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  • Which conferences performed the best relative to their means and expectations during the 2018 season? We only handed out one F. (Sorry, Pac-12.)
By Scooby Axson
January 18, 2019

Now that the 2018 college football season is over and everyone has had time to digest Clemson’s beatdown of Alabama, it’s time to take a look back at the 10 conferences of the Football Bowl Subdivision (and the six independent schools, taken together as a group) to see how they performed relative to expectations this year. When there are only four spots to compete for in the College Football Playoff, the top-end quality and depth of each league can have serious implications on how each season plays out.

No league is without its flaws, and one conference did receive a failing grade, but at the end of our assessment, there was a familiar logo atop the heap. 

American: C

UCF stretched its winning streak to 25 and earned the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six spot before losing the Fiesta Bowl to LSU without the services of its star quarterback, but even if McKenzie Milton had stayed healthy, the Knights ran the risk of having the soft top tier of their AAC schedule exposed. Teams from the American didn’t win a single game against non-conference opponents that finished the season ranked in the Top 25, and the league’s bottom-feeders—UConn, East Carolina, Navy and Tulsa—combined for 10 wins and turned in some frighteningly uncompetitive performances. UConn’s defense set the FBS record for most yards allowed, surrendering 8.82 yards per play and allowing opposing quarterbacks to put up a 192.61 rating and nearly 11 yards per attempt. That’s almost the equivalent of playing Kyler Murray 12 times. UCF’s closest challengers were a mixed bag: Cincinnati’s 11-win season landed it in the postseason top 25, and Temple grew into a tough out after opening the year with losses to Villanova and Buffalo, but Houston and Memphis limped to eight-win seasons and still played for the AAC West title on Black Friday.

ACC: B

If it weren’t for national champion Clemson, the ACC would be fighting to earn a passing grade. That can be blamed on the Coastal, which was by far the worst Power 5 division this season. A 7–5 Pittsburgh team came out of that division to play in the conference title game, and Florida State, Louisville, Virginia Tech, Miami and Georgia Tech endured subpar years that ended in three coaching changes and ensured Clemson would not face many tight tests. Syracuse and Boston College represented temporary bright spots, but the league only won eight of its 37 games against ranked teams all year.

STAPLES: Mailbag: Is Anyone Laughing at the ACC Anymore?

Big 12: C-

Oklahoma set the pace for the Big 12 once again, with Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray leading the way to a fourth-straight conference title and another appearance in the playoff. Texas proclaimed itself “back” with an impressive win against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, but the inconsistency of would-be contenders Iowa State and West Virginia limited the league’s top tier to two teams. Everyone else except Kansas had surprising highs and discouraging lows, clearing the runway for the Sooners and Longhorns. And the league did little to dispel the notion that it is philosophically opposed to defense: Half the Big 12’s 10 teams finished 100th or worse in passing yards allowed, including Texas Tech and Oklahoma, the bottom two teams in the nation in that category.

Big Ten: B-

As the season progressed, it became clear that Wisconsin and Penn State’s preseason playoff hopes were mirages and that Michigan and Ohio State were a cut above their leaguemates in top-end talent and depth. After the Buckeyes were embarrassed in a 49–20 loss at Purdue that kept them out of the playoff, Dwayne Haskins resumed lighting up every defense he faced, including Washington in a Rose Bowl battle of conference champions. Michigan State nearly lost to Utah State on opening weekend and woefully underperformed from there, Nebraska went through its first-year growing pains in the form of an 0–6 start under new head coach Scott Frost, and well Rutgers ... was Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights were one of three FBS teams that failed to score 200 points over the course of 2018. Northwestern and Iowa did their part to close the gap on the Big Ten’s playoff contenders, but having the conference champ miss out on the final four for the third straight year had to sting.

Conference USA: C

Three Conference USA teams averaged under 20 points per game, and five teams gave up more than 30, showcasing the depths reached by the bottom of the league. Old Dominion, who didn’t even sniff bowl eligibility, earned the league’s only win against a ranked team when it knocked off shorthanded Virginia Tech in Norfolk. This was the 18th season in a row that the league overall has posted a losing record.

The Conference USA’s feel-good story of the year was UAB, which in year two of its program resurrection was the only team to post double-digit victories. What head coach Bill Clark and the Blazers accomplished, capped by a 37–13 torching of MAC champ Northern Illinois in the Boca Raton Bowl, earns the league a passing grade on its own.

Independents: C+

Notre Dame and Army turned in historic seasons, with the Fighting Irish’s first trip to the playoff and the Black Knights’ first 11-win season in program history. BYU’s up-and-down year included September wins over preseason darlings Arizona and Wisconsin mixed with a frustrating 0–3 performance against its three Pac-12 opponents, capped by a second-half collapse at Utah. Notre Dame’s playoff no-show was made more understandable in light of what Clemson did to Alabama. On the bottom half of a diverse group, Liberty held its own in its first year playing an FBS schedule, while UMass and New Mexico State toiled in the abyss.

MAC: D+

Whatever goodwill the MAC earned during the year vanished during bowl season, in which the league managed to win only one of its teams’ six bowl games, with Ohio salvaging a miserable postseason by thrashing San Diego State. Towering quarterback Tyree Jackson and Buffalo made an early case as the league’s most dangerous team, but the Bulls faded down the stretch and Northern Illinois emerged from the scrum to win its fourth conference title. Akron upset Northwestern, then proceeded to lose its last five games. #MACtion mystique aside, this year’s product wasn’t as compelling or nationally competitive as it has been in recent years. The MAC’s .447 overall winning percentage was the lowest of the 10 conferences.

Mountain West: B

The Mountain West was the Group of Five’s most competitive league, landing three teams (Boise State, Utah State, Fresno State) in the postseason top 25, but thanks to UCF’s second straight undefeated regular season, the conference was again shut out of the New Year’s Six festivities. Next year might be the year: Utah State was second in the nation in scoring offense behind Oklahoma and will have quarterback Jordan Love back at the helm. The only knock on the Mountain West was its 4–13 record against the Power 5, but those 13 losses included more than a few near-misses.

Pac 12: F

The so-called “conference of champions” is in a prolonged funk that won’t change in 2019 unless way-too-early preseason favorite Oregon improves considerably. The conference’s playoff hopes effectively ended in Week 1 when Washington lost to Auburn at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta, after which point every contender was cannibalized as Auburn went into the tank to provide some perspective on the eventual conference champion Huskies.

The Pac-12 did improve its 1–8 bowl record from 2017 to a 3–4 mark this year, but still, that can’t qualify as good news at league headquarters in San Francisco. Plus, continued problems with the league’s network, replay review controversies and the postseason report that the league is exploring trying to sell a 10% stake to private investors for $500 million distracted neutral observers from any positives on the field.

SEC: A-

Five SEC teams won 10 or more games, and until something changes, the winner of the conference title game will have a slot reserved for it in the playoff. Alabama’s championship game collapse shouldn’t tarnish the overall perception of the SEC beyond National Signing Day, as the Crimson Tide will finalize the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, restock their coaching staff and be back at the forefront of the title the conversation again next season. Any one of Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M and LSU may have a say in Alabama’s sustained dominance: All finished No. 16 or higher (along with No. 12 Kentucky, which capped a breakthrough season by holding off Penn State in the Citrus Bowl), and Dan Mullen and Jimbo Fisher closed out their first years in Gainesville and College Station strong. SEC teams tend to win the games they are supposed to, going a combined 41–2 against the Group of Five and FCS opponents.

Sun Belt: C

The Sun Belt split its 10 teams into two divisions in 2018 to introduce a conference title game, and the imbalance in year one was glaring. East Division contenders Appalachian State, Troy and Georgia Southern all won 10-plus games, and it’s no surprise those were the only three teams in the league to win their bowl games. The conference played only six games against ranked teams, which might be expected for a league at the bottom of the FBS pecking order, but Appalachian State’s scare of Penn State on opening weekend raised some eyebrows around the nation. In the wake of the Mountaineers and Trojans’ success, their head coaches were plucked away by Louisville and West Virginia, respectively. The depth is simply not there yet.

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