Let's get it out of the way. The SEC is the best. I'm not even going to try to dispute it as much as I'd like to. I am as sick of them as anybody else who doesn't live within 30 miles of a Civil War battlefield.
And you can't avoid the superlatives. Steve Spurrier, albeit for transparently self-serving reasons, absurdly declared Alabama better than the Jacksonville Jaguars. ESPN, also for transparently self-serving reasons, touting the SEC even when it's ostensibly attacking the conference.
As with any media darling, the SEC has legions of backlash haytas loaded for bare with reasons to diminish their success. They rarely play out-of-conference games outside the South. Outside the MNC and BCS games over the last 14 years, the SEC is a slightly more pedestrian 56-42. They haven't produced a decent NFL quarterback since Eli Manning.
There are few quantitative measures by which one can conclude that the SEC has not been, on average, the best conference in college football. But the flip side of that coin is that the bias toward the SEC has become so strong that it seems as though the 110 college FBS teams who play in conferences not named the SEC have access to only one slot in the MNC, and even then, they still might not get the nod over the second place SEC team. That the SEC has won seven straight MNC games is a truly epic feat, but it is a feat whose accomplishment is owed as much to opportunity as it is superior play or talent. Getting to the game is the important part. Two of the best teams in the country winning a single game against the other is generally a statistical coin flip.
Has the SEC won all these national championships because they clearly had the best team in the game or have they managed the statistically improbable feat of flipping heads 7 times in a row? Does the SEC Champion deserve a de facto berth into the MNC game?
The question is probably moot until somebody beats them in the MNC. But the numbers, nonetheless, tell an interesting story.
What Is the Best Conference?
Before we dive into the details, how do we go about determining the best conference? The conference with the best singular team? The conference best at the top -- e.g., most teams in the top 25? The best conference top-to-bottom?
The answer, usually, is whatever metric that supports whatever argument you want to support. Here at NMMH, we strive to avoid such tautologies.
The first metric -- best singular team -- seems a poor metric for judging the strength of a conference. By that metric, the WAC was in the argument for best conference in the country during the Kellen Moore era at Boise State.
But it's not a metric to be dismissed because it is, after all, the two "best" teams in the country who are supposed to be chosen for the MNC. And winning the MNC is the primary (but not the only) basis for extolling SEC dominance. As we discussed in the last blog post, the example of SMU and Georgia in the 1982 season showed that being undefeated in a "major" conference may not be sufficient justification for declaring a team the "best." A good, but not great, team can go undefeated based on the good fortune, or the uncanny capability if you choose to look at it that way, to put their best efforts out against the best opponents on the schedule. The turds that SMU laid against TCU and Texas Tech in 1982 are no less indicative of the kind of team they were than the impressive wins against Texas and Pitt. Had they executed against Texas and Pitt the way they executed against TCU and Tech, they not only would not have been undefeated, but they would have been blown out. Did they get lucky, or did they "play up" to their competition?
So for the sake of argument, let's say that the top 5 teams in the DUSHEE poll are all teams that should have, at minimum, been in the conversation for best team in the country. Here are the DUSHEE top 5 for each year of the SEC's run, the teams in bold were selected to play in the MNC:
LSU SEC 22.29 177.67 72.78
Ohio St. B10 24.69 133.22 71.60
Louisville BE 22.12 137.15 66.66
Florida SEC 20.10 160.33 65.64
BYU MWC 20.76 145.39 64.92
West Virginia BE 25.04 167.29 77.17
LSU SEC 22.95 170.42 73.15
Oklahoma B12 24.60 135.54 71.72
Ohio St. B10 20.87 185.48 70.83
Missouri B12 22.46 148.11 68.94
Florida SEC 35.59 184.94 102.21
USC P10 31.19 247.26 101.64
Oklahoma B12 32.67 207.85 99.21
Texas B12 28.67 157.01 83.46
Penn St. B10 25.52 178.00 79.72
TCU MWC 27.12 222.03 89.36
Texas B12 26.45 205.00 85.52
Florida SEC 24.91 212.98 83.36
Alabama SEC 25.85 192.02 82.40
Boise St. WAC 24.97 157.39 75.63
Boise St. WAC 32.41 251.22 104.80
TCU MWC 26.84 238.90 91.16
Ohio St. B10 25.02 209.34 83.09
Oregon P10 25.04 154.95 75.43
Auburn SEC 23.33 174.17 74.50
Alabama SEC 31.50 269.74 105.48
LSU SEC 30.53 129.87 83.60
Boise St. MWC 25.52 163.45 77.65
Houston CUSA 22.46 182.74 73.86
Oregon P10 24.06 154.10 73.22
Alabama SEC 31.13 217.62 97.30
Texas A&M SEC 26.30 201.68 84.73
Oregon P10 29.20 155.42 84.38
Florida St. ACC 19.33 178.66 66.59
Notre Dame Ind 17.89 144.12 58.62
Table 1. Top 5 DUSHEE teams from 2006-2012. From left to right: Team, Conference, PD, YD, and DUSHEE Score. DUSHEE Score is normalized against the average best team from 2000 through 2012. Bold teams played in MNC game.
Ignore for a moment the DUSHEE WTF team of 2011 (I'd like to think Kevin Sumlin had Houston's DUSHEE ranking in hand when he interviewed for the A&M gig) and look at the conference affiliations of these 35 teams:
Table 2. The number of DUSHEE Top 5 teams per conference affiliation over the last 7 years
The SEC has had 11 of the 35 Top 5 DUSHEE teams of the last 7 years, or 31%. Yet they have been given 8 of the 14 MNC game slots, or 57%. If we focus the analysis down to the top 2, the SEC has accounted for 7 of the 14 Top 2 DUSHEE teams, but 4 of those 7 came in the last two years. In the 5 years prior, the SEC accounted for 3 of 10 Top 2 teams.
So, while the SEC has clearly had the most consistent presence in the Elite in college football over the last 7 years, it is also arguable that they have nonetheless gotten disproportionate opportunity to play in and win the MNC at the expense of other conferences. Notably, the MWC, which has had 4 teams in the top 5 (BYU, TCU (twice), and Boise) over the last 7 years, hasn't had a single opportunity in the MNC. The SEC has clearly deserved more opportunities, but one might argue that the growing bias toward them as somehow a "super" conference has given them even more opportunities than they've deserved.
The Middle of the Road
Perhaps the more relevant way to judge conference strength is to look at the conference from top-to-bottom. There are a few ways to assess this. The typical way a computer rating system does it is by averaging the scores of all the teams in the conference together and using a single number to determine conference strength.
Let's begin with this customary conference rating approach. Again, over the last decade plus, here are the conferences ranked by average DUSHEE score of all teams in their conference:
Figure 1. Three-Year moving average DUSHEE score per conference from 2001-2012. The moving average is plotted for the middle year.
Figure 1 shows the 3-year moving average for each conference since 2001. A three-year moving average means that each point on the plot represents the average of the three years surrounding the point; for example, the 2011 SEC point represents the average DUSHEE score for 2010, 2011, and 2012 combined. The 2010 point combines 2009, 2010, and 2011. And so on. The reason for doing this is as busy as Figure 1 is, it's even busier if you plot each individual year by itself. Moving averages smooth out the data and make it a little easier to discern multi-year trends.
Notice that the SEC curve remains on top all the way back to 2001. However, the AQ (automatic qualifier, in BCS parlance) conferences were much more tightly packed together in the early aughts. Based on the DUSHEE metric, the average team in the Big Six conferences were much more on par with each other in the early 2000's than they have been more recently. In fact, the average performance of all of the AQ conferences, after steadily rising for the most part in the early 2000's, have moved down over the last 4-5 years, EXCEPT for the SEC. This seems to indicate that the SEC dominance of the last few years hasn't been as much about their improvement as other conferences' decline.
You'll also note our old stomping grounds, the MWC. Through 2008-2009, it was pretty close to on par with the ACC and in some years the highly volatile Big East. Not surprisingly, the MWC's performance has taken a significant dive after the loss of their big 3. The addition of Boise just hasn't been enough to replace three perennial top 25 teams. The MWC's decline has resulted in a convergence in the non-AQ conference performance, making the distinction between the haves and have-nots more obvious than ever. We're all happy to have been Indiana Jones rolling under the closing crypt door just in time but the downside may have truly been the death of the non-AQ conference as a serious BCS threat to the Elite.
Only as Strong as Your Weakest Link
Averaging conference performance is a perfectly fine way of assessing strength, but by boiling the data down to a single number, some information inevitably gets thrown away.
For instance, say Conference A has 10 teams. Three teams have DUSHEE scores of 70, three are around 0, and the other four are all around -50. On average, Conference A has a DUSHEE score around 0 ... the definition of mediocre. Yet, they have three teams who are BCS, if not MNC worthy. Is that a mediocre conference?
Meanwhile Conference B also has 10 teams, evenly distributed between 40 and 0. Nobody is terrible, and on average Conference B has a DUSHEE score around 20. Significantly higher than Conference A. Yet Conference A has three teams that could comfortably win Conference B.
Which is the better conference? Conference B has the tougher "week in -- week out" grind. Yet none of those teams in Conference B play two games nearly as tough as the two games the top 3 of Conference A play against each other.
This generalization, as I alluded to a few paragraphs above, somewhat describes the situation between the "Big 3" era MWC and the ACC and Big East.
Figures 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 show the 3-year moving average DUSHEE scores for the SEC, Big 12, Big East, ACC, and MWC, respectively.
Figure 2. SEC 3-year moving average DUSHEE score. Note Missouri and A&M haven't been in the conference long enough to make a 3-year average.
Figure 3. Big XII 3-year moving average DUSHEE score. Note WVU and TCU haven't been in the conference long enough to make a 3-year average.
Figure 4. Big East 3-year moving average DUSHEE score. Note Temple hasn't been in the conference long enough the second go around to make a 3-year average.
Figure 5. ACC 3-year moving average DUSHEE score.
Figure 6. MWC 3-year moving average DUSHEE score. Note Boise, Fresno, Hawaii, and Nevada haven't been in the conference long enough to make a 3-year average.
The tops of the SEC (Fig. 2) and Big XII (Fig. 3) don't look qualitatively different. For the most part, both conferences have been dominated by 2-3 teams (SEC -- Alabama, LSU and Florida; Big XII -- Oklahoma and Texas, with brief challenges to supremacy by Kansas State and Oklahoma State). Moving down to that next tier, a little separation begins to emerge. The SEC has continually had a dense grouping of teams in the 20-40 range, keeping in mind that a DUSHEE score of around 30 means a team is at least on the cusp of being a Top 25 team. The Big XII's densest grouping of teams typically appears in the 0-20 range. And then at the very bottom, the distinction is even more clear. While both conferences have typically had 4-or-so below average teams (usually Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Ole Miss in the SEC; Baylor, Kansas, Colorado and Iowa State in the Big XII), the SEC have not had what might be technically called God-awful teams as Baylor and Kansas were for parts of the last decade. The worst SEC team has been typically at about a DUSHEE score of -40. Baylor and Kansas have both spent time in the -60 to -70 range.
The comparison between the ACC, Big East, and MWC also sheds some light on the ambiguity in assessing conference strength. Going back to my Conference A vs. Conference B scenario, the MWC (Fig. 6) for most of the last decade was a pretty good analog for Conference A. TCU, Utah, and BYU never dipped below a DUSHEE score of 20 and all three were typically at least flirting with 40. TCU's moving average during that time places it squarely in the Alabama/Oklahoma stratosphere. At the beginning of the last decade, before TCU joined, the MWC had a healthy grouping in that same 0-20 category that a lot of Big XII teams have held. However, both Utah and BYU were bunched there too; the MWC didn't start producing consistent Top 25 level teams until 2004, when Utah began to emerge ahead of the peloton. At about that same time, the steady decline of the bottom of the MWC begins. Colorado State, New Mexico, UNLV, and San Diego State all get bad, really bad, coincidental to the emergence of Utah, the re-emergence of BYU, and the entry of TCU into the league. By 2009-2010, the MWC has the rare distinction of containing three consistent Top 25 teams along with three consistent Bottom 25 teams, all within a 9 team conference.
Compare that to the Big East and ACC during this time. Prior to leaving the Big East (Fig. 4), Miami and Virginia Tech were miles above the rest of the conference in terms of performance. Miami was winning MNC's and Virginia Tech was playing in BCS games; nobody else in the conference was in the Top 25. However, the decline that they had begun to show in the early part of the decade continued after they joined the ACC (Fig. 5), where they joined a declining Florida State in a conference whose champion generally found itself well outside the Top 10 and sometimes toward the bottom of the Top 25.
Outside of the emergence of West Virginia and the initial success of Louisville in the few years immediately after they moved from CUSA (somehow managing to thrive in the week-in-week-out grind of an AQ conference), the Big East champion also tended to sit in that 15-25 spot in the AP (and DUSHEE) poll. Utah and BYU could have regularly challenged for championships in either of those two conferences and the Dalton-era TCU teams would have most likely won either of those conferences going away (much as they did in the MWC).
The difference is that the bottom of both the Big East and ACC were not nearly as bad as the bottom of the MWC. The ACC has had only one perpetual resident in the less than -40 realm of the God-awful, Duke. The Big East had two roaming that wasteland, albeit at different times; Rutgers at the beginning of the decade and Syracuse at the end. The end of the Big East found the entire conference tightly bunched between -10 and 20, making it by far the most evenly balanced conference during the DUSHEE-analyzed era. None of the teams are terrible. And none of the teams are really good.
The ACC in recent years has told a similar story. Most of their teams have been bunched between -20 and 40. One or two decent teams, one or two pretty bad teams, and everyone else varying shades of mediocre.
So which was the "better" conference of the three? Based on average performance, the ACC and Big East were a little better, largely because their bottom halves weren't nearly as low. Conversely, their top 2-3 teams weren't nearly as good. Is it better to be consistently mediocre or have a few great teams along with several legitimately terrible teams?
The Numbers, Unfortunately, Tell You What You Already Know
The SEC has been the best conference in college football over the last decade-plus, based on almost any quantitative measure you wish to throw at it. But the growing notion that the SEC is somehow in a league of their own, a league that should receive an automatic berth into the MNC game by virtue of winning the conference is not supported by the numbers. The SEC isn't THAT much better, and particularly not at the beginning of this run. The Cam Newton Auburn team of 2010 was a really good team, but there were 4-5 other teams who had a claim to be worthy of an opportunity to play in a MNC. As many on this board feel, I'd have loved to have seen the Frogs get an opportunity to play them.
Thank the Football Gods we're finally going to get to see some more teams with an opportunity to play. For as long as the SEC champion gets an automatic bid into the MNC, they're going to continue to win lots of championships. At least now, they're going to have to get that coin to flip heads at least twice as many times.