One of the big stories this year has been the SEC, specifically how it can be possible that a team can get through the SEC unbeaten and not be guaranteed a shot at the national title. After all, isn't the SEC the toughest conference in the nation? Isn't the SEC loaded with superb programs that consistently rank among the best in the country, and the only reason we don't see more national champions is that it's simply too hard to get through SEC play unbeaten?

There is certainly an attractiveness to this line of reasoning, as the SEC has several schools with outstanding football traditions. Of the 93 schools that have played I-A football for the last 35 seasons (1970-2004), the SEC has seven of the top 21 programs, if one uses average score-based (predictive) ranking as a measurement. Alabama ranks fourth over this period (behind Nebraska, Michigan, and Oklahoma), followed by #10 Florida, #12 Tennessee, #14 Georgia, #16 Auburn, #18 LSU, and #21 Arkansas. For comparison, the ACC has two top-21 programs, the Big Ten has three, and the Pac-10 and Big Twelve have four each; Notre Dame is also in the top 21. It is also worth noting that the SEC was ranked the #1 conference in the nation seven times in the 1980s, and the #2 conference two other years that decade. So for those of us who have been watching football for most of this period (as I have), it is certainly reasonable to have a belief that the SEC is hands-down the most difficult conference based on the programs' reputations.

However, with the aid of computer rankings, one can look for shorter-term trends than strengths over a third of a century. Looking instead at just the last 15 seasons (1990-2004), the SEC has only five of the nation's top 25 programs (though the #26 team is from the SEC). For comparison, the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-10 all have four top-25 programs, and the Big Twelve has six. In other words, the five major conferences are all comparable in terms of conference strength (given that the conferences with 12 teams ought to have more top-25 programs than those with 10 or 11). During this stretch, the Pac-10 (1991-1993), Big Ten (1994-1996), Big 12 (1998-2001) have each had strong runs, but no conference has dominated the way the SEC did throughout the 1980s (or for that matter, how the Big 12's precursors dominated the 1970s).

The bottom line is that we are in a different era of college football, with conferences jostling on a yearly basis for the honor of being "nation's best". Rather than relying on teams that are consistently outstanding, what matters now is how many teams are having good seasons this year. Case in point is the Pac-10, which was the #5 conference in 2003, but the best conference in 2004. What changed was that five of the ten teams improved significantly from last year to this year (Cal and Arizona State the most; also UCLA, Stanford, and Arizona), while only two teams got significantly worse (the Washington schools). While five up and two down is hardly a statistical rarity, it was enough to move the Pac-10 from last to first given the parity among the five major conferences.

So to answer the question posed in the title, the SEC is still among the nation's top conferences. In years when the SEC's teams have more good years than bad years, this may be enough to make them the nation's best conference. However, this wasn't one of those years, and the SEC was only the fourth-toughest conference.

Since I have run all the numbers, here are the programs that have played I-A football for the past 15 seasons, in order of average score-based ranking:

  1 Florida State
  2 Nebraska
  3 Florida
  4 Miami
  5 Michigan
  6 Tennessee
  7 Ohio State
  8 Kansas State
  9 USC
 10 Penn State
 11 Virginia Tech
 12 Notre Dame
 13 Oklahoma
 14 Texas A&M
 15 Washington
 16 Texas
 17 Colorado
 18 Alabama
 19 Georgia
 20 Virginia
 21 Auburn
 22 UCLA
 23 Oregon
 24 Syracuse
 25 Iowa
 26 LSU
 27 Wisconsin
 28 Arizona State
 29 Texas Tech
 30 Clemson
 31 Michigan State
 32 Georgia Tech
 33 Purdue
 34 California
 35 North Carolina
 36 Washington State
 37 West Virginia
 38 North Carolina State
 39 Utah
 40 BYU
 41 Arkansas
 42 Stanford
 43 Arizona
 44 Southern Miss
 45 Mississippi
 46 Boston College
 47 Colorado State
 48 Air Force
 49 Louisville
 50 Fresno State
 51 South Carolina
 52 Mississippi State
 53 Illinois
 54 Minnesota
 55 Miami (Ohio)
 56 Oregon State
 57 Oklahoma State
 58 Maryland
 59 San Diego State
 60 Toledo
 61 Kansas
 62 Missouri
 63 TCU
 64 Indiana
 65 Pitt
 66 East Carolina
 67 Memphis
 68 Northwestern
 69 Bowling Green
 70 Kentucky
 71 Iowa State
 72 Wyoming
 73 New Mexico
 74 Cincinnati
 75 Rice
 76 Wake Forest
 77 Baylor
 78 Western Michigan
 79 Louisiana Tech
 80 Hawaii
 81 Houston
 82 Vanderbilt
 83 Duke
 84 Tulane
 85 Utah State
 86 Navy
 87 San Jose State
 88 Tulsa
 89 Rutgers
 90 Northern Illinois
 91 Ball State
 92 Central Michigan
 93 Army
 94 UNLV
 95 SMU
 96 Temple
 97 Ohio
 98 Akron
 99 UTEP
100 New Mexico State
101 Louisiana-Lafayette
102 Eastern Michigan
103 Kent State
104 Arkansas State

Return to ratings main page

Note: if you use any of the facts, equations, or mathematical principles introduced here, you must give me credit.

copyright ©2004 Andrew Dolphin