Big Ten vs. SEC: Who Is CFB's Most Dominant Conference?

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJuly 29, 2020

SEC logo on a pylon during the Southeastern Conference Championship NCAA college football game against the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018 in Atlanta. (Ric Tapia via AP)
Ric Tapia/Associated Press

While we patiently wait and hope for a 2020 season of college football, Bleacher Report writers David Kenyon and Kerry Miller are engaging in a trio of good-natured debates.

First, we argued whether Dabo Swinney or Nick Saban is the best coach in the sport. Today, we're taking sides for the Big Ten and SEC in a discussion of the most dominant conference.

In the interest of full disclosure, we flipped a coin to determine which side of the argument we'll be promoting.

Kerry Miller

I'll never understand why we obsess over conference rankings in college sports. While it's a fun thing unique to our level of sports coverage—you rarely see a "Division Power Rankings" piece for any of the Big Four professional leagues—it also makes little sense at its core. Most college fans loathe every other team in their conference (some more than others), yet they'll defend their league until they're blue in the face.

But let's have a little fun by debating whether the Big Ten or the SEC is the best conference in college football.

You and I legitimately have no rooting interest with regard to this topic, so neither one of us has a horse in this race. In theory, this should be both a civil and objective discussion. And I'll be taking the impartial stance that the Big Ten is king.

It's not an easy stance to take, considering the SEC has won 11 of the last 17 national championships. But the Big Ten is playing the game on a higher difficulty level for two reasons: The league is deeper, and the schedule is longer.

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Barry Reeger/Associated Press

Not only do Big Ten teams play one more league game than SEC teams, but they also generally play them in succession. While Alabama massages a bye week in front of its annual showdown with LSU and a de facto bye week against an FCS school before the Iron Bowl, Penn State had to face five ranked conference foes in the span of seven weeks last year.

Granted, it's not like the NCAA is forcing the Big Ten to play that extra game or to put together mini gauntlets that are almost impossible to survive without a loss, but it needs to be considered and is something that makes the average Big Ten game more enjoyable to watch than the average SEC affair.

What say you?


David Kenyon

While I also wish the SEC played a ninth league game, I'm a strong proponent of the buy-game ecosystem that supports Group of Five and FCS schools financially. We can collectively roll our eyes at the SEC's timing for those November games, but I find them valuable overall. Besides, it's not as if the SEC isn't short on competition within an eight-game slate.

The SEC has accounted for 14 of the last 30 national titles, including 10 in the last 14 years. During this recent stretch alone, four teams—Alabama (five), Auburn (one), Florida (two) and LSU (three)—have all hoisted a championship trophy. Ohio State is the only Big Ten program since 2000 to win a national title, and only Michigan shared a championship in the 1990s.

Throw in even championship losses, and the SEC has sent Auburn, Georgia and LSU to the deciding game recently. Once again, Ohio State starts and ends the Big Ten's list.

If we're talking about a singularly dominant team, Ohio State wins many of those conversations. The Buckeyes are undoubtedly a step above many SEC programs. But not Alabama. And the second-best in the Big Ten, whether it's Wisconsin or Penn State, will not measure up to the SEC's comparable challenger.

And, really, it's not even close.


Kerry Miller

First things first, are you trying to imply that I want the Group of Five and FCS schools to struggle financially just because I think a nine-game league slate is more legitimate than an eight-game slate?

I won't let this devolve into a political debate about the appropriate method of redistributing the wealth in college football, but let's not pretend the SEC is doing something noble by having an extra "Hey, we'll pay you $1.2 million to come here and lose by seven touchdowns" game on its schedule.

Without going full-blown conspiracy theorist here, part of the reason the SEC keeps winning titles is because it's effectively decided before the season begins that the SEC West winner is going to get a chance to play for a championship. That has been the case every year since 2009, and it's a self-fulfilling prophecy when you look at the preseason rankings.

As long as some team emerges from that division with either zero or one losses, it's going to have at least two wins over teams that were labeled as title contenders.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day
Ohio State coach Ryan DayRick Scuteri/Associated Press

For instance, last year, Alabama lost the only legitimate test in its first 11 games, and yet we all agreed the Crimson Tide would've at least had a case for the CFP if they won the Iron Bowl. The year before that, Ohio State won five games against ranked teamsfour of them away from homebut one road loss during that daunting nine-game league schedule, and the Buckeyes got kicked to the curb.

Translation: The Big Ten gets penalized for not having a colossal talent gap between its top three or four teams and the rest of the league like the SEC has. Because you're right, over the past decade or so, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin haven't been quite as good at their peaks as Auburn, Georgia and LSU.

But team Nos. 5-10 in the Big Ten have been better than Nos. 5-10 in the SEC in just about any given year, which makes the Big Ten more competitive from top to bottom.

Since you and I cover both sports, I'll mention this is basically the Big 12 vs. ACC argument in men's basketball. The ACC has three viable title contenders in most seasons, while 80 percent of the Big 12 is typically talented enough to reach the Sweet 16. As a result, the Big 12 beats itself up all season long and has nothing left in the tank by the time the postseason rolls around. I feel like that has been the Big Ten's biggest problem over the past decade.


David Kenyon

I am neither implying that nor suggesting it's particularly noble, ha ha. Simply saying I believe those games have reason to continue, despite the letdown that Cupcake Week can be.

Alabama rolled Western Carolina 66-3 in November 2019.
Alabama rolled Western Carolina 66-3 in November 2019.Vasha Hunt/Associated Press/Associated Press

Looking at preseason rankings, you make a fair point. Those are based on subjective thought processes. At the same time, back to my previous comment, we've consistently seen an SEC program on the national championship stage and winning that game. If the SEC kept showing up and losing to other top-ranked teams, it would be a different story. But the league keeps winning the biggest game.

To your second example, Alabama lost its only legitimate test—you know, to SEC counterpart LSU, which merely obliterated FBS records in 2019. Ohio State's loss in 2018, your season of reference, was by 29 points to a 6-7 Purdue team. Not exactly comparable!

While your argument for overall Big Ten depth and competition is worthy, we're talking about dominance. You don't claim dominance on the strength of 8-5 and 7-6 teams. This is all about the best of the best, and the SEC owns that discussion.

Jumping the line to basketball, it's the same point. Are you picking any Big 12 program other than Kansas to compete for a national title?

Once in a while, Baylor or Texas Tech or West Virginia might be a threat—similar to Michigan, MSU, Penn State or Wisconsin for Big Ten football. Depth is great, but every year, we're typically on Duke, North Carolina and Virginia as leading contenders, like Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and LSU from the SEC.


Kerry Miller

And this all brings us back to my initial point that conference vs. conference arguments are silly. If your preferred conference has the most depth, you convince yourself that depth makes a great conference. Or if your preferred conference has the best team...or the best collection of three teams...or the least separation between first place and last place...or the "richest history," etc.

It's all subjective, and it's why we continue to have these arguments in spite of the SEC's undeniable dominance in terms of recent national championships.

Joe Burrow and LSU hoisted the championship trophy in the 2019 season.
Joe Burrow and LSU hoisted the championship trophy in the 2019 season.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

I'm generally not one to care about ancient history, but if you're going to keep bringing up national titles, it has to be worth mentioning the Big Ten claimed 35 in the span of 70 years from 1901 to '70. Sure, in some of those years, there were like five teams claiming a share of a championship because the pre-BCS era of college football was ludicrous in that regard. But as far as dominance is concerned, the Big Ten at least used to have a lot of it.

Also, I believe the state of quality coaching depth is at least slightly better in the Big Ten. The SEC has more raw talent, obviously. Per 247Sports, the SEC had four of the top five and seven of the top 13 classes in the 2019 recruiting cycle, as well as seven of the top 10 in 2020. With all those stars, national titles should be the expectation.

But if you're ranking head coaches based on who you would want to hire if you were starting a new program, you've got to be ranking the 10th-best Big Ten coach over the 10th-best SEC coach.


David Kenyon

I definitely expected to debate the 1900s and 10th-best coaches in the conferences. I think my point is made.

In seriousness, I agree; the argument is absolutely shaped by your angle. If your bias is confirmed by depth of bowl-eligible teams and coaching, that's fine. Conversely, as you mentioned, the SEC has more talent and more championships. In my opinion, those are both the ultimate measure of success and the best indicator of that possibility, respectively.

Perhaps in five-plus years, we'll look back at 2014 to '19 as the SEC's last moments as CFB's power while the Big Ten rose to prominence. You can dream for a moment: Ohio State adds another title in the 2020s. Michigan and Penn State snap their droughts. Wisconsin finally breaks through to the College Football Playoff. If that happens, it's a different conversation.

But today, the SEC is the nation's most dominant conference.