As I’ve mentioned in several previous columns, I live in Savannah, Georgia. SEC country. And I sure get tired of seeing all of those black and red “G” flags everywhere — especially on game days. Especially after the Dawgs won a national championship. I wear an Ohio State cap around downtown and occasionally get “Go Bucks” greetings from retirees and tourists. But, really, nearly everybody here is a Georgia fan.
Ever since Oklahoma and Texas announced that they were leaving the Big 12 to join the powerhouse SEC, there’s been plenty of talk about a “super” conference, one that maybe wouldn’t even bother with the NCAA. Just go its own way and declare its champion. Then, the Big Ten picked up Southern Cal and UCLA, and suddenly there were two super conferences. Leagues with teams boasting heralded traditions and the talent to keep those traditions going.
Once the 2022 season got underway, talk of jumping the NCAA ship and even of further expansion has cooled. Fans of college football just want to watch games.
I wonder about those two super conferences. Are there any metrics that we can use to compare the two, where they stand at the midpoint of the season? Is there any evidence that I can marshal to indicate the supremacy of the Big Ten? Let’s see.
Head-to-head competition is the best way, of course, to weigh the relative strengths of the two conferences. But Big Ten teams rarely play SEC teams during the regular season. Postseason – bowl games and playoffs – is another story. In last year’s bowl season, for instance, SEC schools played against Big Ten foes in four bowl games and won three of them. Kentucky beat Iowa, Arkansas beat Penn State, Georgia beat Michigan, and Purdue beat Tennessee. Edge goes to the SEC.
This year? There has been only one inter-conference matchup. Penn State traveled to the loveliest village on the plains and beat Auburn, 41-12. I watched the game, and the announcers reported that it was the first visit to Auburn by any Big Ten team – ever. I suppose that, if we must include the incoming expansion teams, we might be willing to acknowledge Nebraska’s drubbing at the hands of the Oklahoma Sooners, 49-12. Really about the same margin as Penn State win. Advantage Big Ten. With Oklahoma, even.
SEC and Big Ten against non-conference opponents
A fairly good gauge of a conference’s depth are the bowl records of their teams. The sample is fairly large, and the competition is provided by decent, non-conference teams. When any .500 team gets an invite, it makes for a lot of teams from the super conferences.
At the end of the 2021 season, the Big Ten had 10 teams playing in bowls; the SEC 12. The Big Ten went 6-4, with Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Maryland, Purdue, and Minnesota registering wins. The SEC was 5-7. (I’m not counting the national championship game here, as it was not a “non-conference matchup.) The SEC might not be as deep down the ranks as is the Big Ten? Advantage Big Ten.
As for this season, we can add non-conference wins and losses here, but do we learn anything, especially when the caliber of competition in both conferences, is pretty low? A win against a ranked Notre Dame team surely counts more than beating Samford by 50. Keeping that in mind, here are the numbers. The SEC East is 19-2 against non-conference foes this year. South Carolina lost to Kansas State, and Vandy lost to Wake Forest. That’s it. In the West, the results are similar: 18-3. In addition to the Auburn loss, LSU lost to Florida State and Texas A&M lost to Appalachian State! Combined, the two divisions give the conference a record of 37-5.
The Big Ten, largely because of Northwestern and Nebraska, is 31-11 against opponents outside the Big Ten. But the Wildcats and ‘Huskers have five of those 11 losses. The stronger of the two B1G divisions – the East – sports an 18-3 record, on a par with the SEC divisions. Grudgingly, advantage SEC.
Quality or signature non-conference wins
Clearly, the top Big Ten wins in this category are Ohio State’s victory over Notre Dame 21-10 and Penn State’s win at Auburn. Illinois and Minnesota beat very weak Virginia and Colorado teams (beat them convincingly, however), and Rutgers had a narrow win against Boston College. Not a whole lot to brag about.
The SEC, I admit, has better wins. Georgia beat a highly ranked Oregon 49-3. Not a fluke. Florida beat Utah 29-26, A&M beat Miami (Florida) 17-9, and Tennessee beat Pitt by a touchdown. Bama squeaked by Texas, and Ole Miss clobbered Georgia Tech 42-0. All in all, better wins. Advantage SEC.
And, the SEC has fewer of these. Yes, Texas A&M lost to the Sun Belt’s App State. But that’s really the only embarrassment. The Big Ten, on the other hand, has a few, and they belong to Northwestern and Nebraska. Northwestern lost all three of its non-conference games, all at home. Duke, Southern Illinois, and Miami (Ohio) all came to Evanston, and all left as victors. Nebraska’s home loss to another Sun Belt team, Georgia Southern, cost Scott Frost his job. Finally. Advantage SEC.
2022 Team rankings and stats
The AP preseason college football poll placed six SEC teams in its top 25: Alabama (1), Georgia (3), Texas A&M (6), Arkansas (19), Kentucky (20), and Ole Miss (21). In the current poll, there are still six SEC teams, A&M and Arkansas replaced by Tennessee and Mississippi State. There were three top 10 teams in the preseason and four now: Georgia at No. 1, Bama No. 3, Tennessee No. 6, and Ole Miss No. 9.
Four Big Ten teams were in the preseason poll – Ohio State (2), Michigan (8), Michigan State (15), and Wisconsin (18). The Spartans and Badgers have struggled and dropped out of the rankings. But Penn State and Illinois have joined the Top 25, at No. 10 and No. 24. In terms of rankings, the advantage again goes to the SEC.
How do SEC and Big Ten teams fare in statistical categories? That’s a very interesting question. The SEC dominates total offense rankings, with five of its teams in the top 25, Tennessee (1), Georgia (4) and Alabama (7) all in the top 10. Only Ohio State at No. 2 and Minnesota at No. 13 represent the Big Ten in the top 25. Turn the ball around to defense, and you see just the opposite. The Big Ten has six teams in the top 25 in total defense, including No. 1 Minnesota and No. 3 Illinois. Michigan ranks fifth, Ohio State seventh, Iowa ninth, and Rutgers 14th. Alabama (6) and Georgia (8) are the only SEC teams in the top 25 in total defense. Each conference has two teams ranked in both categories.
Pretty even, but if we add offense and defense together, the Big Ten comes out ahead 8-7.
Before the season, the SEC looked to have skimmed the cream off the top with Texas and Oklahoma joining the league. The rich were getting richer. Texas looked to be an up and comer, seeking to renew its glory. Oklahoma has been consistently good and thinks of itself as a national championship contender.
But the Sooners now are in last place in the Big 12, with a conference record of 0-3. And they seem to be getting worse. They lost to K-State by seven but then fell to TCU by 31 and to Texas by 49! My, oh my. The Longhorns, on the other hand, are right there – or nearly right there. They lost to Bama by a single point and to Texas Tech by three in overtime. Close. But they’re 4-2 overall.
And the Big Ten newcomers? Well, both USC and UCLA are undefeated at 6-0. Granted, the Bruins beat South Alabama 32-31, but UCLA is currently ranked No. 11 in the AP poll, and the Trojans are sitting in No. 7. Both programs are on the rise, so the edge might actually go to the Big Ten here.
Since the national championship game was a rematch of the SEC Championship game last year, it’s (unfortunately) too early to be taking that league’s crown away. Let’s wait and see what the playoffs hold for us and what the head-to-head competition in the bowl games is this year.
I don’t think that Michigan or Penn State could handle Alabama, Georgia, or Tennessee this year. Ohio State could. But I see the SEC tougher at the top. As we go down the conference depth, however, the edge flips, I think, to the Big Ten. I certainly feel that Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue, Maryland, and (yes) Wisconsin could hold their own against middle-ranked SEC opponents. The other “power” conferences? Not even close.
Two super conferences. And with their TV money and fan bases, it looks to stay that way for quite a while.