Power Ranking College Football Conferences After Week 11
During a typical year, ranking the 10 conferences in the Football Bowl Subdivision is mostly straightforward. But the 2020 season has shaken up the conversation dramatically.
In mid-November, MAC and Pac-12 programs have played once or twice while the Mountain West and Big Ten have played no more than a handful of games. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Sun Belt has one school—Texas State—with 10 contests completed.
How's that for a contrast?
Because of that difference, several Group of Five conferences are ranked higher than the Pac-12. Along with sample size, key factors are the number of national title contenders and the depth of the middle tier. Overall record and poll rankings are considered, too.
One important note: The absence of non-conference games in 2020 complicates the comparison across leagues. Your personal order, for good reason, may be different. Have some fun with it.
10. Mid-American (MAC)
This one is simple. Attribute it to the number of games.
After becoming the first FBS conference to cancel its fall season, the MAC returned later than everyone but the Pac-12. The league made its 2020 debut on the first Wednesday of November.
Consequently, there isn't much to say. While we could make sweeping judgments, all 12 programs have played exactly two games. Buffalo has looked excellent in two blowout wins, while Kent State, Central Michigan and Western Michigan are also each 2-0.
Don't expect a MAC school on a national stage to end the season, but the return of #MACtion for midweek nights is appreciated.
9. Mountain West
Based on sample size alone, the Mountain West is a step beyond the Pac-12. At this point of the season, the Pac-12's power-conference status is the only thing putting two programs into the Top 25.
But the Mountain West had Boise State as high as No. 21 in the AP Top 25, and BYU promptly blasted the Broncos. No other MWC program has cracked the rankings at this point. Conference USA, meanwhile, has Marshall at No. 15.
Week 12 will either crowd the Mountain West picture or begin to provide a little separation in the standings; 4-0 Nevada hosts 3-1 San Diego State, and 3-1 Fresno State hosts 4-0 San Jose State. The 12-team league's only other 4-0 or 3-1 team is Boise State.
The Mountain West could rise, but it'll require a clear favorite to emerge and compare favorably to Marshall. Such is the nature of a four-game head start.
8. Conference USA
Everyone else: Not so much.
The Thundering Herd have allowed only 71 points en route to a 7-0 record, which includes a marquee win against Appalachian State. Plus, a head-to-head victory over Florida Atlantic means Marshall has nearly secured a place in the C-USA Championship Game. The Herd are currently ranked No. 15 in the country.
Florida Atlantic (4-1), however, is the only remaining one-loss team beyond Rice (1-1). West Division contenders UAB, UTSA and Louisiana Tech have a combined 13-10 record.
Conference USA is clinging to Marshall's success this season.
The Pac-12 is above the Mountain West and Conference USA because Oregon and USC are ranked in the Top 25. Otherwise, very little separates the leagues as the Pac-12 begins its 2020 season.
Oregon, the reigning champion, is 2-0 after defeating Stanford and Washington State. USC needed last-minute touchdowns to upend Arizona State and Arizona. But 2-0 is 2-0, which Colorado is, too. Washington won its further-delayed debut, as well.
Since the league only has a six-game schedule plus the conference title, the champion must be undefeated to have even a remote shot at the College Football Playoff.
Nevertheless, the Pac-12 has a shot.
6. Sun Belt
This is legitimately a difficult pick.
Coastal Carolina (Kansas), Louisiana (Iowa State) and Arkansas State (Kansas State) have all toppled a Big 12 team. Coastal Carolina is 7-0 and ranked 15th, while Louisiana is 7-1 and 24th. Appalachian State is 6-1 and receiving votes in the latest AP Top 25.
For good measure, Georgia Southern holds a 6-2 record. The highest tier of the Sun Belt is good!
In these rankings, the CFP contender in the AAC (Cincinnati) and the Big 12's perceived strength with Oklahoma State and Oklahoma edge the Sun Belt. But if you disagree, the argument is already here.
5. Big 12
Saved by the Sooner State. And Texas.
Iowa State technically stands atop the conference because of an extra game played, but Oklahoma State owns that tiebreaker and is 5-1 overall. If the Cowboys win out, they'd be in the College Football Playoff. The same cannot be said for Coastal Carolina.
And as much as the Chanticleers would say "bring it on," lining up Oklahoma or Texas against CCU leans in the Big 12's direction. Without question, the power-conference bias in that sentence is strong. Our perception could be wrong!
Still, a CFP contender and a quartet of five-win teams that includes OU and Texas is good enough depth to edge the Sun Belt.
Read that again in 2021.
4. American (AAC)
The only AAC vs. Big 12 matchup is Tulsa's loss to Oklahoma State. However, if we ranked strictly on head-to-head contests, the Sun Belt would be ahead of the Big 12.
Instead, the emphasis on CFP contenders offers a valuable edge—today—for the AAC. Cincinnati is 7-0 and ranked No. 7. That upside will be tested in upcoming trips to UCF (Nov. 21) and Tulsa (Dec. 4), but the Bearcats are in a favorable spot right now.
Behind them in the AAC hierarchy are Tulsa, SMU and UCF, which have a combined record of 16-5. Memphis is 4-2, as well. That depth, at the very least, is comparable to the Big 12's.
But if Cincinnati falls, the AAC will likely follow suit.
3. Big Ten
Ohio State. Any questions?
It's not actually that easy, though the Buckeyes playing at the level of a championship contender is key to overcoming a small sample. The other parts are Indiana and Northwestern both starting 4-0, and Wisconsin has looked tremendous in two wins.
Yes, the Big Ten is extremely top-heavy. Michigan, Minnesota and Penn State have completely fallen off the radar, dropping from Top 25 rankings to a combined 2-10 record. And with Week 12 matchups between Ohio State/Indiana and Wisconsin/Northwestern, the list of unbeaten teams will narrow to two.
But the likelihood of the Big Ten having a CFP representative is higher than it is for every conference beyond the ACC and SEC. As long as its second tier is strong, the league can avoid a drop.
2-1. SEC vs. ACC
We could do this on separate slides, but the ACC/SEC rundown is best suited for a side-by-side comparison.
In Notre Dame and Clemson (ACC) and Alabama and Florida (SEC), both leagues have two College Football Playoff contenders.
Both conferences have a highly ranked program with a bad result—Miami (ACC), Texas A&M (SEC)—against a team in the CFP contender category. Both leagues have a respected team—North Carolina (ACC), Georgia (SEC)—with two losses.
Given the symmetry in those categories, the difference is depth.
Auburn (4-2) is the SEC's last program with a record above .500, while the ACC has NC State (5-3), Boston College (5-4) and Wake Forest (4-3). Pointing out the difference in membership is fair; the ACC has 15 teams in 2020, and the SEC has 14.
Remember: This is a fun conversation without an absolutely correct answer. You could argue the ACC is more likely to have two CFP qualifiers, yet someone else could counter with the SEC having more ranked teams. We're splitting hairs, and the number of .500-plus teams is a heck of a hair to split.
But with one month remaining until conference championships, the ACC has a slight edge on the SEC.