Depth Perception

As we enter the final season of the BCS, I remain hopeful (but skeptical) that we will begin to move away from the constant comparison of conferences as whole entities and return to the focus on individual teams that was more the norm in the pre-BCS days. It seems that every new season opens with the same sentiments from the national sports media: The Big Ten is down this year. The SEC is so tough, they don’t need to play other top teams. The Big East is a joke.

I wanted to actually look at some numbers on this, but outside of a few “power rankings,” no one seems to be measuring conference depth in any meaningful way. So I came up with a quick little formula that I believe is as objective as anything else you’ll find out there, although it admittedly contains some arbitrary choices.

When people talk about conference depth, I figure they mean which conference has the most good teams, as opposed to which conference is the most competitive (which would be unconcerned with the overall quality of the teams). So I set out to quantify this concept as best I could.

I won’t bore with all the details, but basically I looked at all 15 years of the BCS era so far and focused on the 10+ win teams each conference produced each season. I chose 10 wins because it’s impossible (barring sanctions on other teams) to have a losing conference record and still win 10 games. It has also been a symbolic indicator of a successful season for a long time, and it happens to stand out when you’re examining 90 sets of conference standings.

Conference expansion posed a few problems, but I feel like I dealt with them in the fairest possible way. For example, conferences are only credited with 10-win seasons accomplished by teams for years they were in that conference and percentages were used to account for different conference sizes.

I calculated two sets of numbers, one for the past five years and one for the entire BCS era. It will not surprise you that the SEC claims the number 1 spot in both standings. But what may surprise you is that the number 2 conference over the past five years is our own Big Ten and that the difference is remarkably small (0.3% to be exact). In third place is the Big 12 (also no shocker) sitting 10% behind the Big Ten. The gap between these three and the other three is vast, with the fourth-place Big East (yes, really) coming in at 53% behind the Big 12.

For the entire era, the Big 12 sneaks ahead of the Big Ten by just 0.5%. The Pac-10/12 moves up to fourth, with the Big East and ACC settling at #5 and #6, respectively.

One of the reasons for the poor showing out of the Pac-12 in recent years is the fact that only three different teams (USC, Oregon and Stanford) have posted 10-win seasons since 2008. The ACC and Big East have each had four, and the Big East is helped by the fact that they only 8 teams in the conference. Compare those numbers to 8 different teams each for the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 and you can see why the separation is so noticeable.

The reason for the SEC’s lead is that they consistently have multiple 10-win teams in the conference at the same time, although that consistency is a more recent phenomenon than many might think. Breaking the numbers down into 3-year segments, the SEC only significantly surpasses the Big Ten in the most recent period from 2010-2012, when they produced fifteen 10-winners to the Big Ten’s nine.

With the proposed emphasis on schedule strength (easily the most useless “statistic” in college football) for the upcoming playoff, it’s unlikely that conference depth discussions are going away anytime soon, but I still hold on to hope that fans will at least start looking at the idea more objectively, instead of blindly buying into to ESPN’s questionably-motivated SEC lovefest.

( was used extensively in this research)


  1. #SEC #SEC #SE….. errrr #B1G #B1G #B1G

  2. It’s a very intriguing idea, but I think it still relies on an apples-to-oranges comparison. When people compare conferences, what they are _really_ asking is “on average, is our first place team better than yours, our second place team better than yours,” etc. all the way down to the bottom-feeder.

    For example, if you could find a way to quantify that Conference A’s 3-10 place teams were respectively equal to Conference B’s 1-8 teams, then conference A would be regarded as “better.” So unfortunately, the only way to tell this is for the teams to play one another.

    Some of this data already exists though (to at least a loose precision), largely in bowl-game assignments. But the catch with that is that the teams are almost never aligned with one another strength-wise for an honest comparison.

    Example: if OSU gets selected for a BCS game, the rest of the B1G slides up, because the #2 and #3 teams in the B1G generally travel well. So you’ll have ridiculous matchups like Illinois against USC in 2007. Had OSU gone to the Rose that year (as it should have instead of the title game), then everyone else in the B1G would have played an appropriate counterpart (#2 against #2 here, #3 against #3 there, etc.) Instead everyone shifted up one tier and played over their heads and, not surprisingly, most lost.

    When comparing B1G to SEC over the 2000s, say, the winning percentage is about even, maybe tilted toward the SEC’s favor in the later years. HOWEVER, if you account for the fact that the rankings were _always_ shifted against the B1G during that time span, the fact that the winning percentage is about even is proof that the B1G has been at least as tough, if not comparitively stronger over that time.

    • Clearly a more thought out and reasoned reply than my original one…

    • “what they are _really_ asking is ‘on average, is our first place team better than yours, our second place team better than yours,’ etc.”

      Without looking it up, who finished last in the Big 12 last season? The Pac-12? The ACC?

      I have to respectfully disagree with your premise here. I really don’t think most people care at all about the worst teams in any conference. When someone says, “Ohio State would be fifth in the SEC,” it’s not because they’ve carefully considered the pros and cons of all SEC teams plus Ohio State and decided that fifth is where the Buckeyes fit in. It’s because they can think of four great SEC teams and no other great Big Ten teams. (And also because they’re Finebaum-lovin’ homers.)

      Everyone knows Ohio State’s record against the SEC, but does anyone know Indiana’s? We all remember App State beating Michigan six years and two coaches ago, but does anyone remember how Colorado lost to Sacramento State just last season?

      As far as your comments on bowl games, that’s exactly why I didn’t go that route. As much as they pretend to be, those aren’t really “even” match-ups. OOC games are similarly useless, as they rarely feature two teams on the same level.

      Since the purpose of any “which conference is toughest” discussion is to figure out who has the most difficult road, it makes more sense to look at how many “good” teams a conference produces each year than what those teams do against each other when they play. Even the worst 10-win team would have to be at least average in their own conference and then win all OOC games and their bowl.

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