In the media, NCAA conference superiority is not always determined by head-to-head competition. “I don’t know that it will make a difference,” lamented Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson after the ACC went 4-0 head-to-head with the SEC on a Saturday in 2014. “We’ll (the Atlantic Coast Conference) probably have to do it consistently, 2 or 3 more times before someone pays attention.”
But last season, AP voters and the CFP committee seemed to have put more stock in conference vs. conference beat-downs than head-to-head clashes of conference rivals. The #5-seeded Penn State clonked Ohio State in a November match-up, but finished outside of the Top 4, while the Buckeyes got a playoff bid. When Notre Dame lost to Texas in double OT on September 4th, ESPN immediately pronounced both teams still in the hunt for a major bowl (funny how that turned out).
Meanwhile, the committee allowed inter-conference results to affect the pecking order of ranked teams. When Ohio State beat Oklahoma by 3 touchdowns early in the year, the Big Ten became superior to the Big 12 in the eyes of pollsters.
Here’s our list of the Top 3 FBS conferences of 2016 as well as 2 honorable mentions:
1. Big Ten
The champion (Penn State) did not make the CFP, but 4 teams from the legendary conference were given serious consideration. OSU, PSU, Wisconsin, and Michigan lobbied in or near the top 10 all season. With teams like Nebraska and Iowa adding to the meat grinder, there wasn’t a more challenging schedule in FBS football than that of a Big Ten team.
The Southeastern Conference boasted of having the #1 ranked team in the country, and maybe one of the greatest college defenses of all time in the 2016-17 Alabama Crimson Tide. But the LSU Tigers lost to Wisconsin to start the season, and Texas A&M was a disappointment yet again. Having the best team means that the SEC had the highest ceiling, but not the overall best lineup of programs.
The ACC quietly put out a national championship hopeful in Clemson. Meanwhile, Louisville was a similar squad with a similar Heisman-candidate QB in Lamar Jackson, and they lost to the Tigers by only 3 points. Florida State, North Carolina, and Coastal division-winner Virginia Tech fielded strong bowl teams, and Georgia Tech won Clean Old Fashioned Hate with a marvelous 4th-quarter comeback to topple Georgia in Athens.
PAC-12 – The Washington Huskies had a national title bid, and USC was in the conversation for the most talented team in the FBS. That was a pretty good turn-around for a conference whose marquee program (Oregon) was in a tailspin and which spent most of the season being called weak.
American Athletic Conference – Navy beat Notre Dame for the 2nd time in 3 years, but Houston was the most talented team in the AAC once again. Distracted by former head coach Tom Herman’s bowl-season flight to Texas, the Cougars fell apart at season’s end- but not before they established their division’s strength by soundly whipping 2 Power-5 big shots, Oklahoma and Louisville.