Ranking Every College Football Conference After the 2019-20 Season
An ACC team and an SEC team squared off in the national championship for the fourth time in five years, but where did those conferences rank in the grand scheme of the 2019 college football season?
That's right. One final ranking before we can shift gears to what lies ahead for next year.
There's no unanimously agreed-upon method for ranking conferences. Some would say it depends on head-to-head results between the leagues. Others would argue it should come down to which one produces the best candidate—or the most candidates—to win the national championship. Maybe you prefer to think the best conference is the one with the fewest numbers of terrible teams in the basement.
But I like to take the hypothetical round-robin approach—i.e., which conference should end up with the best record if every team from one league played every team from another league. It combines the championship and basement schools of thought and factors in head-to-head results that we actually did get to see.
Regardless of your methodology, I think we can all agree the ACC needs to do better next year if it wants people to occasionally watch Clemson games during the regular season.
Conferences are ranked in ascending order of overall strength.
10. Mid-American Conference
The MAC did end up producing eight bowl-eligible teams (seven received invitations), but that's mostly because no one was good enough to run away with a division title and because Bowling Green and Akron were particularly bad, handing out wins left and right.
Even with bowl games factored in, Buffalo had the MAC's best record at 8-5.
Every other conference finished the season with at least one team in the top 50 of the ESPN FPI. The MAC's only top-75 team was Western Michigan at No. 67.
If we take out the 11-0 record against FCS opponents, the MAC entered bowl season with a combined record of 7-30 in nonconference play. Granted, one of those seven wins was Eastern Michigan's stunning road victory over Illinois, but they mostly just got beaten up by the other nine FBS leagues.
At least they showed up a little bit for bowl season. Kent State beat Utah State in the Frisco Bowl, Buffalo smoked Charlotte in the Bahamas Bowl, and Ohio ran at will against Nevada in winning the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The MAC also had Eastern Michigan almost upset Pittsburgh and should've gotten another win in the Western Kentucky-Western Michigan game.
But even a 7-0 record in bowl games wouldn't have been enough to salvage a bad season. Maybe the MAC would've placed ninth instead of 10th, but there's no question this was one of the two worst conferences in 2019.
9. Conference USA
Conference USA wasn't much better than the MAC. At any rate, it had a much larger pool of bottom feeders.
Excluding games against FCS teams, Old Dominion and UTEP both went winless, and Rice, North Texas, Middle Tennessee and UTSA didn't have an FBS victory in nonconference play. Moreover, Rice, North Texas and UTSA only won conference games against each other and/or MTSU, ODU and UTEP.
It's like Conference USA had two Akrons and four Bowling Greens.
But as penance for that gigantic basement, at least there were a few quality teams up top.
After opening the season as a sacrificial lamb against both Ohio State and UCF, Florida Atlantic won 11 of its final 12 games, including pounding SMU in the Boca Raton Bowl. Lane Kiffin left the Owls for the Ole Miss job, but he left that program in better shape than he found it three years ago.
Similarly, Louisiana Tech was solid after a no-chance loss at Texas in Week 1. The Bulldogs got to 10 wins by shutting out the Miami Hurricanes in the Independence Bowl.
And who can forget Western Kentucky waltzing into Fayetteville and pummeling Arkansas 45-19? If the Hilltoppers hadn't opened the season with a home loss to Central Arkansas, they also would've gotten to 10 victories.
That trio plus Marshall (8-5) and UAB (9-5) were enough to keep C-USA out of last place.
8. Sun Belt Conference
Appalachian State and Louisiana-Lafayette both had excellent seasons for the Sun Belt.
Despite losing their head coach to Louisville at the end of the 2018 campaign, the Mountaineers went 13-1, winning road games against both North Carolina and South Carolina. They spent half the season in the AP Top 25 and likely would have replaced Memphis as the Group of Five representative in the Cotton Bowl if they hadn't lost to Georgia Southern's triple-option offense on Halloween.
Like Appalachian State, Louisiana-Lafayette posted its best record in program history, finishing 11-3 with two close losses to the Mountaineers and one solid showing in a 38-28 loss to Mississippi State. The Ragin' Cajuns didn't score any wins over Power Five opponents but perhaps only because their lone opportunity came in Week 1. If they had gotten to face a team like South Carolina in November, they probably would've won too.
And even though the rest of the Sun Belt left much to be desired, there were a few impressive single-game performances during nonconference play.
Louisiana-Monroe almost won at Florida State, forcing overtime before losing by a missed extra point. Georgia Southern also almost had a huge road win, falling 35-32 at Minnesota when the Golden Gophers scored the game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds remaining. Coastal Carolina did win its road game against Kansas, and Georgia State had an opening-week stunner at Tennessee.
All told, that's four wins and two nail-biter losses against Power Five opponents. That's a major improvement upon last year, when Troy's win over Nebraska (which finished 4-8) and Appalachian State's overtime loss to Penn State were the only times the Sun Belt even came close to beating Power Five teams.
This league still has a long way to go to catch up to the American Athletic Conference for Group of Five supremacy, but it is getting close to leapfrogging the Mountain West.
7. Mountain West Conference
If nothing else, the Mountain West had a pretty solid year against the Pac-12.
Both Air Force (at Colorado; Cheez-It Bowl vs. Washington State) and Hawaii (vs. Arizona; vs. Oregon State) scored a pair of wins over their big brothers from that conference. San Diego State also won at UCLA.
It ended up breaking even with five wins and five losses, but the MWC has bragging rights in the Mountain and Pacific time zones for the time being.
In addition to those five victories, UNLV won at Vanderbilt; San Jose State stunned Arkansas; Nevada upset Purdue; Wyoming won its home game against Missouri; Boise State won its opener at Florida State; and both Fresno State (vs. Minnesota) and Utah State (at Wake Forest) came close to Power Five victories before losing 38-35.
After being left out of the preseason AP Top 25, Boise State spent every other week with a number to the left of its name, peaking at No. 14 before losing at BYU in mid-October. The Broncos had a lot of close calls, but they showed an incredible degree of resolve for a squad that lost most of its best players from last season.
San Diego State and Air Force each spent one week at No. 24 in the AP poll, giving this league three unique ranked teams for the third consecutive year. Air Force had one of the best rushing attacks in the country, per usual, and San Diego State had one of the stingiest defenses, limiting opponents to 12.7 points per game (second nationally).
Add Hawaii to that trio and there were four MWC teams with double-digit numbers in the wins column. And aside from New Mexico, the bottom of the barrel wasn't all that bad. Even though Boise State got stomped by Washington in the Las Vegas Bowl, it was a strong year for the Mountain West overall.
6. American Athletic Conference
Per usual, the AAC is on a tier of its own, clearly ahead of the other four Group of Five leagues, but still nowhere close to catching the worst of the Power Five conferences.
The "better than the other four" part is because there were five darn good teams that each won at least 10 games. If you were to just rank the best Group of Five teams from this season, Cincinnati, UCF, Memphis, Navy and SMU would all have to be in the top 10 along with Appalachian State, Boise State, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana and Air Force.
Memphis finished at the head of the pack and played Penn State in the Cotton Bowl, but there were four AAC teams in the initial CFP Top 25 in early November. Until they started beating one another up, they were regarded as four of the five-best Group of Five teams—and UCF, which had 25 wins over the previous two seasons, wasn't even one of those four.
Hard for the Mountain West or Sun Belt to compete with that.
But while the top four-to-six teams in the AAC are usually good enough to win a neutral-site game against a middle-tier Power Five team, the bottom third of the league isn't even competitive.
Connecticut, East Carolina, Houston and South Florida went a combined 1-28 against opponents who won five or more games, and 21 of those losses were by double digits. The lone win was South Florida, which stunned BYU at the lowest point in the Cougars season.
One parting thought on the Group of Five before we jump up a level: Memphis should be the team to beat once again next year. The Tigers lost head coach Mike Norvell to Florida State, but with quarterback Brady White and wide receiver Damonte Coxie both coming back for their senior seasons, they might run the table in 2020. If so, that'll be four straight years of the AAC reaching the New Year's Six.
5. Atlantic Coast Conference
Clemson is extremely good. Not exactly a hot take there.
But the rest of the ACC?
Not only did Clemson plow through league play with almost no resistance, but the Tigers had as many wins (three) against the other four Power Five leagues (and Notre Dame) as the rest of the ACC combined. And Clemson did it with a 3-1 record, while the rest of the league went 3-21.
Once it became obvious in Week 2 that Syracuse wasn't any good, we spent the rest of the season trying to figure out who the ACC's second-best team was.
Did we ever come to any sort of agreement on that one?
Virginia won the Coastal Division and was the only non-Clemson ACC team in the final CFP Top 25 (No. 24), but it was demolished by the Tigers in the conference championship and was given virtually no chance in the Orange Bowl against the SEC's third-best team (Florida). Aside from finally winning a game against Virginia Tech at the end of the regular season, Virginia didn't have any victories worth remembering.
But neither did anyone else in the ACC.
The three Power Five wins mentioned above were North Carolina, which beat 4-8 South Carolina; Boston College, which defeated 2-10 Rutgers (one week after the Eagles lost by 24 at home against Kansas); and Louisville, which won the Music City Bowl against Mississippi State—a result so embarrassing for the Bulldogs that they fired head coach Joe Moorhead four days later.
North Carolina was probably the second-best team in the league. It was the only one to legitimately challenge Clemson, and all six of its losses came by single-possession margins. Still, entertaining the possibility that a 7-6 team was the second-best says all you need to know about the current state of the ACC.
4. Pac-12 Conference
We've spent an inordinate amount of time over the past two seasons complaining about how bad the Pac-12 is, but would you believe this conference went 8-5 against the other Power Five leagues, including a 5-1 record against the Big Ten?
Only the SEC (16-8) had a better winning percentage in the interleague showdowns.
Granted, the Pac-12 eked out most of the wins and got stomped in most of the losses, resulting in a point differential of negative-49 (354-305) in those 13 games. Moreover, in the most important nonconference game of the regular season—Oregon vs. Auburn in Week 1—the eventual Rose Bowl winner blew a big lead and was subsequently written out of the College Football Playoff conversation for most of the season.
Still, it ended up being a better year for the Pac-12 than what it felt like in real time.
The reason for that is aside from Oregon and Utah, no team seemed to be capable of playing well for more than maybe two games in a row.
For example, Arizona State and California both got out to good starts and eventually climbed into the Top 20 of the AP poll. But they each struggled in a nonconference game they should have dominated—Arizona State against Sacramento State; Cal against North Texas—completely dropped off the radar with a four-game losing streak in league play and then finished strong on a three-game winning streak, including bowl games.
Not every team had swings that drastic, but USC, Washington and Washington State each had stints of greatness and moments of massive ineptitude too.
It's the same consistency issue that has plagued the Pac-12 for several years, keeping it out of each of the last three College Football Playoffs. Until it can somehow address that issue and/or produce a singular juggernaut like Clemson or Oklahoma, it's probably going to remain on the outside of the four-team playoff picture.
3. Big 12 Conference
If Texas had lost to Utah in the Alamo Bowl instead of blowing out the Utes by 28, it would've been tempting to put the Pac-12 ahead of the Big 12. That's how close the gap was between Nos. 3 and 4.
The Big 12 can thank what was otherwise a no-show in bowl season for that.
LSU's annihilation of Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl was the most vivid example of the conference's struggles. But Iowa State didn't bother to show up against Notre Dame. Baylor was down 19-0 at halftime against Georgia. Oklahoma State blew a big early lead against Texas A&M. And Kansas State couldn't move the ball against Navy to save its life.
The Big 12's 1-5 bowl record was the worst of any conference by far.
But even if it had flipped the script and gone 5-1, what did the Big 12 accomplish during the regular season to warrant consideration as one of the two best conferences?
Five of the 10 teams—including Baylor and Oklahoma—didn't even play a nonconference game against a team that became bowl-eligible. Without a close runner-up, the league's best win was Kansas State coming from behind in the fourth quarter to beat Mississippi State, which isn't even that impressive. The second-best win was either Kansas at Boston College or Texas against Louisiana Tech.
And then in league play, they just took turns not looking great. Even the Bears and the Sooners—who went 15-1 when not facing each other—had a bunch of close calls, all of which felt more like a product of them failing to show up rather than a case of the opponent bringing its A-game.
At least every team in the Big 12 was OK this year. Even though Kansas went 3-9, it's clearly no longer the free victory that it had been for years. And even though West Virginia had to go through a complete overhaul on offense from last season, the Mountaineers won five games and were right there in several others.
It's just hard to feel good about the Big 12 when Texas loses five games and the league champion gets destroyed in the league's most important contest.
2. Big Ten Conference
In a lot of ways, the Big Ten was worse than anticipated.
Michigan ended with four losses after entering the season as a popular pick to reach the College Football Playoff. Thanks to a five-game losing streak, Michigan State barely became bowl-eligible after opening the year ranked 18th in the AP poll. Nebraska went 5-7 after debuting at No. 24. And while Northwestern wasn't expected to compete for a national championship, no one thought the Wildcats (3-9) would be this awful.
But on the flip side, you have Minnesota winning 11 games for the first time since 1904, punctuating that incredible run with an Outback Bowl victory over Auburn. Indiana also played its best football in decades and even climbed into the AP poll for one week for the first time since 1994. And, of course, there was Ohio State going 13-0 before coming oh-so-close to beating Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl.
Taken as a whole, though, it was pretty much business as usual.
There were a few hapless bottom feeders and some Group of Five losses that we'll be bringing up during nonconference play for years to come—I still can't believe Illinois lost at home to Eastern Michigan and then somehow won six games. But the Big Ten also had six teams finish 18th or better in the final CFP Top 25. The SEC (five) was the only other league with at least three such teams.
Could this season have gone better? Absolutely. At the least, the Big Ten could have posted a winning record during bowl season instead of going 4-5, with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan losing in three of the league's four opportunities against Top 15 competition.
But are the Big 12, Pac-12 or ACC anywhere close to holding a candle to the Big Ten? Absolutely not.
1. Southeastern Conference
If memory serves, this is the part in the program where you scream about my SEC bias—even though I live in ACC country and have no rooting interest in college football. But you can't seriously believe a different conference belongs in this top spot, can you?
Sure, Arkansas was a colossal embarrassment, losing home games against both San Jose State and Western Kentucky. Vanderbilt wasn't much better, getting blown out by UNLV and barely beating Northern Illinois.
The middle tier wasn't as impressive as it has been in most seasons either, what with Tennessee starting out 0-2 against Georgia State and BYU, Missouri losing to Wyoming and Mississippi State sputtering to a sub-.500 record.
And only seven SEC teams ended up spending time in the AP Top 25. The Big 12 had the same number despite having four fewer squads in its conference. The Pac-12 had eight. The Big Ten led the way with 10.
Still, this was clearly the strongest league, boasting the best inter-conference record and a top five that would destroy any other conference's top five in a round-robin type of tournament.
After going 9-6 against the other Power Five leagues (and Notre Dame) during the regular season, the SEC upped the ante with an 8-2 record during bowl season. The five best teams—LSU, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Auburn—had a combined record of 12-1, with Auburn's Outback Bowl loss to Minnesota representing the only misstep.
All five finished in the Top 10 of ESPN's FPI, in which the Big Ten (three) was the only other league with multiple representatives.
Going one step further in that team ranking index, 86 percent (12 of 14) of the SEC finished in the top 50. No other conference fared better than 70 percent. The average SEC FPI rank was 32.3. The Big 12 (40.1), Big Ten (42.0) and Pac-12 (42.1) were each respectable but not that close. The ACC (56.0) was an outright disaster.
Even in what was a bit of a down year for the SEC's usual juggernaut (Alabama), it was an easy decision to put this league at No. 1 for the 2019-20 season.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.