One of the best ways to determine the top conferences in the nation is to look at their non-conference schedules.
SEC fans point out that they play a tough conference schedule. But what about the non-SEC teams they play?
How does the Big East stack up against the ACC?
What kind of preparation does the Big Ten go through?
Well, in the interest of throwing a little gasoline on the fire of “my conference is better than yours” playground fight, let's power rank the non-conference schedules of the FBS conferences.
Starting out our power rankings at the bottom is the Mountain West Conference.
It looked as if the MWC was going to be the next big thing in the world of FBS football. The addition of Boise State to the conference began the discussion about whether the MWC deserved a bid for BCS automatic qualification.
Then TCU bolted for the Big East and BYU decided it would rather be without a conference than remain in the MWC.
Boise State just cannot catch a frickin' break, can they?
In 2011, the MWC has, with one exception, the lowest number of non-conference games against BCS AQ teams. They also rank second from the bottom in percentage of games against top opponents.
While the AQ programs that do appear on their schedule (Arkansas, Texas Tech, Notre Dame, Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin, among others) are among the nation's top programs, their strength of non-conference schedule takes a kick in the face with teams like South Dakota, Tennessee State, Northern Colorado, Cal Poly, Sam Houston State and Portland State on the docket.
Because of the MWC only scheduling 11 AQ programs, nine FCS programs and an unimpressive slate of 20 non-BCS AQ programs, they appear at the bottom of our non-conference schedule power rankings.
The SEC may be “God's gift to football” (as SEC fans seem to believe), but its 2011 non-conference schedule is right out of a “how to schedule opponents you can overwhelm” playbook.
The SEC has, by far, the weakest non-conference schedule of any BCS AQ conference.
A laughable 25 percent of the SEC's 48 non-conference games come against BCS AQ programs.
Amazingly, the SEC actually has more FCS programs on its non-conference slate than BCS AQ programs!
While the SEC may be winning BCS titles like they're going out of style (maybe they are), it is impressing no one but itself with non-conference schedules like that.
The SEC is the only conference to schedule more FCS teams than BCS AQ teams. In fact, no other conference really even comes close.
As if that reason weren't enough to rank the SEC the lowest of the AQ conferences, their non-BCS AQ FBS opponents aren't exactly made up of a list of the top non-AQ teams.
Kent State, North Texas, New Mexico, Troy, Utah State, FAU, UAB, Western Kentucky, Central Michigan and Buffalo are just a few that make appearances against the SEC in 2011—many of them multiple times.
Sorry, SEC fans. Your favorite conference may win bowl game after bowl game, but even the most fanatical, irrational SEC fan has to admit that the SEC's non-conference scheduling leaves much to be desired.
And no amount of whining or saying that "this guy is an idiot" will change that fact.
Besides, you have to remember that we're talking about the conference as a whole, not about one, two or three individual teams.
Team A may have a killer non-conference schedule, but if Team G has an abysmally weak schedule, it all washes out.
You kind of feel bad for the WAC, don't you?
Its one claim to fame over the past few seasons was the fact that it had one of the best programs in the nation, Boise State.
C'est la vie, non?
Boise State is gone, and before long, others will follow suit.
Perhaps that's why the WAC went out and convinced FCS programs Texas State and Texas-San Antonio to join the conference.
In the meantime, however, the WAC has to make due with what it has. And it's not much.
You'd think the WAC would have a relatively easy time finding BCS AQ opponents. After all, it seems as if the SEC has an open invitation to any bottom-feeder FBS program.
But even so, the WAC manages to schedule just 39 percent of its non-conference games against AQ programs—pretty darned low for a non-AQ conference (only the MWC is lower).
Realistically, the only reason the WAC stayed ahead of the SEC in the power rankings was the fact that the WAC doesn't schedule too many FCS programs.
Just five FCS schools appear on the WAC's 2011 schedule.
The vast majority, nearly 49 percent, are games against FBS non-AQ programs. While still not overly impressive, there are teams like Boise State, BYU, Navy and Southern Mississippi on the 2011 slate.
The new Big Ten enters its first divisional play season with a pretty weak non-conference lineup.
Fewer than 32 percent of the Big Ten's non-conference games come against BCS AQ opponents. More than 20 percent are against FCS opponents.
Part of this weakness is due to the Big Ten's contract with the MAC where each Big Ten team will play at least one MAC school every season, including playing away games.
But that doesn't excuse the Big Ten's scheduling of teams like FAU, Arkansas State, North Texas, New Mexico State, Wyoming, Rice and UNLV.
Or how about some of these FCS programs: South Dakota State, South Carolina State, Tennessee Tech, Youngstown State, North Dakota State, Chattanooga, South Dakota and Indiana State, just to name a few.
Maybe the Big Ten is hoping that its conference schedule, one of the toughest in the nation in 2011, will make up for its particularly weak non-conference schedule.
The Big 12 comes in at No. 7 on our power rankings list, with 30 percent of its games against BCS AQ opponents.
The pared-down Big 12 has just 30 non-conference games in 2011, by far the fewest of any conference in the FBS.
The Big 12 loses major points from its scheduling of relatively few AQ opponents—just nine conference wide—fewer than one per team. Compare that to six FCS opponents, and the Big 12 has a terrible ratio of AQ opponents to FCS opponents.
The Big 12's list of non-AQ FBS opponents doesn't impress, either.
Rice, Northern Illinois, Kent State, Miami (OH), Louisiana-Lafayette, New Mexico and Idaho all make appearances.
The Big East makes its appearance in the middle of our power rankings, at No. 6.
In 2011, the Big East will play 40 non-conference games, and 37.5 percent of those will be against BCS AQ conference opponents.
While LSU, Notre Dame and Miami (FL) make an appearance on the Big East's schedule in 2011, the relative weakness of the rest of its AQ opponents keep the Big East from a higher position.
Also, every single team in the conference plays an FCS opponent in 2011.
The Big East's bread and butter in the non-conference schedule comes against non-AQ programs, such as Navy, FIU, UTEP and a host of MAC schools.
Because of the overall weakness of their FBS non-conference schedule, the Big East only makes it to No. 6 on our list.
The new-look conference from the west is No. 5 on our power rankings list.
More than 41 percent of the Pac-12's non-conference games come against BCS-AQ opponents, while fewer than 23 percent are against FCS programs.
With the expanded conference, the Pac-12 will play just 35 non-conference games in 2011.
But what it lacks in number, it makes up for in terms of quality.
Among the opponents in 2011 are Oklahoma State, Missouri, Illinois, LSU, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Nebraska.
It should be noted that the Pac-12 also has a little numerical advantage when calculating percentages of non-conference games played against AQ programs. Colorado and California, both members of the Pac-12, meet in an early-season matchup that was contracted before Colorado joined the conference. Therefore, it's a non-conference game against an AQ program that both teams get credit for, even though they're both in the same conference.
Either way, the Pac-12's strength of non-conference schedule more than makes up for this little hiccup in the scheduling.
The Pac-12 also only has eight games against FCS programs—fewer than one per team.
Conference USA comes in at No. 4 on our power rankings list, and it's because of its scheduling nearly 45 percent of its non-conference games against BCS AQ opponents, combined with the relative lack of FCS opponents.
The entire conference has just seven FCS opponents on its 2011 slate, which is slightly more than one FCS opponent for every two teams in the conference.
In addition, the 41 percent of C-USA non-conference games against non-AQ programs includes the likes of Hawaii, Navy, Boise State and TCU—not exactly the pushover non-AQ programs.
Because of its BCS AQ strength and the strength of its non-AQ opponents, combined with a lack of FCS opponents, Conference USA makes it in at No. 4 on our power rankings list.
The top BCS AQ conference in our non-conference schedule power rankings is the Atlantic Coast Conference.
In 2011, the ACC has 21 non-conference games versus BCS AQ conference opponents—beating out all other BCS AQ conferences, and second nationally only to the MAC.
The ACC also spreads its non-conference games around, scheduling opponents from all other BCS AQ conferences, including Notre Dame.
Perhaps the only reason the ACC isn't higher on the list is the fact that 27 percent of the ACC's non-conference games in 2011 are against FCS opponents.
Of the 11 FBS conferences, no conference schedules more BCS AQ teams in terms of percentage of non-conference games than the Mid-American Conference.
Not only does the MAC have the highest number of non-conference games of any conference in 2011 (52), but 55.77 percent of them are against BCS AQ opponents.
This is mainly due to the MAC's agreement with the Big Ten, where every Big Ten team will play at least one MAC school every season. Additionally, from time to time, the Big Ten has agreed to be the away team (although those games are usually not played on the campus of the MAC school, but rather nearby NFL stadiums).
This does help the exposure of the MAC, as even in its teams' home states, it can be difficult—if not impossible—to find MAC games on television.
In addition to scheduling AQ teams, the MAC schedules some of the top AQ programs, like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Michigan State, Alabama, Wisconsin, Michigan and Missouri—all of which appear at least once in the MAC's non-conference lineup.
The MAC also shies away from FCS teams, as there is less than one FCS matchup per team in 2011.
Yes, the Sun Belt.
Of the 36 non-conference games Sun Belt teams will play in 2011, more than 55 percent of them are against BCS AQ conference teams. On average, every team in the Sun Belt plays more than two AQ teams in 2011.
On the other side of the coin, just 11 percent are against FCS programs.
While the Sun Belt isn't exactly the best conference in the FBS, it certainly doesn't seem to shy away from scheduling the big boys in the FBS.
Because of its relative weakness and the plethora of BCS AQ teams on its non-conference schedule in 2011, the Sun Belt receives the No. 1 spot in our non-conference schedule power rankings.