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Posted: Monday August 11, 2008 1:35PM; Updated: Monday August 25, 2008 2:22PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

The Great Conference Debate (cont.)

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Noel Devine
Oklahoma has been left in the dust in its last four BCS games.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Non-BCS Leagues
Because of the limited sample size in categories like BCS bowl games and AP poll rankings, it was not feasible to apply the entire CPI formula to the five "non-BCS" conferences. Here's how those leagues stacked up based solely on their out-of-conference RPI ratings.
2003-07 1998-02
1) MWC (.4649) 1) MWC (.4547)
2) C-USA (.4353) 2) WAC (.4463)
3) WAC (.4140) 3) C-USA (.4404)
4) MAC (.3986) 4) MAC (.3853)
5) Sun Belt (.3895) 5) Sun Belt (.3457)
Note: The Mountain West began play in 1999. The Sun Belt began play in 2001.

The Big 12 has suffered a similar stigma from the BCS bowl struggles of its reigning juggernaut, Oklahoma. Bob Stoops' Sooners have lost four-consecutive games on the big stage, including blowout losses to USC in the 2004 national title game and to West Virginia in last year's Fiesta Bowl.

That the conference slipped all the way to fifth in our CPI ratings was less a reflection of Oklahoma or Texas -- which went 24-1 with a national title in 2004-05 -- as it was the rest of the league. At the time of the league's inception in 1996, the Big 12's balance of power rested squarely in the North Division, where Nebraska was at the height of its dynasty and Kansas State and Colorado were annual poll fixtures as well. When the Sooners and Longhorns reemerged on the scene at the start of this decade, the league appeared poised to challenge the SEC and Big Ten for national supremacy.

But in recent years, the Huskers, Wildcats and scandal-plagued Buffaloes all crumbled. Texas A&M never reached its potential under coach Dennis Franchione. A telling sign of the Big 12's recent struggles: Only the Big East produced fewer NFL prospects per team over the past five years, with Kansas State slipping from 27 draft picks in the 1999-'03 drafts to just nine from '04-'08. (Texas A&M slipped from 24 to 11; Colorado from 18 to 10.) Not coincidentally, half the conference's teams have changed coaches since 2006.

The good news is that the league appears to be back on the upswing following the surprise emergence last season of Missouri and Kansas as top 10 teams. Colorado improved from 2-10 to 6-7 in coach Dan Hawkins' second season, while Texas Tech posted its first New Year's Day bowl victory (against Virginia in the Gator Bowl) since 1954.

Heading into this season, five league teams -- Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Kansas and Texas Tech -- are ranked in the top 15 of the preseason coaches poll.

"The level of play in this conference has just really gone through the roof," said Iowa State coach Gene Chizik, previously a defensive coordinator at Texas. "Week in and week out, it's somebody in the top 10, top 15, and that's what makes the conference great."

Pac-10 fights for -- and earns -- respect

The Pac-10 has traditionally struggled to garner national respect, but according to our CPI data, no conference besides the SEC was stronger over the past five years.

The most obvious explanation: USC. Pete Carroll's juggernaut has gone 58-6 over the past five seasons, including 4-1 in BCS games. But it says something about the level of competition in their league that the Trojans during that time posted a higher winning percentage against teams from other conferences (.955) than their own (.881). USC's nonconference victims have included the likes of Auburn, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Michigan (twice) and Arkansas, as well as two Notre Dame BCS teams.

The Trojans' nonconference success has been representative of the Pac-10 as a whole, which annually plays a tougher nonconference slate than their counterparts and finished first in nonconference RPI during both five-year periods. Where the league made dramatic inroads was in the postseason, improving from third to first in BCS record and from sixth to third in other bowls.

"People often overlook the sophistication of Pac-10 offenses," says Fox Sports Net's Barry Tompkins, who's been covering Pac-10 games for several decades. "It's those sophisticated systems that give them the edge in a lot of intersectional games."

Tompkins says USC's recent dominance has had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the conference. "USC's success has improved the conference in general," he said. "Now that they're getting the best kids nationally, a good player from Southern California who would have gone to USC in the past might go to Cal or Oregon. That's how [recent star receiver] DeSean Jackson ended up at Cal."

At the opposite end of the spectrum nationally, for now, is the Big East -- though not in nearly the catastrophic state many predicted five years ago.

Following the defections of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College, many predicted the fledgling football league would either fold or, at the very least, lose its BCS affiliation. "We were dead ... we didn't even know if we were going to have a league," said commissioner Mike Tranghese.

Following a dismal 2004 season in which its champion, Pittsburgh, finished 8-4 and got trounced by Utah in the Fiesta Bowl, the Big East began its resurrection the following year with the additions of Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida. West Virginia's stunning Sugar Bowl upset of SEC champion Georgia at season's end injected a much-needed dose of credibility.

The Mountaineers, led by transcendent QB Pat White, have carried the banner for the conference these past few seasons, following up that Sugar Bowl win with a 48-28 Fiesta Bowl trouncing of Oklahoma last January. In fact the league tied for second place nationally these past five years with a 4-1 BCS record (Big East teams have gone 8-2 in all bowls the past two seasons).

On the whole, however, the rebuilding conference is still looking up at its other BCS counterparts. The Big East came in last in three of the five CPI categories the past five years to finish with a sixth-place score of 16 (down slightly from 18 the previous five years).

"We just think we're pretty good," said Tranghese. "And that's what I always [wanted], that we would be among the six [BCS conferences] and people would stop asking if we belong there. People aren't saying that anymore.

Where will the cycle turn in five years?

Based on what we've learned from the last five-year cycle, we should probably assume that the conference landscape will have changed again come 2013. But who will move up and who will move down?

First thing's first: Just how long can the SEC maintain its current level of dominance? With its rock-star roster of head coaches and seemingly ever-flowing recruiting pipeline, the league shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Four league teams (Georgia, Florida, LSU and Auburn) sit among the top 11 of this year's preseason coaches poll.

"There's no reason why the SEC can't maintain its [current] level of excellence," said Slive.

Others, however, argue that the cyclical nature of the sport almost guarantees that others will catch up. Purdue's Tiller suggests it will happen in large part by simply copying the SEC's blueprint.

"High school football in the South is obviously at a feverish pitch right now, and they're providing a lot of talent to the SEC schools," he said. "The Big Ten teams have noticed that. Looking at Big Ten rosters, I'm starting to see more kids coming out of the South."

Meanwhile, as the SEC has shown, conference strength is closely associated with the quality of its coaches. Several high-profile hires around the country could raise the stakes for any number of conferences.

In the Big 12, where Missouri, Kansas and Texas Tech have already upped the competition level, Nebraska and Texas A&M are banking on Bo Pelini and Mike Sherman, respectively, to restore those programs to their previous luster. Ditto for Hawkins at Colorado. If any or all succeed, and if Texas and Oklahoma maintain their recent level of success, the conference could conceivably reach SEC-level depth.

In the Pac-10, a pair of well-known, experienced head coaches, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson and UCLA's Rick Neuheisel, figure to pose the most viable threats to date to USC's stranglehold on the conference. Both the Trojans and the league could also take a significant step back, however, if Carroll, as is annually rumored, ever decides to take another stab at the NFL.

It seems inevitable that Big Ten will break out of its current rut sooner than later, with Michigan's hiring of renowned West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez considered a crucial step in that direction. He figures to modernize a perennially talent-laden program that had underachieved in recent years. Others such as Wisconsin's Bret Bielema, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Minnesota's Tim Brewster are already putting imprints on their programs.

No conference, however, would seem to hold more potential than the ACC if for no other reason than the two sleeping giants hovering in its mist. The league is banking on second-year Miami coach Randy Shannon and Florida State head-coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher to return their respective programs -- which combined for seven national titles from 1983 to 2001 -- to the elite.

"Not long ago, it was Florida State and Miami dominating college football. Where was the SEC then?" said Clemson coach Tommy Bowden. "These things go in cycles. The SEC has had a nice run. I'm sure that the ACC or another conference will take its place."

Check back in five years to find out if he's right.

Play Stewart Mandel's College Football Challenge.

 
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