Grading the power conferences entering bowl season
It’s officially Christmas week.
For many, now is the time that final exam grades start rolling in. So we’ve decided to hand out some report cards of our own to each of the Power 5 football conferences.
How did each conference perform in 2015?
Best player: Florida State DB Jalen Ramsey
Elite coaches: FSU’s Jimbo Fisher, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney
Top 10 teams: No. 1 Clemson, No. 9 Florida State, No. 10 North Carolina
Bowl teams: 9
The ACC went 3-4 against the SEC in the regular season. Florida State did beat East Division champion Florida. But South Carolina, 3-9 in 2015 with a loss to The Citadel, knocked off a North Carolina team that went 11-1 in the regular season, and then got within one possession of No. 1 Clemson.
Miami, Virginia Tech and Virginia all made splashy hires, but those jobs came open for a reason — even the retiring Frank Beamer’s Hokies needed a change.
This was a two-team conference all year, and when Clemson bested Florida State, it became obvious which one would represent the ACC in the national title hunt. North Carolina had an outstanding season, but not many think that’s an outstanding team.
If Clemson falls to Oklahoma, especially if it is in dramatic fashion, it’s possible the narrative surrounding this conference in this season becomes embarrassing. The ACC needs the Tigers to at least be competitive with the Sooners.
BIG 12: B
Best player: Oklahoma State DE Emmanuel Ogbah
Elite coaches: Baylor’s Art Briles, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, TCU’s Gary Patterson
Top 10 teams: No. 4 Oklahoma
Bowl teams: 7
The Big 12 accomplished its main objective for 2015: Don’t get left out of the College Football Playoff again.
Due to a backloaded schedule, the Big 12 didn’t get as much buzz early in the season. TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma State also got deep into the year with one or fewer losses. And the late round robin was a bit of a bloodbath. But even without help from Texas, the Big 12 proved to be a formidable conference — in the top half, at least.
Then there are teams like Kansas, Iowa State and even a very mediocre Kansas State team mucking things up in “top to bottom” arguments.
If Oklahoma wins the national title, bump up this grade at least a half-notch, and maybe all the way to “A minus.”
BIG TEN: A-
Best player: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
Elite coaches: Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Michgan State’s Mark Dantonio
Top 10 teams: No. 3 Michigan State, No. 7 Ohio State
Bowl teams: 10
Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa stayed in contention for a College Football Playoff spot until the very end of the season to the point where the Big Ten became a de facto national quarterfinal. The winner was going to be guaranteed a spot, and deservedly so.
There’s still a soft underbelly in this conference, particularly since Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State lost a combined 15 games. But the five teams at the top — add Michigan and Northwestern to the other three — probably are better than any other five-team swatch from another league.
Recruiting is improving fast. The Big Ten has more elite coaching talent than anyone. And revenue is good enough to compete with the SEC. Oh, and the league claims the distinction as the defending national champions, thanks to the Buckeyes.
The only mark is that the Big Ten champion potentially will enter the national semifinals as a double-digit underdog to the SEC champion. But if the Spartans pull that upset, change the grade to an “A.”
Best player: Cal QB Jared Goff
Elite coaches: Stanford’s David Shaw
Top 10 teams: No. 6 Stanford
Bowl teams: 10
The Pac-12 is “that guy” in 2015. There always will be at least one without a partner at the dance, at least with the current four-team playoff. And the Pac-12 seemingly was out of contention well before Selection Sunday.
Stanford had to survive a back-and-forth game against Notre Dame and then beat USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game just to ensure the league’s best team had fewer than three losses.
For a conference that has argued vociferously in the last two years that it’s the deepest in the country, the Pac-12 managed to place just two teams in the top 20 of the final College Football Playoff poll, as 9-3 Oregon slipped up to No. 15 with a late-season surge.
Sure, the Pac-12 may have 10 bowl teams, thanks to 7-5 Cal, 6-6 Washington, 6-6 Arizona State and 6-6 Arizona. But this conference took a major plunge in 2015, and not just because it missed out on the playoff.
Best player: Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott
Elite coaches: Alabama’s Nick Saban, LSU’s Les Miles
Top 10 teams: No. 2 Alabama
Bowl teams: 10
It’s difficult to go lower. After all, the SEC is in the College Football Playoff and Alabama is a short favorite to win the national title.
But, as the SEC says in many years, thank goodness for Alabama. The SEC claimed just one other team in the top 18 of the final College Football Playoff poll — 9-3 Ole Miss. If not for what could be classified as a fortunate win in Tuscaloosa, the Rebels wouldn’t be there either.
For a conference that once saw 10 teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, it’s been quite a fall (pun intended).
Let’s admit it: The SEC no longer is the clear-cut No. 1 conference in college football. But with 10 bowl teams, there’s not a lot of easy outs in the conference, either. Vanderbilt got better, maybe as good as Mizzou, Kentucky and South Carolina, so it was difficult to pinpoint a guaranteed win in the SEC this year.
Arkansas and Tennessee got hot later in the year, but Florida and LSU faded, so it evened out.