Considering Alabama had played one game in the past month-plus leading up to the title game, the whole “Did the SEC grind wear Alabama down heading into the national title game?” line of questioning that emerged from this year’s media days circuit was mostly nonsense.
That said, so was Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s response.
“Listen, the SEC is a great conference, but I don’t think they’ve been as deep the last few years. I think they’ve had two or three really good teams and then it’s kind of been hit or miss from there,” Swinney told ESPN. He also suggested the ACC was a deeper conference overall.
Not so fast, my friend.
In 2016, when the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide for the first time in the CFP title game, these comments would have been more than fair. That year, the ACC’s average SP+ rating of 10.7 was the best in the country, ahead of the SEC (10.2) by a half-point per team. (For a full explainer of SP+ and this year’s preseason 1-130 rankings, click here.)
In 2018, that was very much not the case. Florida State and Louisville collapsed. North Carolina did not rebound as planned. Syracuse won 10 games with an SP+ ranking of just 40th. From first in SP+ two years before, the ACC went to dead last among power conferences in average SP+ rating, even below the maligned Pac-12.
The SEC, meanwhile, surged. LSU took a step forward, and Florida, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State all flashed massive upside (and, yes, occasional downside) in their head coaches’ respective first seasons. The league as a whole graded out stronger than it had in four seasons. The “SEC grind?” argument may have been silly, but the SEC was the better league by far last season.
This year, the gap should close at least a hair, but it’s clear which league again starts out on top.
FBS conferences ranked by average projected SP+ rating
1. SEC (18.0, down 0.6 from 2018)
2. Big Ten (8.4, up 0.6)
3. Big 12 (6.9, down 0.9)
4. Pac-12 (6.7, up 0.6)
5. ACC (6.5, up 1.2)
6. AAC (-3.2, down 0.2)
7. MWC (-3.2, down 2.4)
8. Sun Belt (-7.7, down 0.1)
9. MAC (-9.8, down 0.5)
10. Conference USA (-10.8, down 0.5)
The biggest thing the SEC has going for it this year: The SEC East is no longer filled with dead weight. Florida is a top-10 caliber team, Missouri and South Carolina have top-20 potential, and Tennessee is a prime second-year leap candidate. In fact, the season starts with the East projected as the second-best division overall.
Power conference divisions ranked by average projected SP+ rating:
1. SEC West
2. SEC East
3. Big Ten East
4. ACC Atlantic
5. Pac-12 North
6. Big Ten West
7. Pac-12 South
8. ACC Coastal
(The Big 12 has no divisions, but the conference as a whole grades out about even with the Big Ten West.)
If Tennessee disappoints (and it’s both fair and obvious to note that the Volunteers have failed to live up to projections plenty of times recently), or if Florida falls into a sophomore slump in Dan Mullen’s second season, then the SEC East will fall back to earth pretty quickly. Still, the SEC is in better shape heading into a season than it has been in a while. And yet, Alabama is still projected to cruise to a title.
Here’s a look at what SP+ win projections — not including Week Zero games — have to say about conference title races, primary story lines and more.
When you’ve got the top two divisions in the sport, you’re probably going to own the strength of schedule rankings, too. The SEC catches hell at times for the fact that it maintains eight-game conference schedules when other conferences have moved to nine and, as a whole, doesn’t have the reputation for aggressive nonconference scheduling. Well, guess what? When the league is this good, SEC teams still end up with the hardest schedules on average.
Compared to the conventional wisdom that preseason polls provide, the two biggest outliers here are Mississippi State and Missouri. That can mostly be explained by where those teams finished last year. Despite 8-5 records, the Bulldogs and Tigers finished eighth and 12th in SP+, respectively. They were 2-5 against SP+ top-10 teams and 14-5 against everyone else. They both have quarterbacks to replace (and incoming transfers at the position who could prop them up), but overall roster continuity is solid, and they’re each only projected to fall a smidge.
Ole Miss and Virginia each have projected ratings of 8.5. In the ACC, that earns the Cavaliers a 95% chance of bowl eligibility. For the Rebels, it’s 48%.
There are three teams projected to win between 6 and 7 conference games in the East: Ohio State (7), Michigan (6.6), and Penn State (6). That could once again be a pretty spectacular race to follow.
SP+ and FPI agree about most teams, but SP+ is far more bullish on Ohio State and Wisconsin than FPI is. At seventh, the Buckeyes are six spots higher in SP+, with a projected win total 1.1 wins higher. The Badgers: a whopping 24 spots and 2.3 wins higher.
I maintain that while the Big Ten West might not have a national title contender, it has more fascinating subplots than any other division. Wisconsin and Iowa are both stalwarts projected in the Top 25, and Minnesota and Nebraska are both potential upstarts that the numbers haven’t completely bought into yet. Purdue’s still got top-50 potential despite turnover, and the perpetually numbers-defying Northwestern could defy the numbers again. Toss those six teams into the air, and whichever order they land in wouldn’t be all that surprising.
Michigan’s finally got a shot at breaking through, winning the Big Ten and competing for the national title, but the Wolverines still have to navigate through the second-hardest schedule in the conference. Only poor Maryland faces a tougher slate.
Oklahoma is projected first overall on offense and still only 63rd on defense. Cornerback Tre Norwood’s season-ending camp injury does not help instill confidence. If there’s any sort of drop-off with Jalen Hurts at QB — if, for instance, the Sooners merely rank about 10th on offense — then this conference race gets messy in a hurry. A Lincoln Riley offense gets the benefit of the doubt, but the Sooners must continue to produce otherworldly numbers on offense.
Yes, Texas is 31st. FPI has the Longhorns just 26th, too. Tom Herman’s propensity for overachieving in big games but underachieving in the smaller ones leaves his teams ripe for upsets and forever drags them down from a numbers perspective. Texas fans have spent the offseason yelling things like “Yeah, we only beat Tulsa by a touchdown, but we physically dominated them! We were never threatened!” That’s great. Clemson and Alabama would have beaten Tulsa by 48 without turning to the second page of the playbook. To look like title contenders, Texas has to treat every game like a Big Game, not just two or three. Can they? Obviously. But they haven’t yet under Herman.
Oklahoma State might be the most underappreciated team in the country right now. The Cowboys were basically Texas last year, going 4-1 against SP+ top-35 teams and falling by just one point at Oklahoma. The difference: They underachieved even worse than the Longhorns against the lesser opponents. Against a much lighter schedule (strength of schedule ranking: 57th vs. Texas’ 27th), the Pokes’ win total might have a higher ceiling than Texas’ this year. And even if you grant that Texas should be the consensus No. 2 team in the conference, OSU seems to have as good a claim for the No. 3 spot as Iowa State.
West Virginia has finished with more wins than Texas Tech for five straight years, but the combination of returning production and schedule strength could end that streak as each team breaks in a new head coach this year.
The Pac-12’s average projected rating is higher than the ACC’s, but the difference between the conferences is obvious: Only one has a clear national title contender. We can talk ourselves into Oregon’s potential, and with sketchy schedule strength and top-20 projections, neither Washington nor Utah are that far from a run to 11-1 or so. Still, while the Pac-12 has more top-20 teams (three vs. the ACC’s two), it doesn’t have a Clemson.
The conference does boast three of the most mysterious teams in the country: USC, Stanford and UCLA. If Graham Harrell’s new USC offense clicks, the Trojans are suddenly a top-15 team. We all know it’s possible. Meanwhile, Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello is breaking in a new receiving corps (which results in the middling projection), but if the Cardinal can find efficiency via either run or pass, that could set them up for success with a defense that I think will end up higher than its No. 43 projection. As for Chip Kelly — I maintain that this is either a top-30 team or a bottom-50 team, nowhere in between.
Goodness, Oregon State’s got a mountain to climb.
No one in the Atlantic is within 3.3 projected conference wins of Clemson. The Tigers would have to underachieve by a couple of wins for this to even maybe become a race.
The Coastal, however, is as potentially wild as ever. Miami, Virginia Tech and Virginia are all within one projected conference win over each other. The edge there goes to the Hurricanes, both because of a higher rating and home games against both Virginia schools, but this could easily become a slog.
Syracuse is projected to fall, in part because of the loss of quarterback Eric Dungey. But it’s hard not to feel optimistic about the Orange, both because of the star power they return on defense (pass-rushers Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman, safety Andre Cisco) and because of the pedigree of new starting QB Tommy DeVito.
It’s a bad year for Georgia Tech to have the hardest schedule in the ACC.
It’s hard to consider Notre Dame a contender to make a repeat College Football Playoff bid this year because of a schedule that features trips to Georgia and Michigan. But with a top-30 SOS, the Irish are just one upset away from having a pretty compelling résume if they finish 11-1.
Army has figured out a way to game SP+ to a degree — the Black Knights’ ability to avoid worrying about third-down conversions by converting every fourth down screwed with the way I measure efficiency — but even at 85th, they’re projected to have another big year. The schedule provides lots of easy wins, and they do still have an upset shot at Michigan in Week 2.
If we treat 2017’s brief collapse as an outlier, BYU has settled into a nice top-50 or so groove during its time as an independent. Is that enough? Are the Cougars ever going to be capable of more?
American Athletic Conference
The AAC slipped behind the MWC in the hierarchy last year but could end up the top Group of 5 conference again this year, especially if Houston, a team ripe for overachieving its projections (new coach, high-end QB, moving on past last year’s end-of-season malaise), actually does so. I could easily see the Coogs playing at a top-50 level at the very least.
Look out for Memphis, y’all. UCF is the conference king until proven otherwise, but the Tigers are experienced and explosive, even without star running back Darrell Henderson. And after three straight close calls, they could actually figure out how to take down the Knights one of these days.
The 2018 season was the MWC’s best in a while, with Fresno State and Utah State hitting historical peaks and Boise State continuing to play like Boise State. The Bulldogs and Aggies are both projected to fall back to the pack, however, which could make the conference weaker as a whole — but also make the West division race all sorts of intriguing. Fresno State and San Diego State are projected close together, and I’m intrigued about Nevada’s, Hawaii’s, and UNLV’s potential for exceeding projections at least a bit.
The Mountain could be less intriguing. Unless Boise suffers some new-QB issues or Utah State star quarterback Jordan Love is able to thrive with an entirely new set of personnel around him, the Broncos are the clear and obvious favorite. Look for a rebound from Colorado State — the Rams were crazy-young and severely banged up last fall — but I’m not sure about how much of one.
SP+ is not (yet) programmed to take coaching changes into account, so the view of Appalachian State is as if Scott Satterfield were still in charge there. You tend to regress toward the mean a bit with a new coach, so it’s probably going to be pretty hard for the Mountaineers to maintain top-30 status. They’re such heavily projected favorites here, though, that they have quite a bit of margin for error.
Most interesting name here: Texas State. The Bobcats enjoy massive continuity and were close to a breakthrough under former head coach Everett Withers. Can that breakthrough come anyway with Jake Spavital now in charge?
First-year coaching effects could play a role in the MAC race, too, as the top projected team — the extremely high-continuity Northern Illinois Huskies — are undergoing a culture change of their own after losing Rod Carey to Temple. Toledo’s schedule gives the Rockets the slightest of edges in the West division, but with three of the top four teams in the West, that might make Ohio, with star QB Nathan Rourke, your MAC favorite.
It’s a measure-the-depth-of-the-fall year for Buffalo and head coach Lance Leipold. The offense got wrecked by attrition, but the run game and defense could still make the Bulls a conference contender. And if Miami ever figures out how to win close games — the ultra-conservative Chuck Martin is an incredible 7-20 in one-score finishes in his five years in Oxford — the Redhawks are contenders, too.
C-USA stole some programs from the Sun Belt back during conference realignment, but it was pretty easily inferior on the field last year. For one thing, it stole the wrong programs (maybe should have gone after App. State!); for another, the bottom of this league was absolutely horrible. Four of the nine worst teams in FBS are projected to play in the C-USA this year.
That said, the worst conference could also have the best conference race. C-USA has six teams projected between 71st and 90th and seven with a projected conference win total between 4.6 and 5.8. Hell, there are four between 5.7 and 5.8! Just about every week of conference play will feature an important game. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Well, I guess you could ask for better overall quality. But still.