College Football Playoff: Which Mid-Major Conferences are Best Positioned for New Era? | Respect the Crown | Sports Unbiased

College Football Playoff: Which Mid-Major Conferences are Best Positioned for New Era?

Which mid-major conferences are best positioned to take advantage of the new automatic bid to place the next TCU or Boise State into a top-tier bowl? [Sean Hobson/Wikimedia Commons]

Which mid-major conferences are best positioned to take advantage of the new automatic bid to place the next TCU or Boise State into a top-tier bowl? [Sean Hobson/Wikimedia Commons]

With the bowl season commencing this weekend, the last hurrah for the BCS era winds its way toward its conclusion. After Florida State and Auburn play the last title game in Pasadena on January 6, the clock will officially start on the next phase of college football history. The playoff era is gestating, but beyond the four-team playoff there is also a new wrinkle — no longer will mid-major teams have to wring their hands and pray for a miracle to reach an elite bowl.

In the new system, the five mid-major conferences will have one automatic bid for the highest-ranked team. Had it been applied this season, Fresno State would have been playing in Glendale instead of Las Vegas. But beyond that, the selection committee offers new hope that a deserving mid-major can possibly find its way into the four-team playoff. Should that number swell to eight or even 16 eventually, there will be even more access points for non-AQ powerhouses to earn at least a shot at the national championship.

2014 will see several teams shift leagues yet again in the game of musical chairs that has befallen FBS football with increasing rapidity. The American Athletic Conference, rebranded from the shards of the Big East, will lose some of its most recognizable teams as well as its automatic qualifying bid from the BCS days. As a result, it is destined to fall to the ranks of the mid-major leagues.

Thus the teams of the AAC will fight against the Mountain West, MAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA for one guaranteed shot at a top-tier postseason destination. Even should every top team sustain a defeat during the season, the highest esteemed among them will still claim a shot at Cinderella glory.

But which league is best positioned to take advantage of this lucrative new loophole in 2014 and beyond? As part of our countdown through the final few BCS Buster Power Rankings, let’s evaluate each conference and where they stand in relation to one another as we approach the beginning of this brave new world…

 

1. American Athletic Conference

  • 2013 CHAMPION: Central Florida (11-1)
  • 2014 MEMBERSHIP (11): Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, Memphis, SMU, South Florida, Central Florida, Temple, East Carolina, Tulane, Tulsa
  • PLANNED FUTURE ADDITIONS: Navy (2015)

AAC_logoThe AAC chugged along through 2013 doing its best impression of an AQ conference. But after cannibalization of a conference that once played for three BCS titles (back when Virginia Tech and Miami were still members), what remains looks more like the Conference USA standings from a decade ago than the once-proud Big East. Reborn as the American, the league has several decent teams still among its roll call, including reigning champion UCF and a Cincinnati team that has a chance at a third straight 10-win season should they beat North Carolina in the Belk Bowl.

But while the AAC will welcome East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa in 2014, it will also lose Louisville and Rutgers to the ACC and Big Ten respectively. It is still the best-positioned of the non-AQ leagues to claim the new automatic bid in future seasons despite the losses, and had the system been in place in 2013 UCF would have been playing in a top-tier bowl just as they are under the last season of the former Big East’s AQ status.

2011 2012 2013 3 YR AVG STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
W L W L W L W L % 2011 2012 2013 AVG
Cincinnati 10 3 10 3 9 3 29 9 0.763 73 80 119 91
Connecticut 5 7 5 7 3 9 13 23 0.361 64 69 66 66
Houston 13 1 5 7 8 4 26 12 0.684 97 103 76 92
Memphis 2 10 4 8 3 9 9 27 0.250 112 100 84 99
SMU 8 5 7 6 5 7 20 18 0.526 70 74 70 71
South Florida 5 7 3 9 2 10 10 26 0.278 62 46 64 57
UCF 5 7 10 4 11 1 26 12 0.684 102 91 91 95
Temple 9 4 4 7 2 10 15 21 0.417 119 64 77 87
East Carolina 5 7 8 5 9 3 22 15 0.595 72 112 107 97
Tulane 2 11 2 10 7 5 11 26 0.297 110 76 98 95
Tulsa 8 5 11 3 3 9 22 17 0.564 45 84 71 67
72 67 69 69 62 70 203 206 0.496 84 82 84 83

 

2. Mountain West Conference

  • 2013 CHAMPION: Fresno State (11-1)
  • 2014 MEMBERSHIP (12): Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, Wyoming, UNLV, Boise State, Fresno State, Utah State, San Jose State, Hawaii, Nevada
  • PLANNED FUTURE ADDITIONS: none

MWC_logoAs the conference which has fielded more BCS Busters than any other during the past decade, no other mid-major league has the cachet of the Mountain West when it comes to brand recognition. Of course, the two teams that actually reached the BCS from the MWC, Utah and TCU, are now playing in the Pac-12 and Big 12 respectively. (The current MWC team that has the greatest brand recognition, Boise State, went to both its BCS bowls while still a member of the now-defunct WAC.)

Having poached the best teams from the WAC, the Mountain West is now in position to consolidate its gains and posture itself once again as the best mid-major in FBS football. In the past two seasons the conference would have been superseded for the automatic bid by the AAC (in 2013) and the MAC (in 2012). Prior to that, though, the league had placed a team in the top ten every year from 2008 to 2011. The biggest difficulty moving forward for the MWC is not perception but self-flagellation; because it is relatively strong from top to bottom, the league has the tendency to knock itself out of contention with defeats. Luckily, moving forward, a loss will not serve as an automatic death knell for a team’s elite dreams.

2011 2012 2013 3 YR AVG STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
W L W L W L W L % 2011 2012 2013 AVG
Air Force 7 6 6 7 2 10 15 23 0.395 104 127 92 108
Colorado State 3 9 4 8 7 6 14 23 0.378 106 85 106 99
New Mexico 1 11 4 9 3 9 8 29 0.216 58 124 93 92
San Diego State 8 5 9 4 7 5 24 14 0.632 95 108 78 94
Wyoming 8 5 4 8 5 7 17 20 0.459 92 101 112 102
UNLV 2 10 2 11 7 5 11 26 0.297 66 102 97 88
Boise State 12 1 11 2 8 4 31 7 0.816 75 115 94 95
Fresno State 4 9 9 4 11 1 24 14 0.632 77 113 110 100
Utah State 7 6 11 2 8 5 26 13 0.667 100 97 83 93
San Jose State 5 7 11 2 6 6 22 15 0.595 80 86 74 80
Hawaii 6 7 3 9 1 11 10 27 0.270 114 114 67 98
Nevada 7 6 7 6 4 8 18 20 0.474 88 120 65 91
70 82 81 72 69 77 220 231 0.488 88 108 89 95

 

3. Mid-American Conference

  • 2013 CHAMPION: Bowling Green (10-3)
  • 2014 MEMBERSHIP (13): Ohio, Miami (OH), Western Michigan, Toledo, Kent State, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Ball State, Northern Illinois, Akron, Buffalo, Massachusetts
  • PLANNED FUTURE ADDITIONS: none

MAC_logoOver the past three years, the Mid-American Conference has crept up on the Mountain West in terms of quality Cinderella contenders. If not for an upset in this year’s MAC Championship Game, the conference would have seen Northern Illinois reach the BCS in back-to-back seasons. But, just like Buffalo in 2008, Bowling Green won the conference title while depriving the league of greater glories. NIU probably remains the class of the league, though that will depend on Rod Carey finding another Jordan Lynch (or even Chandler Harnish) to quarterback the Huskies into the future.

However, as it has proven in recent years, the MAC is possibly the mid-major league with the greatest level of parity in its ranks. In the past three years, no conference has had its teams put up more top-ten seasons than the seven compiled by MAC teams over that period. In addition to NIU’s run of dominance over that span, we have also seen Ohio, Kent State, Bowling Green and Ball State reach the double-digit plateau. In any given year, one of these teams will have a legitimate shot in the new system.

2011 2012 2013 3 YR AVG STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
W L W L W L W L % 2011 2012 2013 AVG
Ohio 10 4 9 4 7 5 26 13 0.667 118 134 130 127
Miami (OH) 4 8 4 8 0 12 8 28 0.222 85 75 81 80
W. Michigan 7 6 4 8 1 11 12 25 0.324 99 111 80 97
Toledo 9 4 9 4 7 5 25 13 0.658 81 92 68 80
Kent State 5 7 11 3 4 8 20 18 0.526 96 107 72 92
Bowling Green 5 7 8 5 10 3 23 15 0.605 93 123 124 113
C. Michigan 3 9 7 6 6 6 16 21 0.432 91 122 100 104
E. Michigan 6 6 2 10 2 10 10 26 0.278 117 71 82 90
Ball State 6 6 9 4 10 2 25 12 0.676 78 73 141 97
N. Illinois 11 3 12 2 12 1 35 6 0.854 103 121 113 112
Akron 1 11 1 11 5 7 7 29 0.194 107 93 87 96
Buffalo 3 9 4 8 8 4 15 21 0.417 98 83 128 103
Massachusetts 0 0 1 11 1 11 2 22 0.083 78 73 76
70 80 81 84 73 85 224 249 0.474 97 99 98 98

 

4. Conference USA

  • 2013 CHAMPION: Rice (10-3)
  • 2014 MEMBERSHIP (13): Southern Miss, UAB, Marshall, Rice, UTEP, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion, UTSA, Western Kentucky
  • PLANNED FUTURE ADDITIONS: Charlotte (2015)

C-USA_logoBy the time 2014 rolls around, only one member of the original Conference USA football membership will remain in the league. Southern Miss is all that is left from the six-team loop that began play in 1996. Instead of rivals like Cincinnati, Louisville, Tulane, Houston, and Memphis, the Golden Eagles now find themselves locked in a league of a different stripe altogether as the AAC poaches its best teams in the game of realignment musical chairs.

Of the non-AQ conferences, C-USA has multiple teams that have shown in the past an ability to contend with other mid-majors. What has plagued the league is consistency. Only one of its teams, Western Kentucky, has had winning seasons over all three years of the study… and the Hilltoppers have posted that cumulative 22-15 record while still a member of the Sun Belt. If Conference USA is going to compete with the AAC, MWC, and MAC for the automatic bid in the future, it needs one or two of its teams to continue a push toward dominance rather than succumbing to multiple-loss parity.

2011 2012 2013 3 YR AVG STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
W L W L W L W L % 2011 2012 2013 AVG
Southern Miss 12 2 0 12 1 11 13 25 0.342 94 68 90 84
UAB 3 9 3 9 2 10 8 28 0.222 84 94 86 88
Marshall 7 6 5 7 9 4 21 17 0.553 56 104 126 95
Rice 4 8 7 6 10 3 21 17 0.553 37 109 104 83
UTEP 5 7 3 9 2 10 10 26 0.278 87 67 101 85
Florida Atlantic 1 11 3 9 6 6 10 26 0.278 101 82 99 94
FIU 8 5 3 9 1 11 12 25 0.324 127 81 95 101
Louisiana Tech 8 5 9 3 4 8 21 16 0.568 74 106 144 108
Mid. Tennessee 2 10 8 4 8 4 18 18 0.500 116 105 117 113
North Texas 5 7 4 8 8 4 17 19 0.472 105 79 116 100
Old Dominion 0 0 0 0 8 4 8 4 0.667 191 191
UTSA 0 0 8 4 7 5 15 9 0.625 125 85 105
W. Kentucky 7 5 7 6 8 4 22 15 0.595 120 117 129 122
62 75 60 86 74 84 196 245 0.444 91 95 114 105

 

5. Sun Belt Conference

  • 2013 CHAMPION: Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4)
  • 2014 MEMBERSHIP (11): South Alabama, Georgia State, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, New Mexico State, Idaho, Louisiana-Monroe, Troy, Texas State, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern
  • PLANNED FUTURE ADDITIONS: none

SunBelt_logoThe Sun Belt is the only league among the mid-majors that will have fewer than a dozen teams for the foreseeable future, as its most solid programs migrate to Conference USA and a slew of FCS schools rise up to fill the absences. However, the two I-AA schools it welcomes next year might just be better in the long run than the schools that are ditching the conference. Between them, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State have won nine FCS national championships and played in two other title games. While they are likely to have an adjustment period to I-A football, the Eagles and Mountaineers also have the potential to be the next Marshall or Boise State.

In the future landscape, though, that might not be enough to make up the difference against the other four mid-major conferences. Beyond Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, three other members of the league — Georgia State, South Alabama, and Texas State — have transitioned from the I-AA level in the past three seasons. Between the 11 members of the Sun Belt, they have only played 23 combined seasons between them at the FBS level in the past three years. That inexperience will cost the league in the immediate future, though the continued shift of demographics southward could play to their long-term benefit.

2011 2012 2013 3 YR AVG STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
W L W L W L W L % 2011 2012 2013 AVG
South Alabama 0 0 2 11 6 6 8 17 0.320 116 120 118
Georgia State 0 0 0 0 0 12 0 12 0.000 115 115
Arkansas State 10 3 10 3 7 5 27 11 0.711 124 98 125 116
LA-Lafayette 9 4 9 4 8 4 26 12 0.684 122 118 133 124
LA-Monroe 4 8 8 5 6 6 18 19 0.486 113 90 96 100
New Mexico State 4 9 1 11 2 10 7 30 0.189 89 88 88 88
Idaho 2 10 1 11 1 11 4 32 0.111 82 55 75 71
Troy 3 9 5 7 6 6 14 22 0.389 109 99 108 105
Texas State 0 0 4 8 6 6 10 14 0.417 95 150 123
Appalachian State 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Georgia Southern 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
32 43 40 60 42 66 114 169 0.403 107 95 112 107

 

Comparisons and Conclusions

To distill the data and determine the final rankings for each conference, we had to look at several factors. To complete the algorithm to determine the relative strength between the leagues, we already have the main pieces of data: league winning percentage for the past three years and average strength of schedule for each conference’s member teams. I also calculated the average wins per team per season, and to the equation is added the number of double-digit seasons posted by member teams.

The equation itself is a calculation of average wins divided by winning percentage. This number is then multiplied by the league winning percentage over that time span. From this, each computation is multiplied by 1000 to give a more manageable number, and to this final figure is added the number of 10+ win seasons by each conference’s teams from 2011 to 2013. Once this is calculated, we derive the quotient that evaluates relative strength:

W L WIN % AVG SOS 10+ WINS AVG WINS QUOT
AAC 203 206 0.496 83 6 6.15 42.665
MWC 220 231 0.488 95 5 6.11 36.398
MAC 224 249 0.474 98 7 5.89 35.624
C-USA 196 245 0.444 105 2 5.44 24.972
Sun Belt 114 169 0.403 107 2 4.96 20.728

The AAC, despite losing some of its strongest teams and AQ status, is still significantly stronger than the Mountain West or MAC once you break down the numbers. In any given year, then, it is more likely that the American will be the league to beat in terms of the battle for the one Cinderella slot.

What is most interesting is the relative equality of the MWC and MAC. For years, the Mountain West was the preeminent mid-major conference. But the rise of Northern Illinois and the parity within the MAC has allowed the Midwestern league to narrow the gap and nearly pull even with the western teams. As the past two seasons have revealed, the BCS formula was increasingly likely to support a MAC contender’s rise up the charts, both with NIU as well as last year’s Kent State team.

Beyond those three conferences, there is a significant drop to the final two mid-major conferences. Because it has been picked over like so much carrion by the scavengers of other leagues, Conference USA has been significantly weakened. In just the past three years, C-USA has lost legitimate teams like Houston and UCF (who were consequently both in the hunt for the first AAC crown this season) and is set to lose East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa next year. This attrition has severely weakened the conference, putting it in a position familiar to the Sun Belt from which it in turn has poached many of its newest members.

Bringing up the rear is the Sun Belt, which suffers from a lack of experienced FBS membership. With its 11 member teams averaging less than five wins a season, it will take a drastic leap in league-wide quality for the Sun Belt to make a serious push for the lucrative top-tier bowl bid.

And we must also remember the independent teams still factoring into the picture as well. BYU, formerly of the Mountain West, has the strongest case from season to season given the increased difficulty of its scheduling. Beyond the Cougars, Navy will soon be a member of the AAC, Notre Dame already benefits from what is essentially AQ status despite its independence, and thus Army will be the only other mid-major outside of the conference structure.

Ultimately, the American Athletic Conference is best positioned for the future landscape of college football. With an aggressive rebranding strategy that has plucked the best Conference USA teams to rectify its dwindling membership from the Big East days, the AAC comes out ahead of the Mountain West and MAC in relative strength. But it is also instructive to remember that it only takes one powerhouse to dominate the rest of its competition to open the eyeballs of the nation, and in any given year there is now an outlet for any mid-major — even those from the Sun Belt or C-USA — to earn its just rewards.

Zach Bigalke

About the Author: Zach Bigalke

Zach is a historian and author who has been covering sports near and far for various publications since 2006. Formerly the managing editor of Informative Sports and Global Turnstile, he has also been featured at Helium, FanSided, the Portland State Vanguard and other online publications and is the author of three books, including "Dispatches from Vancouver: A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America's View of the XXI Winter Olympiad". He currently lives in Eugene, Oregon. Follow him at Twitter @zbigalke; for more info on his books, visit Amazon.