Tuesday, January 14, 2014
SEC still the best in college football
By Sharon Katz
Despite losing its first national title in eight seasons, the SEC finished atop ESPN Stats & Information’s Conference Power Rankings by a wide margin.
The SEC lost its two BCS bowl games but went 7-1 in its eight other bowl games. Its only non-BCS blemish came when Georgia, without quarterback Aaron Murray, lost by five points to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.
Overall, the SEC finished with seven teams ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll, including four in the top seven. Only the Pac-12 had more than three teams ranked in the entire AP Top 25.
What sets the SEC apart is its depth. Mississippi State, which finished fifth in the SEC West, won its bowl game by 37 points. Similarly, Vanderbilt, which finished fourth in the SEC East, won by 17 points without its starting quarterback. In all, 10 of the SEC’s 14 teams finished with winning records, including seven teams with at least nine wins.
The Pac-12 also showcased its depth during bowl season. Despite losses by its top two teams, Stanford and Arizona State, the middle of the Pac-12 was dominant. All six of the Pac-12’s bowl wins came by at least 15 points, and Pac-12 teams' average margin of victory in those games was 22 points.
Overall, the Pac-12 finished with six teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and five teams ranked in the top 10 of ESPN's Football Power Index. As a result of its strength in the computers, the Pac-12 was the clear No. 2 conference in the Power Rankings.
The Big 12 finished third in the Conference Power Rankings for a second straight season. Oklahoma's win over Alabama was the highlight of bowl season for the Big 12, but losses by Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas all hurt the conference.
After sending nine of its 10 teams to bowls last season, the Big 12 had only six bowl-eligible teams in 2013. The lack of depth and having no “elite” team kept the Big 12 from emerging as a top conference this season.
The Big Ten had the worst bowl record (2-5) of any BCS automatic-qualifying conference, but the conference won its most important game, the Rose Bowl.
Michigan State rallied from a 10-0 first-quarter deficit to defeat Stanford and give the Big Ten its first Rose Bowl victory since Ohio State won in 2010. The Spartans finished ranked third in the final AP poll, their highest finish in the national polls since 1966, and fourth in ESPN’s Championship Drive Ratings.
However, the Big Ten had a losing bowl record for a fourth straight season. Since its last national championship in 2002, the Big Ten is 30-52 in bowls and has only once had a winning bowl season (2009).
The ACC won its first BCS championship since 1999 and broke the SEC’s streak of seven straight titles. Clemson also won its bowl game against Ohio State to give the ACC two BCS bowl victories.
Despite sending a record 11 teams to bowls, the ACC’s bowl season will be defined by its two wins in BCS bowls. The only reason that the ACC is not ranked higher in the conference rankings, however, is the conference is still lacking depth; the ACC went 3-6 in its non-BCS bowl games, with the six losses by a combined 103 points.
Non-AQ conferences had an up-and-down bowl season, with the Sun Belt winning both of its games and the MAC losing all five of its contests.
The Mountain West finished the season as the top non-AQ conference, but the gap between the Mountain West and the “Big 6” conferences is quite large heading into the 2014 playoff. Many questions remain heading into the playoff, but the fate of the non-AQ conferences seems dim with only one spot guaranteed in the six major bowls for teams in the American, C-USA, Mountain West, MAC and Sun Belt conferences.
Next season, look for the Pac-12 to challenge to the SEC for the top conference in the nation. The Pac-12 should only get stronger with Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Oregon State and Arizona State returning their starting quarterbacks.
Conversely, seven of the SEC’s top eight teams will have to replace their starting quarterbacks next season. Check back next year to see where your conference ends up.