Checking Power Five propaganda
Big 12 teams will play nine conference games.
SEC teams will play eight.
Pac-12 teams will play nine league games, plus a conference championship game.
ACC teams will play eight (and maybe Notre Dame).
As major college football heads into its first season with a four-team playoff, each Power Five conference is trying to convince the selection committee its scheduling format is the most challenging. It's part of a concerted and continuing effort on the part of each league to better position itself for consideration for the playoff. With five major conferences and only four playoff places, at least one will be left out.
Every conference has its pitch. We try to sort the facts from the propaganda:
ACC: "We broke the streak."
Fact: Florida State ended the SEC's seven-year reign, defeating Auburn 34-31 in the final BCS National Championship at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 6. It was the Seminoles' first national championship since 1999, which was also the last time an ACC team won a national title (Miami won in 2001, three years before it left the Big East for the ACC).
Propaganda: Sure, the ACC earned some respect during the past bowl season by going 2-0 in BCS bowl games (Clemson defeated Ohio State 40-35 in the Orange Bowl) and sending an NCAA-record 11 teams to the postseason. But the ACC's success in 2013 hardly makes up for its futility in the first 15 seasons of the BCS era, when its teams went 3-13 in BCS bowl games.
Heading into the 2014 season, FSU and Clemson seem head and shoulders over everyone else in the ACC once again. Every other ACC team (except Duke!) appears stuck in neutral. Virginia Tech lost at least five games in each of the past two seasons, which hadn't happened under coach Frank Beamer since 1991-92, and Miami was only 13-11 in ACC play during the past three seasons. The Blue Devils were one of the country's biggest surprises last season, finishing 10-4 overall, 6-2 in ACC play.
Although the ACC boasts of becoming the first league since the 23-team Southern Conference in 1932 (which consisted predominantly of current ACC and SEC teams) to have 11 teams finish with winning records, nine of its 14 teams finished 7-6 or worse in 2013. Talk about being top-heavy.
Big Ten: "It can't be any worse than the BCS ... can it?"
Fact: The Big Ten had more opportunities to make a statement -- or fall on its face -- than any other league during the BCS era. Big Ten teams made 28 appearances in BCS games, more than the SEC (27), Big 12 (22), Pac-12 (21) and ACC (18).
But after winning their first four BCS bowl games, Big Ten teams went 9-15 from 2001 to 2014 (and that's if you count Ohio State's 31-26 win over Arkansas in the 2011 Sugar Bowl, which the Buckeyes later vacated because of NCAA sanctions). Without the OSU win, the Big Ten's 12-15 record (.444) in BCS bowl games was second worst among the Power Five leagues, ahead of only the ACC's 5-13 mark (.278).
Propaganda: The last Big Ten team to win a national championship was Ohio State in 2002, and no team from the conference has played for one since the 2007 season, when the Buckeyes lost their second consecutive BCS title game.
Although Urban Meyer seems to be building an SEC-like juggernaut at Ohio State and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio has quietly built a national title contender, the rest of the Big Ten seems in flux. Iowa and Nebraska have been treading water the past few seasons, and Wisconsin seems a notch or two below the Buckeyes. Worse, Michigan is sliding and Penn State is handcuffed by NCAA probation.
The Big Ten's recent history suggests it might have been better off in the BCS format, under which its teams' rabid fan bases and TV appeal were big reasons for their inclusion. A playoff selection committee might have selected the Spartans as the No. 4 team last season -- or it might have chosen Stanford instead because of the Cardinal's superior schedule strength. But in each of the previous five seasons, the Big Ten probably would have been shut out of the playoff altogether.
In the five seasons after No. 1 Ohio State lost to No. 2 LSU 38-24 in the 2008 BCS National Championship, only one Big Ten team finished in the top five of the final BCS standings (No. 5 Wisconsin in 2010). In fact, a Big Ten team didn't even finish in the top 10 of the final BCS standings in 2012, when the unranked Badgers upset Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game and played in the Rose Bowl.
Unless Ohio State or Michigan State continues to ascend (or another team gets better in a hurry), the Big Ten champion doesn't necessarily seem like a slam dunk for the four-team playoff.
Big 12: "We play a round-robin schedule and have one 'true' champion."
Fact: Because the Big 12 decided to remain at 10 teams after Missouri and Texas A&M bolted for the SEC in 2012 (adding TCU and West Virginia as replacements), it is the only Power Five league to play a true round-robin schedule. Big 12 teams play each of their nine conference foes and only three nonconference games each season. The Big 12 is the only Power Five league that doesn't stage a conference title game and allows regular-season play to determine its champion.
Propaganda: OK, we get it. Big 12 teams play every other team in their conference, unlike the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, which are too big to allow for round-robin play. I'm sure Baylor coach Art Briles is counting his blessings that the Big 12 was gracious enough to schedule the Bears an off-week between their Oct. 18 game at West Virginia and their Nov. 1 home game against Kansas. Whew!
I understand the benefits of round-robin play. Everybody plays everybody, which results in a true league champion, unlike in the SEC, where Ole Miss can win the SEC West by beating Tennessee and Vanderbilt from the East while Auburn has to play Georgia and South Carolina. It's more equitable, and there are no complaints about fairness.
Here's my beef with the Big 12: It doesn't matter how many conference games a team plays if it doesn't beat anybody of consequence from outside its league. You can count on one hand the number of games Big 12 teams won against opponents from the other Power Five leagues during the 2013 regular season. Actually, you just have to raise your index finger -- because it was one!
The lone victory: Oklahoma State defeated Mississippi State 21-3 in the opener. The rest of the Big 12 went 0-4 against Power Five opponents: Iowa State lost to Iowa, Maryland shut out West Virginia, Ole Miss blasted Texas, and LSU defeated TCU in Arlington, Texas. In fairness, Oklahoma beat Notre Dame (and BYU routed Texas). The round-robin argument doesn't carry weight when you're not beating anybody from outside the Big 12.
The Big 12 made up some ground during bowl season, when Oklahoma upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and Texas Tech knocked off Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. But we're talking about regular-season strength of schedule, which will be one of the biggest factors in whether teams get into the four-team playoff.
Give the Big 12 some credit, though, because its nonconference scheduling is more aggressive this season. The league will play 10 games against foes from the Power Five conferences, including Oklahoma State's opener against Florida State in Arlington and West Virginia's opener against Alabama in Atlanta.
Pac-12: "We play a nine-game schedule, and we're deeper than everybody else."
Fact: The Pac-12 had a lot to crow about at the end of the 2013 season. Five of its teams were ranked in the top 25 of the final BCS standings, and its members went 6-3 in bowl games (Pac-12 teams were favored in all nine bowl games and defeated only one ranked opponent, No. 20 Fresno State).
The league has dramatically upgraded its coaching and facilities under the watch of commissioner Larry Scott. Oregon and Stanford seem to be national championship contenders every season, and Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA appear to be on the upswing. The league has stockpiled many of the game's best coaches, including Stanford's David Shaw and Washington's Chris Petersen.
Propaganda: Sure, the Pac-12 is deeper than it has ever been. Nine of its 12 teams went at least 4-5 in Pac-12 play last season, and even once-woebegone Washington State played in a bowl game in 2013.
But for all the arguments about the Big Ten and SEC being top-heavy, take a closer look at what Oregon and Stanford have done in Pac-12 play since 2010. During the past four seasons, the Cardinal and Ducks went a combined 93-14 overall, 63-9 in Pac-12 games. Only one other team from the Pac-12 North -- Washington -- had a winning record in league play during the past four seasons (going 5-4 against league foes each season since 2010).
While the Pac-12 South is more balanced, after the recent resurgence of Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA, it wasn't too long ago that hardly anyone could defeat USC. Before unranked Stanford upset the No. 2 Trojans 24-23 on Oct. 6, 2007, USC had won 24 consecutive Pac-12 home games and 39 of 43 conference games overall.
SEC: "We're the best -- look at the scoreboard."
Fact: SEC commissioner Mike Slive's office resembles a Tiffany & Co. showroom after SEC teams won an unprecedented seven consecutive BCS national championships from 2006 to 2012. FSU ended the SEC's reign last season, but two of its teams (Alabama and Auburn) probably would have ended up in a four-team playoff. Starting with Florida's 41-14 upset of No. 1 Ohio State in the 2006 title game, no league has flexed its muscle in the postseason as much as the SEC over the past eight seasons.
Propaganda: As good as the SEC has been at winning national championships, it wasn't that much better than everybody else during the BCS era. From the start of the BCS era in 1998 to its end in 2013, SEC teams went .500 against Pac-12 teams during the regular season (13-13), were only slightly better than the Big Ten in bowl games (23-21) and had a losing record against Big 12 teams during the regular season (8-12).
In fact, the best thing to happen to the SEC during conference realignment might have been the dissolution of the Big East. During the BCS era, Big East teams went 20-17 against SEC teams in the regular season and 8-5 in bowl games. For whatever reason, Big East schools seemed to have the SEC's number more than anyone else.
Sure, SEC teams hoisted the most crystal football trophies during the BCS era, but are you really that dominant when you can't beat the mediocre Big East on a regular basis?
And if the SEC is really that good, how did Missouri win the SEC East in its second season in the league? The Tigers were an above-average team in the Big 12, but few people expected them to contend in the SEC so quickly.
Four teams largely carried the SEC's flag during its recent dominance: Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Florida. Under coach Steve Spurrier, South Carolina has been better than it ever was, but the Gamecocks still haven't won an SEC championship. Florida and Tennessee have been sinking ships, and Georgia can't seem to get over the hump.
The SEC's best teams might be great every season, but its overall record against the other Power Five conferences suggests it might not be as dominant as we believed.