Is This a Down Year for the Big 10? The BCS Doesn't Think So...

One of the more oft-repeated truisms of the 2009-2010 college football season is that this is a "down year" for the Big 10 conference. Supposedly, the Big 10 is on a slide from its recent glory days when it was one of the more dominant BCS conferences.

In this meme, the Big 10 has been replaced by the SEC and the Big 12 and now ranks a solid third (sometimes even fourth, behind the Pac-10) in terms of conference power. The "fact" of the Big 10's down year is so widely known, it was even repeated by a SB Nation writer as recently as today in their aggregate coverage of the discussion surrounding the newly released BCS Rankings.

Those same rankings tell a different tale, however. According to the BCS rankings, there is a conference that is having a down year - but it isn't the Big 10. I looked at the rankings and, with the help of my trusty spreadsheet, compared the newly released BCS rankings to both the final and week 1 BCS rankings from 2006-2008 (2006 was the stopping point because that's the earliest year for which the polls in the BCS rankings are identical to the ones used today.) The results of my comparison may surprise you...

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Perhaps the easiest ways to judge a conference's relative power is to compare the number of teams that conference has in the BCS rankings as compared to the other conferences. There are twenty-five teams ranked in each weekly edition of the BCS rankings, and those teams come from the six major BCS conferences as well as independents and the non-BCS conferences.

For the purposes of this analysis, I did not look at independant teams or teams from the MAC, MWC, WAC, C-USA, or Sun Belt. This comparison is thus just limited to the six BCS conferences. (*The 2009 data points are based on week 1 rankings, since we obviously don't have final rankings for this season yet.)

Bcsfinalrankings_medium

This graph shows the final BCS rankings from 2006-2009...

In the above graph, we see the year in question represented on the X-axis and the number of teams represented by each conference on the Y-axis. Each colored line represents one of the six conferences.

A few trends are immediately apparent here. First, the SEC has tended to be the most heavily represented conference - having five teams represented in the final 25 ranked teams in the years of 2006 and 2007, and four teams in 2008 and 2009. The Big 12 is not far behind, with four teams in 2006, four teams in 2007, five in 2008, and three in 2009. The ACC has been remarkably consistent - having three teams in the final poll in all but 2007, in which it had four. The Big East is also relatively consistent. They have had three teams represented in both 2006 and 2009, a high of four teams in 2007 and a low of two teams in 2008.

The Pac-10 was heavily represented in 2006 with four teams, but has declined every year since, with the exception of this year in which they increased their representation from two to three teams.

Finally, we can take a look at the Big 10. Similar to the SEC, the Big 10 has been represented by two different number of teams during the four years examined. Unlike the SEC, the Big 10's representation in the BCS Rankings has increased - having only three teams in the rankings in 2006 and 2007, and four teams in 2008 and 2009.

So far, it would seem that the Big 10 is actually having a year identical to last year - and an improvement over the 2006-2007 era. Of the major conferences, the one conference with a significant down year appears to be the Big 12. This intuitively makes sense. Sam Bradford's injury woes at Oklahoma along with the mediocrity of former representatives such as Texas Tech, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas A&M has contributed to the decline in their overall conference representation.

But wait, you say. It doesn't seem fair to compare the 2009 Week 1 rankings to the final rankings from past years - after all, don't the teams shuffle in the weeks between the first released rankings and the final rankings? Well, yes, they do. However, while the specific teams represented may change from week to week, the number of teams each conference has in the rankings remains surprisingly consistent throughout the BCS ranking period.

A second graph bears this out:

Bcsweekonerankings_medium

This is a graph of the Week One BCS Rankings from 2006-2009...

In this graph we see the number of teams represented in the week 1 BCS rankings by each conference from the years 2006-2009. Similar to the above graph, a few trends are apparent.

First, the SEC and the Big 12 appear to be slightly over-represented in the week 1 rankings as compared to where the teams shake out in the end. In 2007, the SEC had a conference high of seven teams represented in the week 1 BCS rankings, only to have two of those teams drop off the rankings map by the time the final rankings came out. In 2008, the Big 12 nearly tied this record, having six teams in the week 1 rankings, before losing one team by the time the final rankings appeared. The over-representation of the SEC and Big 12 (along with the over-representation of the Pac-10 in 2007) have caused under-representation among the other conferences in the BCS - the Big 10, ACC, and Big East in the various years examined.

Looking just at the Big 10 now, we notice that in 2006 the Big 10 was represented by four teams in the week 1 rankings, before falling to only two teams in 2007. In 2008 and 2009, the Big 10 improved and has held steady with four teams once again represented in the week 1 rankings. We can thus conclude that if any recent year was a down year for the Big 10 based on the week 1 BCS rankings, that year would have to be 2007. In 2009 the Big 10 has actually held steady on the improvement it underwent in 2008.

Digging deeper into this graph we can also see that, in comparison to 2008, the SEC has, like the Big 10 held steady, while the ACC, Big East, and Pac-10 have all improved. The lone conference to have a decline in representation in the week 1 rankings from 2008 to 2009 is our old friend, the Big 12.

One final argument that I've often heard is that, really, the full BCS rankings don't matter, only the top 10 places do. After all, there are four BCS bowls in addition to the national championship game, with the top 10 teams in the rankings usually somewhat close to the teams that go to these bowls. So, maybe conference power should really be measured by how many teams a conference has ultimately had ranked in the top 10 places at the end of the season.

Looking into this produces one more graph:

Bcstop10rankings_medium

This graph shows the number of schools each conference had in the top 10 of the final BCS rankings from 2006-2009...

Here we see the number of teams each conference has in the top 10 rankings of the BCS by year, from 2006-2009. (*Again, the 2009 data points are the week 1 rankings, because we do not have final rankings to work with.)

An examination of this graph reveals that the SEC is well represented among the top teams and has held steady with three teams in the top 10 from 2007-2009. This was an improvement over the two teams they had in the top 10 in 2006. The Big East was decently represented in the top 10 in 2006 and 2007, but reached a low of no team in the top 10 in 2008. Since then they have slightly rebounded, having one team (Cincinnati, currently) in the top 10 in the 2009 rankings.

The Pac-10 has followed a slightly similar path -represented by two teams in 2006 and 2007, and by just one team in 2008 and 2009. The ACC and the Big 10 are two other conferences with similar patterns. Each conference shuttles back and forth between two data points every other year - between zero and one team represented for the ACC and one or two teams represented for the Big 10. Currently, the Big 10 has only one team represented in the top 10 - Iowa - which is down one representative from 2008. This graph, thus could be used to justify the theory that the Big 10 is having a down year, but because of the Big 10's cyclical pattern with top 10 representation, it is quite a stretch.

In fact, we notice looking at this graph that there is really only one other pattern that stands out. The Big 12 has consistently been represented by one team in the top 10 (usually Texas) in the years 2006, 2007, and 2009. In 2008, though, they were represented by a conference high of four teams in the top 10. That is the highest conference representation among the major conferences in all the years examined, higher than even the SEC can claim. Their descent from this lofty height back to having only one team in the top 10 certainly represents a major decline. This graph, then, like the others suggests that the conference having a down year in the 2009-2010 season is actually the Big 12, not the Big 10.

So... if the BCS rankings don't bear out the theory that the Big 10 is in the midst of a down year, why is that truism so prevalent? Well, I have a few hunches...

First, the ascendancy of the SEC over the last several years and the great year that the Big 12 had in 2008 seems to have pushed those two conferences to the forefront of commentators and voters thoughts when evaluating the conferences relative power among the BCS, regardless if this is matched by play on the field or not.

Also, the BCS rankings are seeing increasing representation from the non-BCS conferences and the independent schools within the top 10. While these conferences have always been represented in relatively consistent numbers within the entirety of the BCS rankings, their recent jump into the top 10 has pushed certain BCS conference schools out of or lower in the rankings, thus artificially deflating the stock of some of the teams in the Big 10. It can certainly be argued that these "outside" teams deserve their high rankings just as much as the teams in the Big 10, and this is a point that I wouldn't necessarily debate. However, their ascendancy is a possible contributor to the myth of the Big 10's decline.

Finally, while the middle schools of the SEC, the Big 12, and the Pac-10 are mediocre and the bottom schools truly rotten, the dominance of the conference power houses (Florida, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, and USC) casts a halo around the rest of the conference that makes their conference look stronger as a whole. With OSU's recent faltering, the Big 10 doesn't really have a star team that has the same effect.

Sure, Iowa is currently undefeated, but when even Vegas doesn't believe in you, it's hard to say that their record pulls the rest of the conference up in comparison to the other BCS conferences. This is compounded by some near losses on the part of Iowa to "easy" teams like Northern Iowa. Part of what helps Florida cast such a glow over some of the lesser SEC schools is that when they play teams perceived as easier they tend to beat them by 40 or 50 points. While I personally find such pummeling of inferior competition distasteful, it's clear that it makes an impact in the broadcast world. This is most easily illustrated by the attention that the major college football broadcasters - ESPN and CBS - pay to the SEC. Heck, they've even got a new SEC / ESPN logo these days. Dare to dream, I suppose...

Perhaps if Iowa continues their play and earns some style points along the way this all will change. The ideal situation for the Big 10 as far as reputation gathering goes, would be for the trio of Iowa, Penn State, and Ohio State (or another three, though those are currently the most likely) to return to dominance and stay there for a few years. This would then hopefully start to change the pervasive, yet misleading, aura of weakness around the Big 10.

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