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October 24, 2007 Close behind the BCS debate and related to that, the endless debate about which conference is the best in Division I college football is a great topic of discussion around our sport. The problem with the debate is that nobody really knows who is best until out-of-conference play and bowl games, which is a very small sample size to determine such things. As if the sample size were not problem enough, the conferences shift in quality over time and things like the Big East going from worst BCS conference to top 2 conferences can happen in a couple short years. Nevertheless, the debate has merit this year as parity rears its ugly head across all conferences. The only way poll voters know which two teams to put in the BCS Championship is by comparing schedules and therefore comparing conferences. The question at hand is whether the SEC is really the best conference in football or just a mire of mediocrity?

The first indicator of conference strength is the previous season’s bowl record. Usually a lot of new players get a chance with over a month’s preparation to get into these games and begin fighting the battle for the next season. Of the BCS conferences in 2006-07, the far and away best performance was the Big East, which went 5-0 including 1-0 in BCS games. The SEC comes in next at 6-3, with a 2-0 record in BCS games including the national title. The Pac-10 compiled a 3-3 overall record and a 1-0 BCS record. The ACC surprisingly came in fourth, with a 4-4 overall record and an 0-1 BCS mark. The Big XII struggled quite a bit, but avoided last place with a 3-5 record, 0-1 in the BCS. Bringing up the rear was the Big Ten, which was likely hurt by both its good teams going to the highest BCS battles, but finished 2-5 overall and 0-2 in those BCS games.

This explains why going into the 2007 season, most experts continue to have the SEC alongside the Big East as the best conferences in college football. While a bowl season can be a good indicator of future talent, many good teams must reload and lose a lot of talent. Perhaps a better indicator of the best conference should come from the limited evidence we receive in out-of-conference play.

Here’s how the 2007 out-of-conference records to date shape up:

1. Big Ten (32-8 overall, 9-4 vs. BCS)
2. SEC (30-6 overall, 5-5 vs. BCS)
3. Big XII (36-11 overall, 5-6 vs. BCS)
4. Pac-10 (21-8 overall, 6-4 vs. BCS)
5. ACC (31-12 overall, 9-9 vs. BCS)
6. Big East (28-11 overall, 7-8 vs. BCS)

These reports conflict significantly from the bowl season results. The bowl results created three tiers of conferences, with tier 1 including Big East and SEC, tier 2 being ACC and Pac-10, and tier 3 having the Big XII and Big Ten. When looking at the out-of-conference this season, the results and tiers of teams change. Now the Big Ten is the top tier, while the SEC and Big XII create a second tier, and the Pac-10, ACC, and Big East are a very close third tier. Putting that all together into one more manageable listing, the conferences from strongest to weakest are: (1) SEC, (2) Big Ten, (3) Big East, (4) Big XII, (5) Pac-10, and (6) ACC. The Big Ten and Big East are interchangeable and the bottom three teams are also too close to call. By all statistical measures, the SEC is indeed the toughest conference in college football.

Despite these calculations, it still seems wrong to assume that any one-loss SEC team is better than any other one-loss team. Yet that is the perception, and the only good news for other conferences is that the SEC is beating on each other a lot this season. Only LSU has fewer than two losses already, and they should arguably have a second loss also. No matter what your favorite team or conference is, it doesn’t make sense how the SEC is praised for beating up on each other while other conferences are called mediocre and weak for the same thing. The mystique of the SEC just does not add up, as those teams lose just as many bowl games and out-of-conference games as any other major conference. They do have a nice number of good programs that usually get bowl-eligible, but the dregs of the league are as bad or worse than those in other conferences (Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Mississippi). Every conference is the same in my view, and any bad team in any BCS conference can beat the best teams because you just know how to beat a team better when you play them every year.

This goes back to my point from three weeks ago, that going undefeated in a BCS conference (and to a lesser extent, non-BCS conferences) is harder than anything else, no matter who you play. Therefore I vote Hawaii and Kansas over LSU currently. While LSU may be able to beat those teams on a neutral field, there’s no debating that winning teams such as Boise State in 2006 can get the job done against seemingly insurmountable odds. If there’s anything this season has taught us, it is that nobody can take a game for granted. If LSU takes care of running the table, they will almost certainly be in the championship against the last remaining undefeated team or another one-loss club. Also note that the SEC conference schedule is heavily weighted in October, while all these other conferences and contenders get their tougher battles more in November. It will all wash out in the end, but that’s where I stand now. The SEC is the best conference in America, but not by as much as experts say (and the Big Ten is not awful at all).

Moving on to the games of the week, it is tough to leave out the West Virginia at Rutgers game, but I must. The winner of that game becomes the favorite for the conference crown, and the Mountaineers could stay in the BCS Championship hunt with a tough road victory. Nevertheless, the first game of the week is USC at Oregon. Now the Trojans finally get some tough road games this season, and this game becomes an elimination game as far as the Pac-10 title and BCS title scene go. Both teams have been touched by injury, most notably Oregon RB Jeremiah Johnson and USC QB John David Booty. Oregon has been unstoppable so far this season with dual threat QB Dennis Dixon leading the way. The Trojan defense is a strong unit overall though, and should be able to limit Dixon’s efficiency as long as the defensive line keeps Dixon in a pocket. Trojan QB Mark Sanchez has looked good so far, but he will be under more pressure than usual in Autzen Stadium. With the wildfires in southern California as another distraction this week and the poor play against the most awful teams in the Pac-10, it seems that this road game is too much for USC. Expect a close game, but Oregon pulls it out in the fourth quarter by 10.

The other two games of the week are the first true tough road tests for the top two teams in the country. On Thursday night, Boston College returns to ACC play after four straight weeks of non-conference play with a 7-0 record. Unfortunately for the Eagles, the destination is Blacksburg, VA, and the Virginia Tech Hokies will be more than ready. The Hokies have been playing on emotion all season and have rolled to a 6-1 record, the only blemish being an absolute mauling by LSU in Louisiana. Boston College creates even more problems for the Hokie defense, with QB Matt Ryan putting up ridiculously good numbers while RB Andre Callender has given defenses something else to worry about. Boston College’s defense is the best in the nation against the running game, and Virginia Tech has struggled thus far to establish a running game. This could be very problematic for the rotating Hokie quarterbacks Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor. Magical things just happen in Blacksburg, and one or two special teams breaks could make this one interesting. Boston College continues the bad luck of #2 teams in the country, falling in this one by 3.

The top game of the week is the Saturday night showdown, Ohio State at Penn State. The Buckeyes have thoroughly dominated every opponent this season, and it all comes from one of the two best defensive units in the country (tied with LSU). Still, the pressure of being number 1 and one minute of offensive meltdown (2 turnovers returned for TD and almost a third when a fumble recovery flubbed by 3 Spartans) last week against Michigan State are worrisome. Also Happy Valley is the one place in the Big Ten where wins are hard to come by for the Bucks, going 1-4 in their last 5 battles there. Each team has very similar offensive threats and statistics, but the Buckeye defense is a lot better than the Nittany Lions have seen. Still, this game looks like another cold night in Happy Valley, and another low scoring game should ensue. Penn State just finds a way to win those games, so I think both top undefeated teams go down this weekend. Nittany Lions win by 2.

GOTW Record to Date: 15-12 (.556)
Last Week: 2-1

Fitz Top 10 – Week 8
1. Ohio State (8-0)
2. Boston College (7-0)
3. Kansas (7-0)
4. Arizona State (7-0)
5. Hawaii (7-0)
6. LSU (7-1)
7. Oregon (6-1)
8. Oklahoma (7-1)
9. Virginia Tech (6-1)
10. West Virginia (6-1)
Just Missed: Florida, Missouri, South Florida, USC, Virginia

Have a fantastic week. Look for me on TV at the OSU-PSU game! I’ll be the guy not in white. Let me know if there are any topics you want me to cover in the next couple weeks, before we move our attention to conference races winding down and BCS projections.

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