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  • Is the SEC still the top dog, or has one of the other Power 5 leagues passed it? We set the pecking order just over a month away from kickoff on the 2017 season.
By Joan Niesen
July 21, 2017

As each conference takes a turn touting its recent accomplishments and hyping up its future at media days across the country this month in the lead-up to the college football season, it’s time to take stock of where each league actually stands headed into the fall. In ranking the FBS conferences—with an apology to independents Notre Dame, Army, UMass and BYU—we took into account the league’s current depth, recent postseason success and foundation for future growth. Which league deserves top billing a little over a month away from the first kickoff of the 2017 season? Here's how all 10 stack up.

Todd Bennett/Getty Images

Teams in 2016 final AP Poll: Zero
Appearances in College Football Playoff: Zero
Appearances in New Year’s Six bowls since 2014 season: Zero
TV deal: Approximately $1.2 million per year in TV revenue distributions in 2016-17, per The Virginian-Pilot

The Sun Belt’s résumé is tough to assess. Appalachian State has been a solid team since entering the conference in 2014, and it has beaten MAC teams in consecutive bowl games in the past two years. After a few down years, last fall Troy returned to the level it showed throughout much of the previous decade, going 10–3. But the Sun Belt has some pretty terrible teams, too, like Texas State, which won two games a year ago. New Mexico State had a three-win ’16, and Georgia State, which founded its program in ’10, has won more than three games just twice in seven seasons.

Thomas McEwen/Icon Sportswire

Teams in 2016 final AP Poll: Zero
Appearances in College Football Playoff: Zero
Appearances in New Year’s Six bowls since 2014 season: Zero
TV deal: $2.8 million in 2016-17, shopping for new deal currently

Conference USA is fading, and fast. In 2013 and ’14, it lost seven teams: East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, SMU, Tulsa, Tulane and UCF. It has bulked back up, adding FAU, FIU, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State, Charlotte, North Texas, Old Dominion, UTSA and Western Kentucky, but compare those two groups, and there’s certainly a level of prestige lost. Western Kentucky was dangerous enough to propel head coach Jeff Brohm to Purdue in ’16, and Louisiana Tech has consistently produced a solid product in recent years, as has Middle Tennessee State. Beyond that, the conference is weak, and its television revenue isn’t close to keeping pace with the growth across college football.

David E. Klutho

Teams in 2016 final AP Poll: One—Western Michigan (15)
Appearances in College Football Playoff: Zero
Appearances in New Year’s Six bowls since 2014 season: One
TV deal: $100-plus million (financial details have not been precisely disclosed) over 13 years, began in 2014

The MAC had a banner season a year ago in terms of national coverage thanks to the undefeated regular season put together by Western Michigan and P.J. Fleck, who has since departed for the top job at Minnesota. Only four of the conference’s 12 teams posted winning records, and Western Michigan was the only team with double-digit wins. Still, the league’s TV contract will work in its favor over the next decade it spans.

Loren Orr/Getty Images

Teams in 2016 final AP Poll: One—San Diego State (25)
Appearances in College Football Playoff: Zero
Appearances in New Year’s Six bowls since 2014 season: One
TV deal: $116 million over seven years, began in 2013

We’re past Boise State’s peak dominance, which put the Mountain West in the conversation from the minute the Broncos joined in 2011, but it still has plenty to be proud of. There’s a fair share of hype surrounding Wyoming and quarterback Josh Allen heading into 2017, and there’s no reason to count out Boise State while Brett Rypien is under center. At this level of college football, television deals matter less than overall performance. These teams aren’t appearing on major networks in prime time unless they schedule big-name opponents—extra points if they win and creep into the polls. Mountain West coaches have been known for their diligent recruiting, scooping up talented players bigger teams have overlooked, and they’ll have to continue that strategy as the conference clamors for more money and prestige. 

Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire

Teams in 2016 final AP Poll: One—South Florida (19)
Appearances in College Football Playoff: Zero
Appearances in New Year’s Six bowls since 2014 season: One
TV deal: $126 million over seven years, began in 2013

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco is on a campaign to create a so-called Power 6, and his message that his conference deserves consideration among the best in the game is certainly based in fact. The league just hasn’t quite gotten over the hump yet. In recent seasons, there’s been external speculation and internal hope that teams like Memphis and Houston might contend for the College Football Playoff, and Navy and South Florida have both been in the mix for big-name bowls.

The reality, though, has been just one New Year’s Six bowl appearance: Houston’s 2015 Peach Bowl win over Florida State. That’s not too shabby for a conference that didn’t exist a decade ago, but the AAC needs more continuity before it joins college football’s elites. It has to be able to keep coaches like Fuente, Herman and Rhule, who bolted (understandably) for bigger jobs—and in the future, it might be able to. This kind of prestige-building takes time, and the league hasn’t made a misstep as it has grown in recent years. And its television deal, though it pales in comparison to even the worst Power-5 contract, is the best among the Group of Five.

John Korduner/Icon Sportswire

Teams in 2016 final AP Poll: Three—Oklahoma (5), Oklahoma State (11), West Virginia (18)
Appearances in College Football Playoff: One
Appearances in New Year’s Six bowls since 2014 season: Five
TV deal: $2.6 billion over 13 years, began in 2012 (plus revenue from Longhorn Network)

There’s little debate that among the Power 5 conferences, the Big 12 is the weakest. It has had a difficult time getting teams into the College Football Playoff, although that may change once it brings back its conference championship game this December. That being said, the league has seemed to cannibalize its best teams in recent seasons, especially since Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M have hopped to different conferences this decade. Sure, the Big 12 made two solid additions in response by bringing West Virginia and TCU into the fold, but it still stands at just 10 teams, choosing not to expand a year ago after stirring up rumors at its preseason media days.

Despite all the restructuring, it’s still a conference that exists at the whim of its two most powerful teams, Texas and Oklahoma, and its national reputation suffered in recent years due to an almost complete lack of defense among its teams. Still, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State both look like title contenders in 2017, and West Virginia and Kansas State both seem poised for impressive seasons. Baylor luring Temple’s Matt Rhule to take over after the disastrous end to Art Briles’s tenure also brings one of the most exciting young coaches to the conference, which bodes well for the future of the conference’s depth.

Carlos Herrera/Icon Sportswire

Teams in 2016 final AP Poll: Five—USC (3), Washington (4), Stanford (12), Colorado (17), Utah (23)
Appearances in College Football Playoff: Two
Appearances in New Year’s Six bowls since 2014 season: Five
TV deal: $3 billion over 12 years, began in 2012 + Pac-12 Network

The Pac-12 enjoyed a pleasant end to 2016, despite Washington’s Peach Bowl loss to Alabama. The conference was generally overlooked for most of the year but still landed two teams—the Huskies and Trojans—in the top five of the final AP Poll, with the latter putting on one hell of a show in the Rose Bowl thanks to redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold. USC could contend for the Pac-12’s first championship in the College Football Playoff era this fall, and the conference keeps fielding more and more solid teams, even as once-dominant Oregon undergoes a bit of a rebuild. In fact, the Pac-12 can make a solid case for being the deepest conference top to bottom; last season Arizona finished 3–9, but not without taking Washington to overtime. The league’s TV deal is solid, although its network hasn’t attracted the viewers it hoped for upon its inception, and it’s hard to talk about the channel in the same breath as the Big Ten or SEC Networks.

Simon Bruty

Teams in 2016 final AP Poll: Five—Clemson (1), Florida State (8), Virginia Tech (16), Miami (20), Louisville (21)
Appearances in College Football Playoff: Three
Appearances in New Year’s Six bowls since 2014 season: Six
TV deal: $3.6 billion over 12 years, began in 2011, extended through 2035-36 school year with announcement of ACC Network in 2016

Clemson and Florida State’s ascension into the ranks of perennial contenders the past few seasons has done a lot for the ACC’s profile, and having last year’s Heisman winner still among its ranks certainly doesn’t hurt. Plus, the conference is about to get another level of exposure when the ACC Network launches in full force in 2019. With Dabo Swinney, Jimbo Fisher, Bobby Petrino and Mark Richt, the conference has its fair share of big-name coaches, and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente is one of the fastest risers in the game; his teams have finished ranked in the top 25 in two of the last three seasons. (Memphis was No. 25 in 2014, Virginia Tech No. 16 in 2016.) The conference also fared well in its bowl schedule, winning nine of the 12 postseason games in which its teams played. There’s still a pretty precipitous drop-off on the way to the bottom of the league, and teams’ strength of schedule in recent seasons has been only so-so.

Gerald Herbert/AP

Teams in 2016 final AP Poll: Five—Alabama (2), LSU (13), Florida (14), Tennessee (22), Auburn (24)
Appearances in College Football Playoff: Three
Appearances in New Year’s Six bowls since 2014 season: Seven
TV deal: $2.3 billion over 15 years, began in 2009 (plus revenue from SEC Network)

If I had made this list 100 different ways, the SEC would probably have come in first on 49 of them. It has a compelling case, based largely upon the fact that it contains the team that’s been the gold standard in college football in recent years: Alabama. But apart from Nick Saban’s domination, the league has been somewhat inconsistent in recent years, with teams like LSU, Georgia and Florida often underperforming.

Ole Miss’s recent run of scandal certainly doesn’t help the conference, nor does the very real gap between the few teams who hope to challenge the Crimson Tide and the many who can’t come close. Still, the SEC has one of the best TV deals out there, and its name still carries plenty of clout. Alabama has played for the national championship the past two seasons and made all three College Football Playoff fields, and this fall a handful of SEC teams besides Alabama seem to have realistic shots at a top-10 finish, from Auburn to Georgia to Florida to a Les Miles-less LSU.

Teams in 2016 final AP Poll: Four—Ohio State (6), Penn State (7), Wisconsin(9), Michigan (10)
Appearances in College Football Playoff: Three
Appearances in New Year’s Six bowls since 2014 season: Nine
TV deal: $2.64 billion over the next six years, beginning in 2017 (not including revenue from Big Ten Network)

This list came down to two conferences vying for the top spot, and the Big Ten’s new behemoth of a TV deal gave it the nod over the SEC. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of arguments for the SEC, but with such a strong core of teams—it’d be shocking if any of last year’s ranked Big Ten squads aren’t contenders again in 2017—Jim Delany’s conference takes the cake. Sure, it had a less-than-impressive showing in the most recent bowl season (going 3–7), but having nine representatives make New Year’s Six bowls in the three seasons of the College Football Playoff era is a feat. Plus, the Big Ten has two of the best coaches in the game in Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, with guys like James Franklin and Paul Chryst on the right track to adding a few perennial national contenders outside of the powerhouses in Columbus and Ann Arbor.

The Big Ten also has sent a steady stream of coordinators off to bigger jobs in recent years, such as new Cal head coach Justin Wilcox (formerly Wisconsin's defensive coordinator) and Tom Herman, who takes over Texas this year after turning Houston into a top-10 team. And look at the 11 Michigan players taken in this spring’s NFL draft to lead all schools, one year after Ohio State topped the list with 12; the league is producing pros at an impressive rate. More than anything, this comes down to money, and the Big Ten is minting it and will be for some time, which can only mean more exposure, better facilities, better recruits—and likely better and better football.

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