Not all conferences are created equally. We’ve got decades of data that proves that.

I’ve been banging that drum for years now. It’s why I rolled my eyes when the idea of a 6-team Playoff with 5 automatic qualifiers and a Group of 5 champion was proposed. Imagine being that delusional. Like, imagine being delusional to the point where you fail to acknowledge that 1 conference (the SEC) won 13 of the last 18 national championships while the rest of the conferences won 5 combined. Couldn’t be me.

It also couldn’t be me pushing back on Ross Dellenger’s report that the Big Ten and SEC are seeking the top 2 overall seeds in a potentially expanded 14-team Playoff beginning in 2026. The top 2 seeds are relevant because they would, in a 14-team Playoff, get an automatic bye.

The Big Ten and SEC have earned that, both on and off the field.

They earned that opportunity by being the aggressors in conference expansion — for better or worse for the future of the sport — while giving us the data to suggest that they win the games that matter.

It might sound like I’m giving too much recency bias credit to the Big Ten after winning a total of just 1 Playoff game during the previous 8 seasons until Michigan ended the conference’s national title drought. Alternatively, it might sound like I’m deferring too much to the Big Ten as the owner of an $8 billion media contract. The money that the Big Ten and SEC generate as the 2 clear leaders in conference revenue is part of this — it’s a compromise to make sure their recent union isn’t the start of them breaking away and forming their own premier league — but let’s put more emphasis on the original point.

That is, not all conferences are created equally.

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Of the 24 years of national championships in the 21st century, all but 4 of them were won by programs that now reside in either the Big Ten or the SEC. Those titles were won by Miami (FL) in 2001, Florida State in 2013 and Clemson in 2016 and 2018. More recently, however, the ACC is searching for its first Playoff game victory since the 2019 season when the Tigers outlasted Ohio State in a game that many felt was decided on a controversial fumble call that went Clemson’s way.

To repeat, the ACC has 0 Playoff game victories in the 2020s decade while the Big 12 earned exactly 1 Playoff game victory, which was a bit overshadowed when 65-7 happened the following week.

There were 30 Playoff games in the 4-team era. Here’s the breakdown of Playoff game wins by conference based on where they’re playing in 2024 (this means Texas counts for the SEC, Washington counts for the Big Ten, etc.):

  • SEC: 16
  • Big Ten: 7 (includes 2014 Oregon and 2023 Washington)
  • ACC: 6
  • Big 12: 1

That’s 23 of 30 Playoff game victories (77%) coming from teams who’ll be in either the Big Ten or the SEC in 2024. You want to take away 2014 Oregon and 2023 Washington from the Big Ten? Fine. It’s still 70% of the Playoff game victories that were won by Big Ten or SEC teams at the time of the matchup.

But isn’t this about depth and not just who plays for national titles? Sure. The ACC and Big 12 each have 1 team (Clemson and TCU) who won a Playoff game in the 4-team era. The SEC, however, has 3 and the Big Ten has 2 if you exclude Oregon and Washington and 4 if you don’t.

It’s not an accident that 16 of the last 18 SEC champions have gone on to play in a national title game. The 2023 season was a rare miss for the SEC. That Alabama loss was also a rare miss for the SEC in New Year’s 6 Bowls, where the SEC went 3-1 in 2023.

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Is that too small of a sample size? Fine. In the 10 years of the 4-team Playoff era, there were 100 total AP top-10 finishes (10 per year … 10 x 10 = 100 … you get it). Here’s that breakdown by conference based on where they’re playing in 2024 (once again, this means Texas counts for the SEC, Washington counts for the Big Ten, etc.):

  • SEC — 37
  • Big Ten — 34
  • Big 12 — 13
  • ACC — 12
  • Notre Dame as Independent (excludes 2020 as ACC member) — 2
  • Group of 5 — 1
  • Washington State/Oregon State — 1

So that’s 71 of the 100 top-10 finishes that have gone to programs that’ll be in the Big Ten or SEC moving forward.

The SEC had multiple top-10 finishers every year while the ACC failed to do that in 6 of 10 seasons, and it never had more than 2 top-10 finishers in the 4-team Playoff era. The Big Ten had multiple top-10 finishers all but once while the Big 12 had 0 top-10 finishers in 4 of those 10 seasons.

Ah, I know what you’re thinking.

“That’s a subjective media ranking.”

Fine. That’s true. What else is true? The NFL Draft numbers.

It’s not just that the SEC has had the most players selected in the NFL Draft for the last 17 years and counting. The SEC and Big Ten have been No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in each of the last 5 years. Mind you, that’s not counting Texas and Oklahoma for the SEC, neither is it counting USC, Oregon, Washington and UCLA for the Big Ten.

(My bold prediction is that the Big Ten will finally end the SEC’s streak this NFL Draft thanks to a possibly record-setting year for Michigan.)

That’s not changing anytime soon. You know what else isn’t changing? The respect for the Big Ten and SEC. Getting through those conferences is different than the rest of the sport. Period. It’s why any nickname to replace Power 5 feels like a slight to the Big Ten and SEC because it’s putting the ACC and Big 12 on that level (Core Four is what I’ve been pushing).

That’s why the Big Ten and SEC are each reportedly getting 3 automatic bids apiece compared to just 2 for the Big 12 and ACC. You might think that giving the Big Ten and SEC champs a bye will tip the scales even more in favor of those conferences.

Let’s be clear. Nobody is lucking into a title in the expanded Playoff. Shoot, nobody lucked into a title in the 4-team era, either. Even if it’s a team with multiple losses in the regular season who wins it all, remember that it’ll still take at least 3-4 consecutive wins vs. top-12 competition, with perhaps an additional conference championship game preceding that. The ACC and Big 12 can still represent half the field with 2 automatic bids apiece, plus the 3 at-large berths (2 + 2 + 3 = 7, AKA half of 14).

Accepting these terms would go against what fans/players/administrators/boosters of the Big 12 and ACC have been programmed to believe. That is, that their conference is every bit as good as the Big Ten and SEC. But some self-awareness is needed if that’s what it takes to appease the 2 biggest power brokers of the sport. The Big Ten and SEC are looking down on everyone else as we enter a new era.

They’re standing tall on decades of data.