In the era of the College Football Playoff, conference strength matters more than ever before.
As Tom Osborne, former Nebraska coach and a past member of the selection committee, noted entering the CFP's first season, “A lot of teams are going to be at the mercy of the strength of their conference.”
That’s because with eight or nine league games, the strength of a team’s conference has a huge impact on its strength of schedule and number of quality wins, which are both factors emphasized under the current playoff format.
Conference strength will also come into play when discussing which Power 5 conference (or conferences) will be left out and whether a conference is deserving of two teams making the field.
With that in mind, ESPN Stats & Information is bringing back its Conference Power Rankings.
What are the Conference Power Rankings?
Over the past six years ESPN Stats & Information has published weekly rankings of the FBS conferences during the college football season. The formula was originally crafted by then-analytics specialist Albert Larcada and has been adapted over the years.
In 2016, the formula equally weighs the Associated Press poll (including the others receiving votes section) and ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) to determine the strongest and weakest conferences in the country.
The AP poll is designed to measure the strength at the top of a conference, and FPI is intended to capture conference depth. The results are calculated on a 0-100 scale and are fairly fluid throughout the season.
SEC atop preseason rankings
After finishing behind the Big 12 in last year’s final conference power rankings, the SEC sits atop the initial 2016 ratings by a fairly wide margin.
The SEC leads all conferences with six teams ranked in the AP Poll, including four in the top 11. Even more striking, nine of the top 25 teams in ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) hail from the Southeastern Conference.
One factor contributing to the SEC’s rankings is its FBS-best 56-13 record in nonconference games last season. The SEC was particularly dominant during bowl season, going 9-2 with eight of its wins by double digits. The only win not by at least 10 points was Alabama’s 45-40 victory over Clemson to win the national title, which is certainly not a blemish on the conference’s résumé.
Looking ahead to this season, three of the eight most likely teams to win the national championship, according to Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, hail from the SEC.
However, we will learn a lot more about the true strength of the conference this year in Week 1. Seven SEC teams open the season against teams ranked in the top 40 of ESPN’s FPI, including five such games on the road or at a neutral site.
The rest of the Power 5 is tightly bunched
The other four Power 5 conferences are separated by fewer than four points in the Conference Power Rankings.
With two of the top four teams in the AP poll, the ACC ranks second behind the SEC in the part of the rankings that measures strength at the top. There are already suggestions that Clemson and Florida State can both make the playoff, but ultimately they will be at the mercy of others in the ACC to prove that their records are deserving of a playoff spot.
Looking beyond just national title contenders, the Pac-12 has the highest average FPI among non-SEC conferences. Unlike the ACC, the Pac-12 lacks an elite team (no teams in AP Top 7), but it has a lot of good teams and few weak links. If the Pac-12 ends up beating up on each other in conference play like many expect, its depth will be important to prove that it was more difficult to win the Pac-12 with two losses than another Power 5 conference with only one loss.
Looking ahead to Week 1
Kickoff weekend features a number of dream matchups between Power 5 programs. The ACC and SEC can each make monster statements in Week 1, while the Big 12 and Pac-12 also have marquee matchups that could make or break their season. There are too many good games to list, but here is a sample that will largely affect the conference power rankings next week:
• No. 3 Oklahoma vs No. 15 Houston (at NRG Stadium)
• No. 16 UCLA at Texas A&M
• No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin (at Lambeau Field)
• No. 18 Georgia vs. 22 UNC (at the Georgia Dome)
• No. 20 USC vs. No. 1 Alabama (at AT&T Stadium)
• No. 2 Clemson at Auburn
• No. 10 Notre Dame at Texas
• No. 11 Ole Miss vs. No. 4 Florida State (at Camping World Stadium)
Enjoy this weekend’s action and check back next week to see how the conference landscape has shifted.