with only three non-conference games, three-quarters (nine) of their games are against Pac-10 foes.

The SEC formula is designed to produce revenue from home games, television, and bowl games due to increased participation by conference teams. The SEC has contracted for eight bowl games (67 percent of conference teams). All but one of their bowls are from Dec. 31 or later.

The Pac-10 formula produces more exciting games and matches up more top teams. All of their bowls but one are prior to Dec. 31.

Does a stronger regular season produce better results when top teams match up in bowl games? More than one year is required to answer this question. But in 2009, the SEC went 6-2 in bowl competition. The Pac-10 was 5-0. Don’t expect a matchup between these two powerful conferences in the bowls, since no bowl has contracts with both conferences. We could only see a matchup between the SEC and Pac-10 for the National Championship.



One football adage has to be taken into consideration, “To be the best, you have to beat the best.” Which scheduling philosophy lends itself to producing more successful teams? You have seen the numerous factors that argue towards one conference or another being the best conference and the difficulty in comparing conferences. I’ll let you decide.

Just don’t forget the Big East, second overall, with a 32-8 non-conference record (69.14 percent), 9-7 against BCS teams and with three teams in the Top 25. A Cincinnati win over Florida would boost their conference ranking tremendously.

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