Week 14 College Football Conference Power Rankings
Trying to rank the conferences this late in the year is a lose-lose proposition: Either bowl season proves you right, in which case everything you said was "obvious," or bowl season proves you wrong, in which case you look like a moron.
But I guess I have a death wish. After 13 weeks of play, every team and league in America has shown me enough from which to draw conclusions, so why not go out on a limb and try to draw them?
We'll learn a lot about the ACC and SEC when Clemson and South Carolina square off this weekend, though far less will be learned when Florida State travels to the Swamp. Still, this is merely an appetizer for bowl season.
Once the rubber meets the road in the next six weeks, all bets are off.
11. Sun Belt
Three Best Teams: UL-Lafayette, Arkansas State, Western Kentucky
Louisiana-Lafayette essentially clinched the conference when it beat Arkansas State in October. Now, in order not to win, the Ragin' Cajuns would need to lose their next two games.
A road trip to South Alabama in a couple of weeks might prove tricky, as the Jaguars have played decent football all season. But with UL-Monroe in shambles, Lafayette should be able to clinch the division this weekend at home.
This conference definitely feels the effect of realignment, having lost Middle Tennessee State and North Texas from a year ago. With those teams—both of which have overachieved this season—in tow, the Sun Belt would be semi-respectable.
As it stands...well, it's not.
Three Best Teams: Northern Illinois, Ball State, Bowling Green
The MAC has five legitimately decent-to-good teams, all of which should be capable of performing well in a bowl game this year. In addition to the three listed above, Buffalo and Toledo have both proven adept.
But beyond that top five, things get ugly fast. Like, really ugly fast. The MAC is home to some of the nation's absolute dregs, something even its staunchest supporter could not deny.
With no discernible middle tier, it's hard to value this conference higher than No. 10. UMass, Miami (OH) and the triad of "Directional Michigans" are all bad enough to offset what's good about this league.
Three Best Teams: East Carolina, Marshall, Rice
East Carolina and Marshall will square off with the East division at stake this Friday—a game that should not be taken lightly on a national scale. Those two teams would both be able to hang in a major conference, and they each proved it in non-conference play.
The Pirates and Herd both lost games they could have won against Virginia Tech, while the former has beaten North Carolina and North Carolina State on the road this season. Shane Carden and Justin Hardy are a QB-WR duo that could match up with anyone.
But what makes C-USA extra special this year is its deceptive depth. Each division has four semi-capable teams at the top (eight total), which is far more than expected back in August.
Three Best Teams: Notre Dame, BYU, Navy
If you stop after just three teams, the FBS Independents don't look half bad. Notre Dame, BYU and Navy all represent this non-league fairly well.
But every other Independent team is a train wreck. The "conference" has just seven members, which means that more than half of its teams are awful.
Old Dominion got mercy-ruled at North Carolina last week, allowing 80 points in three quarters against a team using its backup quarterback, then needing to cut the game short to avoid the ignominy of ceding triple digits.
Even in an FBS transition year, that deserves to be punished.
Three Best Teams: Fresno State, Utah State, Boise State
According to the Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings, Fresno State is actually just the third-best team in its own conference, despite boasting an undefeated record.
That, however, isn't exactly a credit to the league; it's more of an indictment of the Bulldogs. They are playing their best football of the season right now, but earlier, their record was not indicative of their quality.
Despite losing do-it-all quarterback Chuckie Keeton, Utah State has stayed afloat for most of the year. The Aggies will likely get a shot at Fresno State in the conference championship game, and they have a defense capable of giving Derek Carr some problems.
Don't sleep on that as a potential upset.
Three Best Teams: Louisville, UCF, Cincinnati
If Louisville and UCF played 10 times on a neutral field, something tells me the Cardinals would win seven or eight. But none of that matters (and rightfully so) in college football; the Knights took advantage of their shot—at Louisville, no less—and now they appear headed to a BCS bowl.
This is the last year where the AAC will be considered a BCS league, and that seems fair. With woeful teams like Temple, UConn and South Florida weighing it down, it's hard to compare the American with any power conference.
Fortunately, thanks to the likes of Louisville and UCF, its one year with an automatic BCS berth will not necessarily yield a worthless opponent. Both of those teams would (and will) represent well on the big stage.
5. Big 12
Three Best Teams: Oklahoma State, Baylor, Oklahoma
Unlike the ACC and Big Ten—its two most similar comparisons—the Big 12 no longer has a dog in the national title fight, which helps explain its ranking at No. 5.
Despite its dreadful game in Stillwater, Baylor is still one of the 10 best teams in college football. The Cowboys exposed it as overrated, sure, but not necessarily as bad.
Beyond Oklahoma State and Baylor, though, this league suffers a serious drop-off. Oklahoma is a deeply flawed No. 3 team, Texas Tech and Kansas State both appear to be a year away and Texas is a program in flux.
There's simply not enough depth for this league to be ranked any higher, even with an impressive top two teams. Five feels like the right spot.
Three Best Teams: Florida State, Clemson, [Insert Your Best Guess]
The ACC is better from top to bottom than the Big 12—which is why it ranks higher—but at least the Big 12 knows which its third-best team is. Beyond FSU and Clemson, there is a pack of nearly six teams that could all make the case.
Virginia Tech has the highest ceiling, but who knows which team will show up on any given week? Miami is in a bona fide tailspin. Duke has the best record and the inside track to the conference championship game, but it's also...well, Duke.
In fact, the actual third-best team in the ACC might be Duke's forthcoming opponent: North Carolina. After starting 1-5, the Tar Heels have ripped off five consecutive wins, and they just mercy-ruled Old Dominion last Saturday.
Duke is 9-2 and would win the Coastal Division with a win over UNC this weekend, but it's still almost a touchdown underdog. That says everything you need to know about this year's ACC.
3. Big Ten
Three Best Teams: Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin
The Big Ten is a perennial punching bag, most often because fans of other conferences are sick of seeing Ohio State—which they believe to be overrated—go undefeated, and they need some sort of coping mechanism to explain how that happens.
Some of the criticism lobbed at the B1G is fair. The brand of football is ugly, and the teams are unapologetic about playing that way. Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State are all down. This league is not as good as it once was, nor as good as it could be.
But in a vacuum, if you look solely at the top three teams, you could make an argument for the Big Ten over every single conference in America. If Ohio State finishes the year with zero losses, those who call it "untested" must not have watched a single Wisconsin or Michigan State game all year.
That top-end quality, when combined with the semi-competitiveness of every team besides Purdue, makes the Big Ten an easy choice over the Big 12 and ACC.
Three Best Teams: Stanford, Arizona State, Oregon
The Pac-12 enjoyed a two-week run atop the rankings before dropping back down to No. 2—but I suspect it might make a return trip some time before the end of the season.
Week 1 allusions are hardly fair to make this late into the season, but it does bear mentioning that Washington State—which is 4-4 in the Pac-12—came this close to beating one-loss Auburn on the Plains to start the year.
To that point, I sincerely do think that the Pac-12 is stronger than the SEC from top to bottom. Other than Cal and Colorado, all 10 teams are capable of playing at a very high level, which is more than can be said of the Southeastern Conference.
But at the very top, this year's Pac-12 cannibalized itself a little bit too much for my liking. Too many holes have been exposed in Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State while teams like Alabama and Missouri have been dominant at (almost) all times.
This one is too close to call. For now, the Pac-12 is back at No. 2, but this is a very fluid situation.
Three Best Teams: Alabama, Missouri, South Carolina
Call me a hater if you must, but I still can't buy Auburn as one of the 10 best teams in America. I hope it makes a believer of me on Saturday—sincerely, I do—but for now, I still think the Tigers are fifth-best in the SEC.
Being fifth-best in the SEC, of course, is not such a bad thing. This conference is just as deep as ever, even if it's not as stacked at the top. Still, Auburn's signature wins this season came over Texas A&M (woof) and on a lucky heave against Georgia.
But I'll digress. The SEC moves back into the No. 1 spot this week because it has Alabama. Unlike the Pac-12, which probably has more good teams from top to bottom, the SEC still has a great one.
When two leagues are this even, little things like that become the tiebreaker. But hold on to your hats because a lot can change come bowl season.