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What Conference is No. 1? - Using Numbers to Bridge the Divide

EUGENE OR - OCTOBER 21:  The Oregon Duck mascot does push ups after a touchdown against the UCLA Bruins  on October 21 2010 at the Autzen Stadium in Eugene Oregon.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
EUGENE OR - OCTOBER 21: The Oregon Duck mascot does push ups after a touchdown against the UCLA Bruins on October 21 2010 at the Autzen Stadium in Eugene Oregon. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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When trying to decide who has the best conference in college football, some will argue that is it in the past, where previous success dictates current positioning. Is it the number of BCS championships within the last 5 years (SEC has that one in the bag)? Maybe the most BCS NCG appearances (Hello Big 12)? Or maybe it is simply the most BCS bowl games (Big Ten)?


Others will argue that it is the current season that matters. Is it the Pac-10 where the best team is averaging .9 points a minute? Maybe it is the MWC, who has two members in the Top-10 (add one for next year)? Or, is it the Big 12 who has the most undefeated teams (for the rest of this week, that is)?


When you dare to start a debate over the best conference in college football, everybody comes out of the woodwork, and they start to argue any position conceivable, provided it supports their chosen conference. No matter what they argue, however, one thing is clear – everything is based on a biased and highly chosen variable. People will often pick the factor which leads either their team, or their conference, to the top. They will then sit their in their self-indulgence, knowing that their conference is the best in the world.


An intro to my system:

With that in mind, I started to consider various 'fair' ways to determine the proper positioning of the conferences. Working closely with Hilary last year, I came up with four variables, which most people would agree with, which show which conference is the best in the nation. Using BCS polling (arguments of BCS bias aside), we can determine the best conference on the following factors: the number of schools ranked; the ranking points for those schools ranked; the parity of the conference; and the 'final' score (a combination of all three).


As this is the first post in this weekly series, I think that it will be helpful if I explain how each of these factors works. The number of schools ranked is, well, somewhat obvious. The conference with the most schools in the Top 25 BCS poll will earn this spot. The conference points is also easy to figure out. Take all the teams ranked, assign them points based on their position (25 points for the 1st, 24 for the 2nd, etc.), and then add them up (there are partial points awarded for just dropped out teams). The parity is slightly harder to understand, but it is still a clear factor for deciding a winner. To find the parity, take the total schools in the conference, and find the percentage that is ranked; this allows smaller conferences with one or two ranked schools to be comparable to the larger 12-school 'super' conferences.


Finally, there is the 'final' score, which combines all of the previous three scores – thus making it the most complete measurement. To find the final score, you take the parity and multiply it by the conference points. Doing so penalizes conferences that are "top-heavy," those with two or three great teams and a lot of crap below.  Then, take that number, and divide it by the max possible score for that conference (this is found by assuming that all schools are ranked 1-n, where n is the number of schools in the conference), which shows how close to perfect the conference really is. This number is turned into a percent, and, simply put, shows you the actual value of a conference, with all other variable accounted for.


Now that that is out of the way (don't worry, I won't bother explaining it again in the future), let's see what this means for this week...

The Most Schools:

While this argument does not address the differences in conference size (such as the MWC teams with 9 vs the SEC with 12 teams), most people will argue that the conference with the most ranked teams is the best conference in the nation. The reasoning behind this argument is fairly easy to understand, as it seems logical that conference with the most teams MUST be the conference with the best teams.


Winner: Tie – Big 12 and SEC


For this week, this factor is tied, with both the Big 12 and the SEC having 6 of their teams ranked. This means that voters consider these two conferences to be the strongest on a team-by-team ratio, and, the rankings reflect that.


[please note, the numbers in parenthesis are what the scores would be considering the changes coming in 2011. If those changes had occurred already, the SEC would win this as Nebraska's move to the Big Ten reduces the Big 12 to having 5 teams ranked]


Big 12 – 6 (5) (Oklahoma, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Texas, Kansas State) (5 without Nebraska)

SEC – 6 (6) (Auburn, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi State)

Big Ten – 4 (5) (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa) (5 with Nebraska)

Pac-10 – 3 (4) (Oregon, Stanford, Arizona) (4 with Utah)

ACC – 2 (2) (Florida State, Virginia Tech)

MWC – 2 (2) (TCU, Utah) (2 with Boise State and without Utah)

Big East – 1 (1) (West Virginia)

WAC – 1 (0) (Boise State) (0 without Boise State)



Conference Points:

This argument gains grounds when people attempt to answer the question, "is having one team ranked No. 1 better than having two ranked No. 15 and No. 16?" When you look at conferences this way, it becomes a question of individual teams, as opposed to the overall conference health. A conference that has several mid-ranked teams beats a conference with only one highly ranked one, but having only a single highly ranked team still beats a conference with only a few lower ranked teams.


Winner: Big 12


Remember that points are awarded in inverse of the rankings, so the No. 1 ranked team (this week, Oklahoma) is awarded 25 points, while the No. 25 ranked team (this week, Virginia Tech) is awarded 1 point. For this week, this factor is won by the Big 12 with 73 points. That said, the SEC is breathing down their neck with 70 points. This means that the voters consider the Big 12 teams to be slightly better than the SEC overall, but not by a whole lot.


[Considering next year, the SEC would be winning this category with 70 points, but would be struggling to keep the Big Ten and their 69 points from overtaking them.]


Big 12 – 73 (63) (Oklahoma -- 25, Missouri -- 15, Oklahoma State -- 12, Nebraska -- 10, Texas -- 7, K-State -- 4)

SEC – 70 (70) (Auburn -- 22, LSU -- 20, Alabama -- 18, South Carolina -- 5, Arkansas -- 3, Mississippi -- 2)

Big Ten – 59 (69) (MSU -- 19, OSU -- 16, Wisconsin -- 13, Iowa -- 11)

Pac-10 – 46 (63) (Oregon -- 24, Stanford -- 14, Arizona -- 8)

MWC – 38 (44) (TCU -- 21, Utah -- 17)

WAC – 23 (0) (Boise State -- 23)

ACC – 10 (10) (FSU -- 9, Virginia Tech -- 1)

Big East – 6 (6) (West Virginia -- 6)



Many people argue that the SEC is the best conference, due to the parity of it – yet, they never seem to define what that term means. Parity, as defined by Websters, is "the quality or state of being equal or equivalent." As such, I determined that the best manner of determining what is the parity of a conference is by comparing the percentages of ranked teams, thus making them as equal as possible. The reasoning behind this argument is that strong conferences don't simply have a few highly ranked teams, rather, they have many ranked teams at all levels.


Winner: Tie – Big 12 and SEC


In this factor, the Big 12 and the SEC are tied at 50% each, as each have half (six) of their total schools ranked. That being said, those two conferences only need to worry about each other, as the Big Ten (at four teams) would need two more ranked teams to surpass their parity. This suggests that the voters consider the Big 12 and the SEC to be roughly equal in terms of overall teams with a 'shot' of making it to the big game.


[Even more interesting, when considering next year, both conferences are still tied at 50%. The loss of one ranked team and one unranked team would keep the Big 12 on equal footing, for this week at least.]


Big 12 – 50% (50%)

SEC – 50% (50%)

Big Ten – 36% (42%)

Pac-10 – 30% (33%)

MWC – 22% (25%)

ACC – 17% (17%)

Big East – 13% (13%)

WAC – 11% (0%)


Final Score:

While most people do not combine factors to determine the best conference, it might be a good idea to do so. By combining the factors, normal biases are eliminated, and an overall picture of the conference emerges. The points and parity are factored in, as is the total points possible for a conference. Essentially, this creates a parity of the points, and helps to show the overall strength of the conference compared to others, and helps resolve issues of top heavy conferences (1 or 2 great teams, several bad) and those of the more normal distribution (several good, several bad) (see how the Big East falls to nothing, as they have only one ranked team, and they are ranked low).


Winner: Big 12


Overall, then, the Big Twelve holds off the SEC by only one percentage point, but doesn't need to worry about any other conference showing up to take their thunder soon. This means that the voters consider the Big 12 to be the best conference compared to what they could be, and that the SEC is the second in that regard. With the Big East, who has a 0%, the voters are saying that the Big East is, practically, almost as bad as is possible for that conference.


[Considering next year, the Big 12 would be tied with the SEC, as the loss of Nebraska harms both the potential and the reality of the points, so it is not a large net-loss for the conference.]


Big 12 – 16% (15%)

SEC – 15% (15%)

Big Ten – 10% (12%)

Pac-10 – 7% (9%)

MWC – 4% (6%)

ACC – 1% (1%)

WAC – 1% (0%)

Big East – 0% (0%)


What this all means:


For Week 6, the Big 12 is the best conference in the nation!


So, what does this all mean? Well, for the initial BCS standings, this means that the Big 12 clearly is the best conference, but both the SEC and the Big 10 have a strong chance at chasing them down. This means that the BCS poll considers the Big 12 to have the best teams overall, the best overall teams compared to each other, and to be the conference that is doing the best of any conference compared to their potential. Basically, the results are indicating that the BCS is correct in placing Oklahoma as the best team in the nation, as the best team in the best conference should be #1 (Missouri and Oklahoma State, you will have your chance). This, for one week at least, should help to show that the best team from the Big 12 is the best team in the nation, the best from the SEC is second, and the best from the Big Ten is third. This does not explain, however, how the best team from the Pac Ten (4th best overall conference), is ranked above the best from the SEC (2nd best overall conference). But sometimes in college football, reality seems to defy logic.


If you want to see this years rankings (past, present, and future), the math, and/or the trends, check out my current spread sheet.  For the results concerning next year's changes, please check out my future spread sheet.