The Great Conference Debate
At his conference's preseason media event last month, SEC commissioner Mike Slive stood before a room full of reporters and rattled off his league's impressive list of recent accomplishments -- three BCS championships in six years, an NCAA-record seven bowl wins in 2007 and the first 1-2 finish in the polls by a single conference (No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Georgia) since 1971.
"I think it's safe to say that the debate as to which is the best football conference in the country has been put to rest," proclaimed the commissioner.
College football's Great Conference Debate has been a heated subject among college fans for years, but it reached a boiling point after Florida's 41-14 thrashing of Ohio State in the 2006 BCS Championship Game. The Gators' stunning rout came to be viewed as a referendum regarding the perceived strength of the SEC and perceived weakness of the Big Ten, sparking a debate that has raged almost endlessly in the 19 months since.
Fans of the ACC, Big 12, Pac-10 and Big East have found themselves defending their own turf, what with conference strength playing an increasingly prominent role in the annual BCS race. Many were furious over the Buckeyes' return to the title game last season in light of their "soft" conference competition, a notion compounded by yet another loss to the SEC's champion, LSU.
While Slive has no shortage of ammo when it comes to declaring his conference's superiority, can the debate ever really be "put to rest?" In a sport with such annual fluctuation, it stands to reason that the balance of power among conferences must be fluid as well.
"Things are cyclical, and the pendulum swings back and forth," said Purdue coach Joe Tiller. "When you've been coaching 44 years, you notice that and experience that, and you realize that's the way it is."
SI.com decided to test this theory in the most empirical and comprehensive manner possible. On this, the five-year anniversary of the ACC's landscape-altering expansion announcement, we wanted to see how the conference pecking order had changed from the first five years of the BCS era (1998-2003) to the second (2003-'08). So we created our own "Conference Power Index" (CPI).
For both time periods (which spanned from the fall of the first year through the spring of the last), each of the six BCS conferences was ranked against the others in five different categories: BCS bowl record, percentage of teams in the final AP poll, nonconference performance (as measured by the RPI formula used for basketball), record in other bowl games and NFL draft picks per teams. Six points were awarded for first place, five points for second, etc, with the BCS and top 25 categories -- the most prominent goals of any team or conference -- weighted doubly. (See chart)
So what did we learn from the numbers?
The SEC was by far the strongest conference over the past five years, accumulating 40 of a possible 42 points. It placed a staggering 41.7 percent of its teams in the final AP polls, went 6-1 in BCS games and its 11-point CPI margin over the second-place Pac-10 (29) was the biggest discrepancy during either time period.
By no means, however, has the SEC's dominance been a fixture. During the previous five years, the conference finished second in the CPI standings to ... the Big Ten.
The Big Ten took the biggest tumble of any league from the first period to the second, slipping from first to fourth. A 14-22 bowl record (including 3-6 in BCS games) from 2003 to '08 -- down from 17-12 (5-3 BCS) in '98 to '03 -- was a primary factor.
In spite of its recent postseason struggles -- including eight straight BCS bowl losses -- the expanded ACC has in fact improved itself. It rose from sixth to third in the CPI standings and produced more NFL talent over the past five years than the Pac-10 or Big 12.
Even with a 2005 national title by Texas, the Big 12 sank from third to fifth in the most recent time period. The league placed just 30 percent of its teams in the top 25, down from a national-best 43.3 percent five years earlier. Oklahoma's four BCS bowl losses certainly didn't help, either.
The Pac-10 has steadily improved, climbing from fourth to second thanks to an eight-point improvement in its CPI score (from 21 to 29). USC's dominance over the past six years was a key contributing factor, but the league as a whole improved from 9-18 to 17-11 in bowl games.
And while the Big East endured an inevitable slip after losing three top teams (Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College) to the ACC, coming in sixth out of six, it was not as disastrous as initially feared. The league went 4-1 in BCS games and 9-9 in its other bowls over the past five years.
All of which begs the question: How did we get from there to here?
SEC spreads the wealth
Five years ago this summer, the ACC turned the college sports world on its head by raiding Big East powers Miami and Virginia Tech as part of a plan to expand to 12 teams and stage a conference championship game. (Boston College followed later that year.) The move set off a domino effect that wound up affecting the membership of five other Division I-A conferences.
While the move was largely financially driven, it also triggered discussion as to whether the nation's most prestigious basketball conference would soon attain similarly hallowed status in football. After all, the Hurricanes, Hokies and existing member Florida State had made a combined six BCS title-game appearances in the first five years of the system.
"This conference will be as good as any," predicted Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. "It might be the toughest in the nation."
National prominence was barely part of the discussion surrounding SEC football in the summer of 2003. Slive's primary goal at the time was "that in five years, we will not have anyone on probation."
It was a dark time for the conference: Two schools, Alabama and Kentucky, had recently been handed severe NCAA sanctions for recruiting-related scandals; Arkansas had recently been placed on probation and Mississippi State and South Carolina would soon follow. Meanwhile, Florida was still reeling from the departure a year earlier of longtime coach Steve Spurrier, while Alabama had lost one coach (Dennis Franchione) and fired another (Mike Price) in the span of six months.
Five years later, it seems almost comical to look back and see that the Birmingham News, among others, declared that "[the ACC] seems ready to replace the SEC as the nation's top football conference."