The SEC is king in college football after producing each of the last four national champions. That won't change until a team from another league hoists the crystal football.
But the SEC has a reason to look over its shoulder this season. Several of them, in fact. The Big 12, Pac-10 and Big Ten are trying to catch the SEC, and all three leagues can make cases for being the nation's No. 2 conference right now. According to the ESPN Stats & Info conference power rankings, the Big 12 is No. 2, followed by the Pac-10 and the Big Ten.
Which conference is right behind the SEC?
Adam Rittenberg: What the Big Ten lacks -- an undefeated team -- it more than makes up for with incredible depth. The league boasts three 1-loss teams in Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State, all of which could finish 11-1. It also boasts a veteran Iowa team that no one wants to face in a bowl, in addition to decent squads like Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan. Even Illinois has made some major strides from 2009.
This is the deepest the Big Ten has been since 2006, when it entered late November with the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 team and three teams -- Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- ranked in the top 7 of the final BCS standings. The Big Ten's rise also has occurred while Michigan rebuilds. The league also has significantly upgraded its quarterback play, boasting five of the nation's top 15 rated passers. Although the Big Ten's nonconference performance was just so-so, competition within the league seems to be largely undervalued by those evil BCS computers. A top-tier SEC or Big 12 program seems to get much more credit for beating a mid-level team in its league than Wisconsin gets for beating Iowa on the road or Michigan State gets for beating Northwestern on the road. The human voters see the Big Ten in a different light.
The Big Ten finished the 2009-10 bowl season as the nation's No. 2 conference, recording four victories against top 15 opponents.
Nothing has changed to move the Big Ten off of the second line.
David Ubben: Hey, I get it. In college football, a conference is only as strong as its strongest link. That's how the expression goes, right? Gimme a break.
The Big 12 has landed a team in the title game in each of the past two seasons. Despite being on the outside looking in on this year's chase, the league still has five teams in the top 20, and earlier this year, nine teams were in the poll or receiving votes. All that should be even more impressive considering the league's glamour program, Texas, at 4-6, is having a "down year" that is insulting to down years. Nine consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins for the Longhorns has come to a rather spectacularly bad end.
But otherwise, strength is everywhere. Baylor is having one of the program's best years and should be just as good in 2011. Missouri, had they not tripped up at Texas Tech, could be in the top 10. Oklahoma State has emerged as the league's surprise top 10 team and Nebraska is proving everybody wrong who thought they were overrated in the preseason. Texas A&M struggled early, but has won four Big 12 games in a row to reach the top 20. All in a down year for the two programs who have ruled the conference, Oklahoma and Texas.
Outside of Colorado, which is leaving anyway, and rebuilding Kansas, every team in the league is proving to be, at the very least, capable. Iowa State, despite playing the toughest schedule in college football, still has a chance to qualify for a bowl, and if Texas does the same by beating rival Texas A&M, the league could have 10 bowl-eligible teams.
So maybe the Big 12 doesn't have a team vying for the crystal football this year, but it has a whole lot of really good teams, and a handful of others who are proving there's no such thing as an easy week in the Big 12.
Ted Miller: Over at the Pac-10, we're grinning. We're about to point out the Pac-10 plays a nine-game conference schedule, which automatically adds five losses to the conference, which, of course, hurts the conference's national perception, not to mention its number of bowl-eligible teams. Every other BCS conference plays eight, other than the eight-team Big East. But that’s not why we're grinning. We're grinning because the Big Ten and the Big 12 will do that soon, and then they'll find out the perception consequence of not giving your entire conference an extra win with a nonconference patsy. Of course, the savvy SEC will continue to play eight conference games, schedule weak nonconference opponents and then trumpet itself as super-awesome.
Why is the Pac-10 No. 2? Well, it's got the nation's No. 1 team in Oregon. It's got the nation's No. 6 team in Stanford, which many believe to be the nation's best one-loss team. And four of 10 teams are ranked. Are Iowa and Wisconsin good teams? Absolutely. But Iowa lost to Arizona, which has three Pac-10 defeats, and Wisconsin got a fluky one-point win at home over Arizona State, which is 2-5 in the Pac-10. The Pac-10 is 10-4 overall vs. other BCS conferences. It's ranked No. 1 by the Sagarin ratings, which for some reason don't believe stadium size is a true measure of a team or a conference. Even lowly Washington State is no longer the pushover it was the previous two seasons.
Depth? Let's put it this way: The Pac-10 would love to match the team that ends up second to last in its conference versus the one that ends up in that spot anywhere else.
Rittenberg: Three strong cases for the No. 2 spot. But are any of these leagues closing the gap with the SEC?
Ubben: I guess we'll find out come bowl season, but I don't know that anybody in the Big 12 is in position for a run like the SEC's enjoyed in the latter half of the last decade.
Oklahoma and Texas will be Oklahoma and Texas, but the strength of the Big 12 has been a rising middle class with teams like Oklahoma State, Missouri, Texas A&M and maybe Baylor and Texas Tech positioning themselves to become mainstays in the top 25 during the next couple years or beyond.
That's good for the computer ratings, but not good for a league trying to field a national champion. And for better or worse, a league's ultimate identity boils down to its best team or two. Thanks to that rising middle class, getting inside the top five and staying there could be harder than ever in the next few years.
Miller: Are we talking reality or perception? Because the SEC's ostensible superiority is largely about perception -- i.e., fan passion equals great football. The Pac-10 has a winning record vs. the SEC over the past decade, and the Big Ten has done just fine vs. the SEC in the Capital One and Outback Bowls. The SEC is probably No. 1, but the margin is thin, and the conference refuses to prove its superiority during the regular season by consistently scheduling tough nonconference games.
When USC ruled the Pac-10 from 2002-2008, folks called the conference the Trojans and the nine dwarfs. Now that USC has fallen, Oregon has risen, and teams such as Stanford and Arizona also have made moves. But USC will be back. That's just inevitable. And if Utah continues to play at a high level after it joins the Pac-12, you could make the case that the Pac-10 should start to produce multiple top-10 teams and five or six top-25 teams annually, which would put it on par with the SEC.
And, honestly, with resurgent Nebraska joining the Big Ten, I'm not sure we won't have a new No. 1 conference in 2011 anyway.
Rittenberg: Well, Ted made most of my points for me. I'll be sending a gift basket to Scottsdale.
The Big Ten certainly has matched up well with the SEC in the Capital One and Outback bowls, and the addition of Nebraska next fall truly enhances the league's clout. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany often points out the only way his league truly regains national respect is by beating the best from another conference at the championship level. The Big Ten still gets bashed for Ohio State's stumbles against the SEC in the BCS title game, and barring a wild final three weeks, a Big Ten squad won't be facing Auburn on Jan. 10 in Glendale. So the Big Ten must wait for that true statement game.
When I look at these two leagues from top to bottom, I don't see much difference. The Big Ten has continued to build off of its strong finish to 2009, while the SEC seems to have backslid. All you need to do is look at the SEC East division. Could Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State beat Auburn or LSU? It's possible, but I really think the entire league matches up better now with what the SEC is offering.
Like Ted writes, it's all about perception. Until a team from another league beats the SEC at the highest level, the SEC will keep living off of its incredible run.
But the Big Ten is catching up.