Ranking the College Football Conferences After the 2021 Season

Morgan MoriartyFeatured Columnist IJanuary 12, 2022

Ranking the College Football Conferences After the 2021 Season

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    The 2021 college football season is officially behind us, after Georgia finally defeated Alabama 33-18 in the CFP National Championship on Monday night. 

    Now that another season is officially in the books, it's time to evaluate the year as a whole, especially with respect to each conference. Which conference had the best year in 2021? 

    To gauge how each conference performed this season, we'll take a look at a variety of factors—teams ranked in the final CFP Top 25, ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) and bowl game results. Let's get into it!  

10. Conference USA

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    Average FPI Ranking: 93.07 

    Bowl Record: 3-5

    Final AP Top 25: None

    Yeah, 2021 wasn't the best season for the C-USA, to say the least. It finished with no teams ranked in the CFP Top 25 and had a losing bowl record. Overall, the conference had just six teams finish 2021 with a record over .500. 

    The two bright spots for the conference are Western Kentucky and UTSA. The Hilltoppers finished the year 9-5, and in their Boca Raton Bowl win over Appalachian State, QB Bailey Zappe broke two FBS single-season passing records. The senior QB threw for 5,967 yards and 62 touchdowns, breaking the records of 5,833 yards set by Texas Tech's B.J. Symons in 2003 as well as the 60 touchdowns LSU's Joe Burrow threw in 2019 on his way to a national championship. 

    And for UTSA, although the Roadrunners lost their bowl game 38-24 to San Diego State, the 12-2 finish was the first 12-win season in school history.

    UAB also had a big bowl win, defeating BYU 31-28 in the Independence Bowl. The Blazers have appeared in a bowl in every season since their return in 2017, with the exception of 2020, and have a 2-2 record in postseason appearances since then. 

9. Mid-American Conference

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    Average FPI Ranking: 96.66

    Bowl record: 3-5

    Final AP Top 25: None

    The Mid-American Conference had a relatively average year in 2021, but it did have two teams in Northern Illinois and Central Michigan that finished with nine wins. NIU won the MAC Championship Game by defeating Kent State 41-23 to win its first conference title since 2018. 

    NIU lost a close Cure Bowl 47-41 to Coastal Carolina, but Central Michigan won the Sun Bowl over Washington State 24-21. The Chippewas were supposed to play Boise State in the Arizona Bowl, but when Boise State pulled out, CMU took Miami's spot after the Hurricanes pulled out due to COVID-19. 

    Western Michigan beat Nevada 52-24 in the Quick Lane Bowl, and Miami (OH) beat North Texas 27-14 in the Frisco Football Classic. The rest of the conference went winless in bowl games. 

8. Pac-12

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    Average FPI Ranking: 58

    Bowl record: 0-5

    Final AP Top 25: Oregon (22), Utah (12)

    Not only did the Pac-12 fail to win a single bowl game this year, but it failed yet again to get a team into the playoff. The last time the conference did get a team into a semifinal game was in 2016, when Washington lost to Alabama. 

    The Pac-12's 0-5 bowl record came from losses by Oregon State, Oregon, Arizona State, Washington State and Utah. 

    Utah is probably the one bright spot from the conference this season. Although they lost a close one to Ohio State in a thrilling Rose Bowl game, the Utes finished 10-4 on the season, including a Pac-12 Championship Game victory over Oregon 38-10. The Utes had back-to-back losses in Week 2 and 3, falling to BYU and SDSU, but rebounded well, defeating then-No. 3 Oregon 38-7 in late November. 

    The Utes' losses earlier in the season knocked them out of playoff contention, but 2021 was another successful season for head coach Kyle Whittingham in Salt Lake. It marked the sixth double-digit-win season for Utah under Whittingham, whose first full season came in 2005. 

7. Mountain West

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    Average FPI Ranking: 82.66 

    Bowl Record: 5-1

    Final AP Top 25: Utah State (24), San Diego State (25)

    The Mountain West had the best bowl record of any conference. Nevada was the only team that lost, but the rest of the conference went 5-0. Fresno State beat UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl, Utah State defeated Oregon State in the LA Bowl, Wyoming won the Potato Bowl over Kent State, and San Diego State defeated UTSA 38-24 in the Frisco Bowl. 

    That bowl performance could have been even better if Hawaii and Boise State could have played in their bowl games, both teams not being able to due to COVID-19. 

    The conference's two bright spots were San Diego State and Utah State, who both rounded out the final AP Top 25. This is the Aggies' first time since 2018 being ranked in the AP poll, which was also the last time they had 11 wins.

    In the second season of Brady Hoke's second stint at San Diego State, the former Michigan head coach led quite the impressive turnaround. After going 4-4 in 2020, SDSU finished 12-2, marking the first 12-win season for the Aztecs in school history. SDSU put an exclamation point on the season by beating a very good UTSA team in the Frisco Bowl. 

6. Sun Belt

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    Average FPI Ranking: 88.4  

    Bowl record: 3-1

    Final AP Top 25: Louisiana (16)

    The Sun Belt had a very successful year, capped off by a 3-1 bowl season record, tying the AAC for the second-best record in bowl games. The conference also finished with three teams earning double-digit-win seasons in Louisiana (13-1), Coastal Carolina (11-2) and App State (10-4). 

    Louisiana was the best team of the conference by far, winning the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game over App State 24-16. For head coach Billy Napier, who has since moved on to be the next head coach at Florida, it marked his third straight double-digit win season at Louisiana. The Ragin' Cajuns also won their third consecutive bowl game by beating Marshall in the New Orleans Bowl. 

    Coastal Carolina had another huge year for the conference, as well. The Chanticleers finished 11-2 with a Cure Bowl win over NIU. The win gave Coastal its second straight 11-win season under head coach Jamey Chadwell in the program's fifth season in the FBS. 

    And although App State lost its bowl game, it finished with 10 wins, a one-win improvement from Shawn Clark's first season a year ago. The Mountaineers ahve made seven straight bowl appearances, all of which except this year's game resulting in victories.

5. AAC

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    Average FPI Ranking: 73.2 

    Bowl record: 3-1

    Final AP Top 25: Cincinnati (4), Houston (17) 

    What a year for the AAC! Of course, the highlight was Cincinnati making history by becoming the first Group of Five team to make it into the College Football Playoff. The Bearcats finished the regular season a perfect 13-0 and defeated a then-one-loss Houston team 35-20 to win their second consecutive American Athletic title. Although the Bearcats fell 27-6 to Alabama in the Cotton Bowl semifinal, Cincinnati 100 percent belonged in the playoff, and it was a huge moment for the Bearcats to represent the AAC on college football's biggest stage. 

    Cincy was the only AAC team to lose in its bowl game, and unfortunately for the conference, three of its bowl games were canceled due to COVID-19. Still, Houston, Tulsa and UCF won their bowl games, and Houston and UCF defeated SEC opponents in Auburn and Florida, respectively. 

    The AAC getting a team into the playoff, paired with its bowl record, makes 2021 one of the best seasons yet for the conference. Moving forward, the conference will have to replace Houston, UCF and Cincinnati when they go to the Big 12 in a few years.

4. ACC

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    Average FPI ranking: 43.3

    Bowl game record: 2-4

    Final AP Top 25: Pitt (13), Clemson (14), Wake (15), NC State (20)

    The ACC didn't have a team in the playoff for the first time, thanks to Clemson having a down year. Still, the conference had a pretty successful season. In fact, 2021 gave us three teams in Wake Forest, Pitt and Clemson that finished with double-digit-win seasons. The Demon Deacons had a remarkable 8-0 start to the season before falling to UNC on the road on Nov. 6. Wake also fell to Clemson on the road on Nov. 20, spoiling any hopes for a playoff bid, but it still won the ACC Atlantic for the first time since 2006 to make it to the ACC Championship Game.

    In the Coastal, although the Panthers lost in Week 2 to Western Michigan, they made it to their second-ever ACC title game. Led by Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett, who threw for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns, Pitt beat Wake in the ACCG 45-21 to give the Panthers their first-ever ACC football title.

    While Clemson missed out on the ACC title game for the first time since 2014, the Tigers still finished 10-3 with a Cheez-It Bowl win over Iowa State. NC State could have finished with its second double-digit-win season, but its bowl game against UCLA was canceled due to COVID issues within the Bruins' program.

3. Big 12

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    Average FPI Ranking: 37.7 

    Bowl record: 5-2

    Final AP Top 25: Baylor (5), OK State (7), Oklahoma (10) 

    The Big 12's 2021 season didn't include a team getting a playoff bid. A big reason for that was Baylor's incredible goal-line stand against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Championship Game to prevent a Cowboys touchdown that would have likely sent OK State to the semifinals. Baylor already having two losses entering that game made it virtually impossible for the Bears to get a bid. 

    Still, Oklahoma finishing 11-2 but missing out on both the Big 12 Championship Game and a playoff bid was arguably the biggest blow to the conference. The Sooners have been the Big 12's only team to make it to the playoff since the semifinals began in 2014, making appearances in 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019. Despite defeating Texas in the Red River Rivalry in a game in which starting quarterback Spencer Rattler was benched for Caleb Williams, the Sooners lost to Baylor and OK State at the end of the season to dash any hopes of a playoff bid or a Big 12 title.

    The bright spots for the conference were OK State and Baylor, who played a thrilling Big 12 Championship Game that Baylor won 21-16. Both teams won their New Year's Six bowl games too, as Baylor defeated Ole Miss 21-7 in the Sugar Bowl and OK State beat Notre Dame 37-35, overcoming a 21-point deficit to do so. 

    But the Big 12 did quite well in other bowls, too. It finished 5-2 overall, with a 3-0 record against the SEC. Texas Tech dominated Mississippi State 34-7 in the Liberty Bowl, and Kansas State blew out LSU 42-20 in the Texas Bowl. 

    While 2021 didn't see a Big 12 team in the playoff, the way it performed in bowl season makes it a decent year.  

2. Big Ten

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    Average FPI Ranking: 40.2 

    Bowl record: 6-4

    Final AP Top 25: Michigan (3), Ohio State (6), Michigan State (9), Iowa (23)

    All in all, the Big Ten had a pretty successful season. The Michigan Wolverines made it to the playoff after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes and winning their first-ever Big Ten title game. Although the Wolverines were blown out 34-11 by Georgia in their Orange Bowl semifinal, they undoubtedly earned their way into the playoff. 

    The Big Ten got off to a 5-0 start in bowl season, as Minnesota, Maryland, Purdue, Michigan State and Wisconsin all won their games before New Year's Eve. Purdue won arguably the most exciting non-NY6 bowl game of the season, beating Tennessee 48-45 in overtime. 

    In the later bowl games, the 5-0 start ended up as a 6-4 finish as Rutgers fell to Wake Forest, Penn State lost to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl and Iowa lost to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl. Still, Ohio State had a thrilling Rose Bowl victory over Utah, winning 48-45. Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud threw for a school-record 573 yards in the win and tied a school record of six touchdowns. 

    Speaking of Stroud, the Buckeyes QB made it to New York as a Heisman finalist, alongside Michigan DE Aidan Hutchinson. Getting two Big Ten players as Heisman finalists isn't too shabby. 

1. SEC

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    Average FPI Ranking: 36.4

    Bowl record: 6-8

    Final AP Top 25: Georgia (1), Alabama (2), Ole Miss (11), Kentucky (18), Arkansas (21) 

    Sure, the SEC lost its luster a bit this bowl season with a 6-8 record, but having two teams in the playoff who both advanced to the national title game is a good way to counter that. The SEC also finished with the most teams ranked in the final Top 25 of any conference. 

    The two standouts from the conference were obviously Alabama and Georgia, who played a thrilling national title game on Monday night. Both teams had phenomenal seasons, as Alabama upset Georgia in the SEC title game to earn a playoff bid. Georgia, whose only loss of the season came by Alabama, rebounded incredibly well with a blowout win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl semifinal before avenging the loss to Alabama in the national title game. 

    Outside of those two teams, though, there were other great teams that came out of the SEC, too. Ole Miss had its first 10-win regular season in school history, and had QB Matt Corral not left the Sugar Bowl with an injury, it could have reached 11 wins. Kentucky had its fourth 10-win season in program history after a win in the Citrus Bowl over Iowa, and Arkansas finished 9-4 under second-year head coach Sam Pittman. The Razorbacks' 2021 season was a huge rebound from their 3-7 mark just a season ago. 

    Nine SEC teams finished with winning records, and had Auburn and Florida not lost their bowl games, that number would be 11. 2021 obviously wasn't the best bowl season for the SEC, but overall it was a pretty good year for the conference.