Ranking Every FBS Conference After the 2018-19 Season
College football is on the shelf until next September. After Clemson pummeled Alabama in the national championship game, it became obvious the Tigers were the best nation's team. But when it comes to leagues, supporting casts matter.
Opponents pushed the SEC around at times during bowls, but did that affect its conference ranking? With the Big 12 pounding the SEC in head-to-head matchups, did it get the nod?
We looked at the leagues from top to bottom and considered where they stand in the final AP rankings and how consistent they were. We also factored in head-to-head play, though it wasn't the decisive variable. The overall body of work was much more important.
Now that we've assessed each team and how they finished the season, let's look back and see who has FBS conference bragging rights.
The MAC didn't have the season many expected, and even midweek MACtion wasn't as exciting as it usually is.
Northern Illinois surprised upstart Buffalo in the championship game, coming from behind and winning 30-29. Neither of the league's marquee teams played well in bowl season, though.
UAB trounced the Huskies 37-13 in the Boca Raton Bowl, and Buffalo fell to Troy 42-32 in the Dollar General Bowl. Six bowl bids was a good haul for the conference, but only Ohio showed up with a 27-0 win over San Diego State to give the league a 1-5 record.
Now, the conference will see more star power leave as Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson is heading elsewhere to finish his college career.
It was clearly between the MAC and Conference USA for the worst 2018 league. But C-USA's better showing in the postseason gives it the edge.
The MAC fell to the bottom partly because five of its teams were downright awful, and there aren't a whole lot of coaches whose names you know, either. Defenses were exposed in the bowls, and the league's resume wasn't that good to begin with.
So, that lands the MAC in the cellar.
9. Conference USA
Exiting the regular season, Conference USA probably languished at the bottom of these rankings. But the league had a resurgent postseason and climbed a notch.
It went 4-2 in six bids, and several of those victories were impressive.
UAB pummeled MAC champion Northern Illinois 37-13, Marshall whipped a reeling South Florida program that was strong just a year ago, 38-20, and Louisiana Tech spanked Hawaii 31-14.
The conference climbed ahead of the MAC by going 2-0 against it in bowl season, including Florida International's nail-biting 35-32 win over Toledo in the Bahamas Bowl.
Yes, Middle Tennessee State flopped against Appalachian State, and Utah State destroyed North Texas, but this was still a good postseason for a league that hadn't enjoyed many style points.
UAB, which didn't even have a football program a couple of seasons ago, is the story of the year. What coach Bill Clark did with that program is unbelievable, and the Blazers' comeback alone is worth headlines.
North Texas had a big early season, beating Arkansas from the SEC, and Marshall and MTSU had their moments. The MAC may get more publicity because of all its midweek games televised on ESPN, but C-USA was a better conference—and it showed in the postseason.
8. Sun Belt
The regular season was strong for the Sun Belt, which is slowly improving and getting recognized more than ever.
It will be tough to continue the momentum, though, as the league's top two coaches are heading to Power Five programs.
A big reason for the conference's recent success is Appalachian State, which dominated Middle Tennessee 45-13 in the New Orleans Bowl to reach 11 wins. But alum and head coach Scott Satterfield took the same job at Louisville and will try to rebuild the mess Bobby Petrino left.
Troy improved to 10-3 with an impressive 42-32 shootout win over Buffalo, but head coach Neal Brown got his big break and will replace Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia, where he'll try to continue the Mountaineers' momentum after Will Grier and David Sills V head to the NFL.
Where does that leave the league?
Both coaches left strong cores at their schools, and Georgia Southern's 23-21 win over Eastern Michigan in the Camellia Bowl gave the Eagles a 10-3 record. Arkansas State lost to Nevada in the Arizona Bowl but still finished 8-5.
Louisiana-Lafayette won the West Division, and the Ragin' Cajuns have firepower returning. They lost 41-24 to Tulane in bowl season.
The conference has firm footing on which to build, even if it is facing a rebuilding season or two. This was a big year, and some Power Five programs took notice.
7. American Athletic Conference
The American Athletic Conference has Central Florida, and that's a humongous feather in its cap.
But what about after that?
LSU snapped UCF's 25-game winning streak in the Fiesta Bowl, but that result didn't come without a fight from the Knights, who lost star signal-caller McKenzie Milton to a leg injury in the regular season finale against South Florida. The loss to LSU led to a No. 11 ranking in the final AP Top 25.
It wasn't a total wash for the AAC after UCF. Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell will be a hot name on a lot of lists if he continues doing what he did in 2018 while making the Bearcats a mid-major power at 11-2. Capping the year with a 35-31 win over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl was huge.
Beyond that, though, there wasn't a lot of happiness in a 2-5 postseason.
Memphis watched Wake Forest come back for a 37-34 win that set a bitter tone. Duke and future pro quarterback Daniel Jones flung the ball all over the field against Temple in a 56-27 slaughter. Marshall embarrassed South Florida 38-20, and things still went downhill for the conference.
The worst performance of bowl season came when Major Applewhite's Houston Cougars got walloped by Army 70-14. Applewhite lost his job, and Holgorsen took over.
Only Tulane joined Cincinnati in the win column during bowl season with a 41-24 win over Louisiana-Lafayette.
Last year, the sixth spot in these rankings belonged to the AAC, bolstered by Central Florida's undefeated record. This year, the conference didn't quite close things out, allowing the Mountain West to surge ahead.
6. Mountain West Conference
It's always tough to pick which of the two "other" big conferences will grab the sixth spot outside the Power Five, as an argument could be made for either.
The Mountain West Conference, which had an impressive season worthy of the best Group of Five program, takes this year's spot. Even though Boise State saw its bowl game against Boston College canceled, there was enough reason to put the league here.
It was so close with the American Athletic Conference, though. Why the nod to the MWC?
Fresno State (18), Utah State (22) and Boise State (23) finished the year in the Top 25, and the conference went 3-2 in bowl season as two of its best teams grabbed victories while the other didn't play. Those squads won in convincing fashion, too.
Utah State beat North Texas 52-13 in a lopsided New Mexico Bowl, and Fresno State impressed with a 31-20 win in Manny Wilkins' final game with Arizona State in Las Vegas.
The Bulldogs capped a brilliant 12-2 season with a victory over the Sun Devils, and alum Jeff Tedford has brought that proud program all the way back. Boise State edged Utah State in the regular-season finale, knocking the Aggies out of the title game. But USU proved to be a juggernaut in the bowl.
With star power abounding in quarterbacks Brett Rypien, Marcus McMaryion and Jordan Love for stellar coaches all around, the league had another strong showing. Hawaii's loss to Louisiana Tech was disappointing, as was SDSU's shutout setback against Ohio, but Nevada rallied for a win.
The trio of ranked teams and the quality bowl record put the MWC over the top.
A bad regular season bled into the postseason for the Pac-12, which finished 3-4 and never gained much momentum throughout the year.
The only signature bowl win was Washington State's 28-26 victory over Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl. Beyond that, Oregon sneaked by Michigan State 7-6 and Stanford enjoyed a one-point margin over Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl.
None of that made a bad season any better.
California was on the short end of the most joke-riddled postseason contest of the year in the offensively inept Cheez-It Bowl against TCU. In the higher-profile showdowns, Northwestern easily handled a young Utah team, and Ohio State built a big lead before it held off Washington in the Rose Bowl.
Fresno's win over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl was a black eye, too.
This is a proud conference that didn't have any contenders for the College Football Playoff all season—dating back to Week 1 when Auburn beat the Huskies.
The conference watched perennial power USC struggle during a youth movement and fail to make the postseason, which is unacceptable in Los Angeles. Somehow, Clay Helton kept his job, but he's looking for an offensive coordinator again after Kliff Kingsbury got the head gig with the Arizona Cardinals.
UCLA also stayed in the doldrums with first-year coach Chip Kelly. Arizona's Kevin Sumlin flopped in his first year, too.
With youngsters abounding, especially at Oregon, Utah, Washington and USC, there's hope. But '18 is one year the Pac-12 is probably glad to see go.
All season, there was talk about how the ACC was "Clemson and everybody else."
Turns out, the whole college football landscape was "Clemson and everybody else," as coach Dabo Swinney's Tigers handled Notre Dame and Alabama on their way to a national title.
But the ACC was more than just Clemson, and the league has an argument to be even higher in the rankings.
It put 11 teams in bowls, and though it went just 6-5, having that many bids was a big deal. When you consider that annual powerhouse Florida State didn't make a bowl for the first time since 1981, the league should even improve.
The ACC couldn't eclipse the Big Ten, SEC or Big 12 because of its lack of top-end teams, though.
Only Clemson (1) and Syracuse (15) finished in the Top 25. So, although Duke, Miami and North Carolina State that had decent years, none were that impressive.
Dino Babers' Orange were one of college football's biggest surprises, and they toppled West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl. Duke handled Temple, Virginia dominated South Carolina, and Wake Forest upended Memphis.
Georgia Tech couldn't send head coach Paul Johnson out a winner, Miami put up zero fight against Wisconsin, NC State laid an egg against Texas A&M, Virginia Tech floundered against Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh mustered no offense in a loss to Stanford.
It was the story of the ACC's season. The league has its poster children in Swinney's Tigers, and there are some nice stories, but there wasn't enough pizzazz to sniff the top three.
3. Big 12
Some may want to crown the Big 12 the best conference after the league took it to the SEC during bowl season with a 3-1 record.
The numbers just don't back it up.
This was a quality year for the Big 12, which was exciting, featured weekly scoreboard wars and produced legitimate contenders. As great as Oklahoma was in making it to the CFP, Texas surged in its second year under Tom Herman, too.
West Virginia had big wins, Iowa State had its moments and Baylor was one of the season's best stories in a second-year rebound under Matt Rhule. Beyond the Sooners and Longhorns, though, there weren't a ton of heavyweights.
Texas looks like a budding powerhouse, and the Longhorns toppled Georgia in a 28-21 Sugar Bowl win that was more lopsided than the final score. Oklahoma didn't have a better showing, falling into a 28-0 hole against Alabama in the playoff semifinals before losing 45-34.
Baylor (45-38 over Vanderbilt) and Oklahoma State (38-33 over Missouri) helped the league get hard-earned brownie points in head-to-head showings with the SEC, but it wasn't enough to overtake the rival conference.
Rounding things out in the bowls: West Virginia struggled offensively without Grier in the Camping World Bowl loss, TCU beat Cal 10-7 in the Cheez-It Bowl, and Iowa State dropped the Alamo Bowl 28-26 to Washington State.
As it turned out, the Sooners topped the league at No. 4 in the final AP poll, followed by Texas at No. 9 and West Virginia at No. 20. That's it.
Three ranked teams aren't enough to put the Big 12 at the top of the conference rankings. That total isn't even enough to get the league into the top two. No matter how much excitement the Big 12 gave us, it still has to improve defensively across the board.
And it needs more than just Oklahoma and Texas on the national stage.
2. Big Ten
For the second year in a row, the Big Ten failed to put a participant in the College Football Playoff.
That's a major disappointment, especially considering Ohio State proved in each of its past two bowls it had a legitimate beef with the committee. Still, the Buckeyes endured a bad loss in both seasons, keeping them out.
This year, that came against Purdue, but OSU still made a statement in the Rose Bowl against Washington. The Buckeyes finished No. 3 in the AP poll, ahead of Michigan (14), Penn State (17), Northwestern (21) and Iowa (25).
The year saw Ohio State and Michigan in contention for major things before the Wolverines faltered at the end in a loss to the Buckeyes and then in an embarrassing defeat against Florida in the Peach Bowl.
Still, it wasn't a bad year for the Big Ten; far from it.
The West showed signs of life, even though Wisconsin struggled after it started the year No. 4. The Badgers' disappointment goes a long way in the conference's ranking, but they rebounded with a win over Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl despite season-long quarterback issues.
Minnesota looks to be on the come-up, as P.J. Fleck's group beat Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl, Iowa overcame a sluggish offense to beat Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl, and Northwestern handled Utah in the Holiday Bowl.
The rest of the league didn't fare so well. Auburn dropped Purdue 63-14 in the Music City Bowl, Michigan State lost 7-6 to Oregon, and Kentucky upset Penn State 27-24 in the Citrus Bowl.
Considering Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan were the bell cows much of the year, their 1-2 bowl record was a disappointment. But the league was 5-4 overall, and the West looks like it is creeping toward respectability. Maybe next year, continued improvement will move it up the ladder.
When the SEC doesn't produce a national champion, it's a disappointing year, right?
Yes, Clemson throttled Alabama in Santa Clara, California, to take the national title from the Crimson Tide for the second time in three years, but it doesn't change how dominant the league was in the rankings.
A 6-6 bowl season was so-so, but having five teams finish in the AP Top 12 is remarkable. Alabama finished second, LSU sixth, Florida and Georgia tied for seventh, and upstart Kentucky wound up 12th in one of its best years.
Texas A&M rounded things out at No. 17.
Had it not been for ugly bowl losses, Mississippi State and Missouri had chances to finish in the Top 25, too. Yes, Auburn's fall from grace stunk. It was a Top 10 team that began the year with a win over Washington but finished 8-5. Still, the Tigers had a 63-point outburst in the Music City Bowl against Purdue.
The league was the best from top to bottom.
It could have had a much better postseason, though. After Alabama took it to Oklahoma, the 44-16 national title loss was a dud. Georgia failed to show up for the Sugar Bowl in a loss to Texas, and that repeated too often.
Virginia shut out South Carolina, Vanderbilt couldn't win a shootout against Baylor—and neither could Missouri against Oklahoma State. Mississippi State's disappointing Outback Bowl against Iowa didn't help the league's perception, either.
Thankfully, along with the Crimson Tide's dismantling of Oklahoma, there were other outbursts. Texas A&M scored 52 points to embarrass NC State in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, and LSU did the nation of UCF naysayers a favor with a 40-32 win over the Knights in the Fiesta Bowl.
Auburn drilled Purdue, Florida showed the world that a first-year surge under Dan Mullen was no fluke by destroying Michigan in the Peach Bowl, and Kentucky sent out running back Benny Snell Jr. a winner with a 27-24 victory over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.
So, yes, while there were some disappointing bowl swings, there were some statements, too. The biggest of those is the SEC is still the nation's top conference yet again.
Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.