Now that the final game of the 2016 season has ended, it is time to settle an annual question: Which FBS conference is the toughest? I present the rankings of the ten conferences using my objective formula.
Here is an overview of the factors that comprise each conferences score:
- Wins by each member of every conference when facing non-conference foes.
- Games on the road are worth more than those at neutral sites or at home.
- Victories versus other conferences’ champions or second-place teams/divisional winners count for more points.
- Wins against FBS opponents have much more value than those against FCS members.
Below is how the 10 conferences measure up compared to one another following the bowl games. Each conference’s score is in parenthesis. For those curious about the scale of my formula, a perfect score for a conference is 3.188.
Atlantic Coast (.765)
The ACC plodded through the first three weeks of the season. The unimpressive performances continued late into November. These included every member playing an FCS opponent with one loss to team from the lower division. The ACC split the eight games versus the FBS Independents.
The mediocrity ended when the group went 9-0 in non-conference games on the last weekend of September. A remarkable winning streak started on Thanksgiving weekend, taking three of four intra-state matches versus the SEC. The success continued in the post-season with nine victories in twelve bowl games. During the season, ACC members defeated the champions of the AAC, Big Ten and SEC.
The SEC shook off a lackluster start over Labor Day weekend to find success for the most part. They won both match-ups against the Big Ten to finish 2-1 versus the conference widely considered the toughest after the regular season. The SEC also swept all three games versus the PAC 12. Among their victories are two wins over the champions of CUSA and one versus the PAC 12’s champion. Additionally, SEC teams defeated both co-champions of the Sun Belt Conference plus the second-place team in CUSA and the Mid-American Conference.
Nevertheless, the SEC did falter late in the season. This included losing seven of the last ten games versus the ACC to finish 4-10 against their Southern neighbors. Dropping two of the three bowls versus the Big 12 left the SEC with a losing record versus that conference. Every conference member except Florida playing an FCS member also hurt the overall score for the SEC.
Big Ten (.702)
This group started the season with much fanfare and praise for its success in the regular season. The conference won all six games versus the Mountain West and both against the Big Twelve. The Big Ten also won four of its five matches with the American Athletic Conference.
The Big Ten appeared to be on the verge of clinching the title of “Strongest FBS Conference”. Bowl season ended that possibility when the Big Ten lost seven of its ten bowl games. The Big Ten finished with a losing record versus the ACC (2-6) and SEC (1-2). Two losses in eight games facing FCS members damaged their score as well.
Pacific Twelve (.554)
The PAC Twelve’s ho-hum bowl record (3-3) continued its season-long mediocrity. For every point of pride such winning both contests versus the ACC, there is a negating factor such as losing all three games against the SEC. An also-ran in the PAC Twelve defeated the Big Ten’s champion. However, the Dozen from the Left Coast still finished with a losing record (3-4) versus the Big Ten. The PAC Twelve had twice as many wins over the Mountain West as losses yet that total still means three defeats at the hands of that minor conference.
Big Twelve (.507)
The Big Twelve revealed itself as the weakest of the Power Five conferences after the first three weeks of the season. Any realistic chance of one its members reaching the College Football Playoffs evaporated before the official start of autumn. The group finished 2-6 against the other Power Five members. The AAC beat the Big Twelve in two of their four meetings. Seven of the conference’s 18 non-conference wins occurred over FCS teams. Four other victories came at the expensive of Conference USA.
Commendable efforts in the post-season nudged the Big Twelve ahead of the minor conferences. The conference won four of its six bowls. The wins included taking two out of three versus the SEC. One victory occurred over the PAC Twelve’s Southern Division champion.
American Athletic (.500)
The American Athletic Conference could hardly have experienced a more successful regular season short of placing a team in the Playoff. The AAC had winning totals against the MAC (4-0) and CUSA (4-2). The conference had respectable results versus the Big Twelve (2-2) and ACC (4-6). One of those wins was over the Big Twelve’s champion.
The AAC blew a chance to finish in the top half of the conference rankings due to terrible performances in the post-season. The group won just two of seven bowls. Those included a loss versus one team each from the Mountain West and Sun Belt plus defeats in both bowls versus CUSA.
Mountain West (.455)
This conference was unremarkable in so many ways. The MWC split its six contests versus the MAC. It finished 6-5 against the Sun Belt. No member defeated any other conference’s champion. It only faced one opponent from the Power Five conferences in a bowl game, a loss to a Big Twelve member.
A few bright spots occurred this season for the MWC. In its seven bowls, the MWC won four. They won all five match-ups with Conference USA. This group scored victories over divisional winners in the American Athletic & Sun Belt conferences.
Sun Belt (.360)
The Sun Belt’s remarkable success in bowls boosted this group out of its perennial ranking at the bottom of the list of FBS conferences. The SBC won four of its six bowls. The season’s results include winning four out of seven versus the MAC, five out of eleven against the MWC and one of four versus CUSA. An SBC team also defeated the champion of the MWC.
Despite these improvements, the Sun Belt has a long way to go before being viewed as nothing more than a bunch of rent-a-wins by the Power Five. Against those five major conferences, the Sun Belt finished 1-16. The one win occurred against an SEC team that finished with a losing record.
Conference USA (.322)
CUSA struggled against the Power Five conferences. Their losing records included results against the ACC (0-5), Big 12 (0-4), PAC 12 (0-2) and SEC (2-7). Additionally, CUSA lost all five games versus the MWC.
CUSA did manage a few accomplishments. It split its eight games versus the AAC. The conference won four of its seven bowls. The group avoided the embarrassment of losing to an FCS member, having won all 12 games versus the lower division.
The MAC had one of the two teams that headed into the bowl season still undefeated. Their collectively putrid performances on the field justified Western Michigan’s exclusion from the College Football Playoff. The MAC lost all six bowl games. Apparently, no one on the committee forgot that the MAC lost four games out of the thirteen the group played versus FCS teams.
On the bright side. the MAC had a few notable wins. The MAC won both games versus the Big Twelve. Also, the MAC took two of the eight contests versus the Big Ten.
Let the debate over the strongest conference rage until August when the battle returns to the gridiron!