Ranking Every College Football Conference After the 2020 Season

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2021

Ranking Every College Football Conference After the 2020 Season

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    That's a wrap for the 2020 college football season, but there's still plenty left to debate.

    Example: What was the country's best football conference in 2020?

    Alabama has been crowned the national champion after a resounding 52-24 victory over Ohio State in the title game on Monday night, but that doesn't automatically mean the SEC is the best in the country.

    Ahead we tried to take a subjective approach to crowning the nation's top football conference, looking at a mix of ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI), the final College Football Playoff rankings and each conference's success during bowl season.

    The results are sure to spark debate, and that's never a bad thing.

    So let's get to it!

10. Conference USA

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    Marshall running back Brenden Knox
    Marshall running back Brenden KnoxEmilee Chinn/Associated Press

    Average FPI Ranking: 103.0

    Final CFP Top 25: None

    Bowl Record: 0-6

    It was a magical season for the Marshall Thundering Herd before the wheels fell off down the stretch.

    After a 7-0 start to the year that included a win over then-No. 23 Appalachian State in the second game of the season, they climbed all the way to No. 15 in the AP poll before getting shut out 20-0 by Rice in one of the biggest upsets of the year.

    A 22-13 loss to UAB in the conference championship game was followed by a 17-10 loss to Buffalo in the Camellia Bowl, all but erasing the memory of what was once an undefeated season.

    Beyond Marshall (7-3) and UAB (6-3), the only other teams in the conference with a winning record overall were UTSA (7-5) and Florida Atlantic (5-4).

    Its 0-6 showing in bowl games is an accurate representation of how Conference USA stacked up to the rest of the country.

9. Mountain West Conference

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    San Jose State quarterback Nick Starkel
    San Jose State quarterback Nick StarkelJohn Locher/Associated Press

    Average FPI Ranking: 86.2

    Final CFP Top 25: San Jose State (22)

    Bowl Record: 2-1

    The Mountain West was expected to be Boise State and everyone else once again in 2020, but the Broncos were blown out by BYU (51-17) in their third game of the season and fell to upstart San Jose State in the conference championship.

    The Spartans were the story of the season in this conference.

    With victories over San Diego State, Nevada and Boise State in the conference title game, they were the unquestioned top dogs in the conference despite being picked to finish fifth in the West Division in the conference's preseason poll.

    Their undefeated season was spoiled by Ball State in the Arizona Bowl when they turned the ball over four times and lost 34-13, but it was an impressive season nonetheless.

    Nevada (38-27 over Tulane) and Hawaii (28-14 over Houston) both won their bowl games, so the conference did finish with a winning record in bowl season.

8. Mid-American Conference

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    Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson
    Buffalo running back Jaret PattersonAssociated Press

    Average FPI Ranking: 89.8

    Final CFP Top 25: None

    Bowl Record: 2-0

    Ball State and Buffalo were the only teams in the MAC to play any nonconference games, and they ended up squaring off in the conference title game after the Cardinals pulled out a wild victory over Western Michigan in the regular-season finale.

    Both teams ended up winning bowl games against quality opponents with Ball State handing San Jose State its first loss of the year and Buffalo knocking off Marshall.

    The Cardinals may have come out on top in the conference title game, but Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson was the biggest story of the year.

    He piled up 1,072 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns in just six games, including a two-game stretch against Bowling Green and Kent State in which he rushed for 710 yards and 12 touchdowns.

    Beyond Ball State, Buffalo and a solid Western Michigan team, this was a thin conference, but its bowl wins over arguably the best team in Conference USA and the Mountain West were enough to bump it up to the No. 8 spot.

7. American Athletic Conference

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Average FPI Ranking: 68.9

    Final CFP Top 25: Cincinnati (8), Tulsa (24)

    Bowl Record: 1-5

    Had Cincinnati finished off an undefeated season with a win over Georgia and had the conference as a whole fared better in bowl season, the AAC would have been the choice for the top spot among Group of Five conferences.

    However, that's not how things played out.

    The Bearcats played a two-loss Georgia team tough in the Peach Bowl, but their 24-21 loss proved the playoff committee right in excluding them from the conversation.

    The other ranked team in the conference, Tulsa, lost to a 4-7 Mississippi State team in the Armed Forces Bowl, only further illustrating the gap between SEC also-rans and the cream of the AAC crop.

    Houston, UCF and Tulane all lost by multiple scores in their bowl games, leaving Memphis as the only team in the conference to come away with a bowl win. The Tigers finished the season 8-3 with a 25-10 victory over Florida Atlantic in the Montgomery Bowl.

    The AAC is still deeper with relevant teams than any other Group of Five conference, but its poor bowl showing is enough to knock it down to the No. 7 spot in these rankings.

6. Sun Belt

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    Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    Average FPI Ranking: 82.7

    Final CFP Top 25: Coastal Carolina (12), Louisiana-Lafayette (19)

    Bowl Record: 4-1

    What a year for the Sun Belt Conference.

    Prior to the 2020 season, no Sun Belt team had ever climbed higher than No. 19 in the AP poll, and that honor belonged to the 2019 Appalachian State team that finished 13-1.

    Louisiana opened the year with a stunning upset of No. 23 Iowa State in Ames, and the following week, it matched Appalachian State by entering the AP poll in the No. 19 spot.

    However, the Ragin' Cajuns were knocked out of the rankings a few weeks later when they lost a 30-27 battle to Coastal Carolina at home.

    That was the jumping-off point for the Chanticleers, and they didn't look back, finishing the regular season 11-0 with a 22-17 victory over BYU vaulting them all the way to No. 9 in the final regular-season AP poll.

    A 37-34 overtime loss to Liberty in the Cure Bowl spoiled their perfect season, but it was still a year to remember in the conference.

    While the Chanticleers lost their bowl game, Appalachian State (56-28 over North Texas), Georgia Southern (38-3 over Louisiana Tech) and Georgia State (39-21 over Western Kentucky) all turned in dominant victories, and Louisiana (31-24 over UTSA) made it four bowl wins for the conference.

    That strong bowl performance and the one-two punch of Coastal Carolina and Louisiana were enough to earn the Sun Belt the top spot among Group of Five conferences.

5. Pac-12 Conference

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    USC quarterback Kedon Slovis
    USC quarterback Kedon SlovisAssociated Press

    Average FPI Ranking: 43.5

    Final CFP Top 25: USC (17), Oregon (25)

    Bowl Record: 0-2

    The Pac-12 didn't start its season until November, and when Oregon lost to Oregon State three weeks later, the conference was all but eliminated from the national title picture.

    Its mediocrity was sealed when 5-0 USC fell to that same Oregon team in the conference title game, assuring there would be no undefeated Pac-12 team for the playoff committee to discuss.

    In a full season's worth of games, the Trojans might have made some noise nationally with sophomore standout Kedon Slovis under center and a good defense led by All-American safety Talanoa Hufanga. Instead, with a shortened schedule and multiple cancellations, the conference's slate was seemingly over before it ever got rolling.

    Multiple teams, including USC, opted out of playing in a bowl game, and the two teams that did suit up in the postseasonOregon (34-17 vs. Iowa State) and Colorado (55-23 vs. Texas)were both blown out.

    It's hard to make a case for the Pac-12 being any higher than No. 5.

4. Atlantic Coastal Conference

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    Clemson running back Travis Etienne
    Clemson running back Travis EtienneBrian Blanco/Associated Press

    Average FPI Ranking: 51.3

    Final CFP Top 25: Clemson (2), Notre Dame (4), North Carolina (13), Miami (18), NC State (23)

    Bowl Record: 0-6

    It's awfully difficult to overlook the ACC's 0-6 bowl record.

    Yes, it got two teams in the playoff thanks to Notre Dame's temporary allegiance, but both were sent packing in decisive fashion.

    Clemson lost by 21 points to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, and the Fighting Irish lost by 17 to Alabama in the Rose Bowl, a game the Crimson Tide controlled from start to finish.

    North Carolina had a prolific offense led by the two-headed rushing monster of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, but it lost to a bad Florida State team during the regular season and was blown out by Texas A&M in a 41-27 Orange Bowl loss.

    That same Tar Heels team destroyed Miami in a 62-26 shellacking in the regular-season finale, giving the Hurricanes their second loss of the year. They picked up No. 3 a few weeks later when Oklahoma State beat them by three in the Cheez-It Bowl.

    Wake Forest (42-28 vs. Wisconsin) was also blown out in its bowl game, while NC State (23-21 vs. Kentucky) came the closest to putting the conference in the win column.

    With an extremely wide gap between the top handful of teams in the conference and everyone else, no one benefited more in terms of national perception from playing a conference-heavy schedule. That only became more obvious during bowl season.

3. Big 12 Conference

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    Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler
    Oklahoma quarterback Spencer RattlerMichael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Average FPI Ranking: 37.8

    Final CFP Top 25: Oklahoma (6), Iowa State (10), Texas (20), Oklahoma State (21)

    Bowl Record: 5-0

    The Big 12 was flipped on its head when Oklahoma lost back-to-back games to begin the conference slate, and by the end of October, every team in the conference had at least one loss.

    However, a pretty good upper tier of teams emerged from that early-season carnage, and they flexed their muscles during bowl season.

    The Sooners won eight in a row to close out the season, including a 27-21 victory over Iowa State in the conference championship game and a 55-20 blowout of Florida in the Cotton Bowl.

    The Cyclones' season-opening loss to Louisiana looked more and more acceptable as the season progressed, and they wound up playing their way into a New Year's Six bowl. The final score didn't tell the whole story in their 34-17 Fiesta Bowl victory over Oregon as they dominated the time of possession battle by a staggering 42:48-to-17:12 margin.

    Texas lost three conference games but joined Iowa State in crushing a Pac-12 foe, beating Colorado 55-23 in the Alamo Bowl.

    Oklahoma State (37-34 over Miami) and West Virginia (24-21 over Army) capped off the undefeated bowl season, helping ease the early disappointment of the conference falling out of the playoff picture before Thanksgiving.

2. Big Ten Conference

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    Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields
    Ohio State quarterback Justin FieldsAJ Mast/Associated Press

    Average FPI Ranking: 40.6

    Final CFP Top 25: Ohio State (3), Indiana (11), Northwestern (14), Iowa (15)

    Bowl Record: 3-2

    Despite wildly disappointing seasons from Penn State (4-5, No. 7 in preseason AP poll) and Michigan (2-4, No. 16 in preseason AP poll), as well as a worse-than-expected Wisconsin team (4-3, No. 12 in preseason AP poll), the Big Ten still claims the No. 2 spot.

    Part of that has to do with Ohio State silencing critics with a convincing win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, but it goes beyond the fact that it had a team reach the championship game. After all, that contest didn't go well for an overmatched Buckeyes squad.

    Indiana and Northwestern both blew past expectations.

    The Hoosiers started the season with what, at the time, was viewed as an upset of Penn State, and they didn't look back. Their only regular-season loss was to Ohio State by a touchdown, and they probably would have won the Outback Bowl against Ole Miss if quarterback Michael Penix Jr. had been healthy.

    As for the Wildcats, they shot themselves in the foot with a road loss to Michigan State, but they held the Buckeyes to a season-low 22 points in their Big Ten title-game loss and easily handled Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.

    The Badgers even managed to salvage a winning record with a 42-28 win over Wake Forest in the Duke's Mayo Bowl.

    It was a season that didn't go as expected for many teams in the conference, and part of that undoubtedly has to do with the late start to the year. But in the end, the Big Ten still proved worthy of its No. 2 finish.

1. Southeastern Conference

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    Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith
    Alabama wide receiver DeVonta SmithAssociated Press

    Average FPI Ranking: 40.0

    Final CFP Top 25: Alabama (1), Texas A&M (5), Florida (7), Georgia (9)

    Bowl Record: 7-2

    The SEC was thinner and more top-heavy than in years past, but with four teams ranked inside the Top 10 in the final playoff rankings, it's hard to argue anyone else belongs in the No. 1 spot.

    Alabama was a juggernaut all year, outscoring opponents 495-168 during a 10-0 regular season behind the high-powered trio of quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and wide receiver DeVonta Smith. They beat Notre Dame by 17 in the semifinals and steamrolled Ohio State on Monday to finish an undefeated season.

    Texas A&M's only loss came in early October against the Crimson Tide, but that was enough to knock it out of the playoff picture. In hindsight, it's easy to envision the Aggies at least putting up more of a fight in the semifinals than Clemson and Notre Dame.

    Georgia only lost to Alabama and Florida despite struggling to sort out the quarterback position for much of the year, but it finished strong with back-to-back road wins and then a big victory over undefeated Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl.

    The Gators were still in the playoff picture in early December before they were upset by an LSU team that disappointed for most of the year, and then they gave Alabama everything it could handle in the SEC title game but laid an egg in the Cotton Bowl with a 55-20 loss to Oklahoma.

    Missouri, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Auburn all finished the season around .500, but they would have been top-tier teams in any other conference. Even 4-7 Mississippi State walked away with a win over a ranked Tulsa team in the Armed Forces Bowl.

    Some fans may be quick to call SEC bias, but it's hard to make a compelling case for any other conference to occupy the No. 1 spot.


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference.