Conference Rankings: 2018 Preseason

Submitted by 4roses on August 9th, 2018 at 1:41 PM

Recently I was listening to the Solid Verbal podcast and the hosts got into a brief discussion of conference strength. This happened during a conference preview show and while they didn’t spend too much time on the subject (they were more focused on specific team by team analysis) the time that was spent on it seemed to be a little too “gut level / touchy-feely” for my tastes. Specifically, Dan Rubenstein said that he felt the ACC was the strongest conference this year based on the fact that it has multiple “Top Tier” teams (Clemson, Miami, FSU) a deep middle class, and a lack of really bad bottom feeders (here’s looking at you Rutgers and Illinois). In general I don’t really have a major dispute with the points of this argument, but I do question how those points equate to strongest conference. So it got me thinking: why isn’t there some type of objective/stats-based conference ranking system? Since we have metrics like FEI and S&P+ that rank all 130 teams you’d think it would be pretty easy to take those numbers and determine a conference ranking. Well, either my googling skills are pretty bad - in which case please feel free to skip the rest of this and just drop down to the comments and blast away - or no one has taken the time to do the work. So, here is my attempt to do some work.


As I pondered the best way to turn either FEI or S&P+ into a conference ranking one of the first things that came to mind was utilizing a cross-country style scoring system. For those not familiar, a cross country meet is scored by giving the 1st place finisher 1 point, the 2nd place finisher 2 points, 3rd place 3 three points, etc. Each team’s 5 fastest runners are scored and the lowest overall score wins the meet. One issue in using this type of system is deciding how many teams would be included in a conference’s score. Using only the top 5 (a la cross country) would tell you which conference is strongest at the top but I don’t think many people would argue that is the best way to measure conferences. Using all teams in a conference is problematic due to the differing sizes of conferences. The other drawback of the cross country style system is that “margin of victory” is not captured (i.e. being 30 seconds faster than the guy behind you counts the same as being 1 second faster). As I was pondering this second fact the obvious hit me – why not just use the damn numbers? So that is what I did.


I decided to use S&P+ as the basis for the ranking, simply because it’s available in a 2018 pre-season form. Not sure on the schedule for updating FEI, but as of now it is only available for the 2017 Season and before. Once FEI ratings come out I will probably do something similar for that system as well. Ranking the conferences by S&P+ was a simple matter of calculating the average of all the teams – I think??? I’m no Nate Silver Ed Feng so perhaps I’m making it too simple, but given that a team’s S&P+ rating effectively measures how many point better they are than an average team, averaging this “points total” over a group of teams seems to be pretty sound. Once again, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. So what do the numbers say?



Table 1 – 2018 Preseason S&P+ By Conference








Takeaways / Observations / Random Musings

  • The SEC comes out ahead pretty clearly. Shouldn’t be a big surprise, though there’s probably a few of us that thought the Big Ten would be higher. One through five (OSU through Wisconsin) the Big Ten is actually better than the SEC (20.3 vs. 20.2), but after that . . . not so much. Interesting that after the SEC the other four conferences are pretty closely grouped. I think this is an excellent example of why a ranked list of five teams is so silly.   
  • Similar story in the divisional battle of Big Ten East vs. SEC West, though those two divisions are clearly the cream of the crop. The ACC Atlantic isn’t too far behind. All the other divisions are well behind those three. Big Ten West??? Woof.
  • My biggest take away from looking at this? UCF needs to STFU. Holy HELL is there a gap between the power 5 and the group of 5. If ever you were looking for a reason to create a separate division of football for the top 60+ teams this is it. We have two distinct groups here with a clear delineation between them.     





August 9th, 2018 at 3:22 PM ^

UCF can talk all they want about last season and can continue to talk if they played the way they did last year. They beat Auburn for crying out loud. Alabama can't even claim that.

The best of the group of five usually can beat a top team. Houston beat #3 Oklahoma, #5 Louisville, and #9 Florida State in a two-year span. Boise State has beaten a number of big-name teams in the last twelve years, too: #7 Oklahoma, #17 Oregon, #16 Oregon, #4 TCU, #10 Virginia Tech, #24 Oregon State, #19 Utah, #19 Georgia, and #10 Arizona.


August 9th, 2018 at 7:13 PM ^

UCF can talk all they want, but there is a difference between playing 1 legit team all year (in a bowl game) and playing 6 or so legit teams in a year inside of a conference with bigger and more physical teams that wear you down.

Alabama's season was more impressive, period.  UCF went undefeated so they can brag, but come on.

Look at the UCF schedule this year compared to Michigan's using ESPN's FPI.

UCF's 5 toughest games:
@#47 UNC
@#49 Memphis
#55 Pittsburgh
@#65 South Florida
#68 Florida Atlantic

Michigan's 5 toughest games:
@#4 Ohio State
@#6 Notre Dame
#9 Penn State
@#10 MSU
#12 Wisconsin

Hypothetically, if at the end of the 2018 regular season we have 1 loss but win our conference and UCF is undefeated, we 100% deserve the playoff spot over UCF.  100%.


August 9th, 2018 at 3:37 PM ^

UCF needs to STFU based on their last 2 games before Auburn.  They obviously beat Auburn, who beat the national champs, but who knows how much Auburn was invested in that game.  Against USF and Memphis, UCF couldn't get a stop to save their lives.

Third Butler

August 11th, 2018 at 10:11 AM ^

The ACC being the strongest conference is a pretty bold take. Clemson is the only team in the conference that is truly elite. Miami was good last year but struggled against elite teams like Clemson and Wisconsin. FSU was not great last year and is a mystery headed into the 2018. VaTech could be really good if Jackson takes his game up another level, but doesn't quite have the pieces to be an elite team. The conference has depth but only has a couple real CFP contenders.

Ali G Bomaye

August 13th, 2018 at 10:49 AM ^

Sports Reference has Simple Rating System and strength of schedule rankings for all conferences on its season summary page for each season:

It's not as advanced or granular as FEI or S&P+, but it provides a pretty decent snapshot of conference strength for any given season, and it's also useful because it can be used for seasons before play-by-play or drive-by-drive stats are available.


August 13th, 2018 at 11:58 AM ^

I am clueless on what we would name them, but I am fully in favor of splitting D1 into 3 divisions. You would have the current FCS as the lowest division (let's call them 1-C). The current FBS would be divided into 2 sections of teams (let's call the lower 1-B and the higher 1-A). My guess is that the NCAA would do this by pulling the Power 5 conferences up and pushing the Group of 5 down, but this is my comment and I'm going to shake things up a bit. In a bit of cream skimming, the NCAA selects the top 48 teams by S&P+ to form the new 1-A with the remaining 82 making up 1-B (I know the numbers there are messy, but we can adjust 1-C and 1-B later).

Division 1-A will be split into 4 regions, with teams grouped together geographically as opposed to by conference affiliations. This will decrease travel for all fan bases and should keep most historic rivalries together. Each year, all teams will have 1 non-divisional game and play each of the other 11 teams in their region. The top team in each region qualifies for the Playoff, except now there's no committee to screw it up. If expansion of the playoff is desired, you simply grab the next x number of teams in each division (for 8 team, top 2 advance, etc.). On its face, lots of people will bemoan lower tier schools being shut out. But I'm also a soccer fan and I have your answer (to everyone's chagrine). PRO-REL!

The bottom performing 2 teams in each region (you can expand or contract this to your heart's desire) is dropped to 1-B each year with a corresponding number of teams brought up (1-B will also have a championship tournament in my head and the final 8 would get promoted). After each promotion, the regions get reshuffled (because 4 new southeast-ish teams would not need to be playing Oregon and Stanford every year) and the fight begins anew. It makes every game worthwhile, recruiting more important, and it gives smaller schools opportunities to win titles (at 1-B) and overachieve into powerhouses (Boise State?). I know this is a long and convoluted comment, but would love feedback.