About the Big Ten’s Alleged Bowl Dominance: Which Conference is Stronger? The SEC or the Big Ten?
I want to begin all of this with a disclosure: The only games that matter are games that could impact a national championship. Period. That is my current belief as a Georgia fan. That’s why Georgia’s loss to Auburn (its first and only regular season loss and only loss to-date) doesn’t bother me anymore, but the Dawgs win over the Tigers in the SEC Championship means a great deal. I’m not picking and choosing for picking and choosing’s sake. I am picking and choosing because beating Auburn in Atlanta got Georgia into the playoff. Losing to Auburn on the Plains didn’t eliminate Georgia. Playoff-impacting games matter. That’s why Ohio State’s loss to Iowa mattered. Remove that loss and I’d be advocating for the Buckeyes to be in the playoff. That’s why Clemson’s throttling of Miami and Oklahoma’s big win over Ohio State mattered, if those were losses then Clemson and Oklahoma would be undeserving of their short-lived playoff bids. And ultimately, that’s why bowl games that aren’t part of the playoff really don’t matter. The lone exception may be the localized significance those games bring to over-achieving programs (UCF) or upstart programs who manage to actually keep their coach. I say all of this to say, I don’t read too much into bowl games. I’d love to roast Auburn (because I hate Auburn) for losing to Central Florida, but I know that game meant nothing to the Tigers. Auburn isn’t paying Gus Malzahn $49 million to care about Peach Bowls. This entire exercise is for those who think bowls do matter. I don’t. But if you do, consider this stuff.
So yeah, the Big Ten dominated a bunch of bowl games. But they probably should have. Just as the deck was stacked against the SEC in bowls, it was stacked pretty favorably for the Big Ten. The B1G benefited from favorable conference matchups (against a much weaker Pac-12 on four occasions) and favorable seeding (i.e. The Big Ten’s fourth-best team playing the SEC’s eighth-best).
With that context in mind, what did we actually learn about the Big Ten through bowl season?
- The Big Ten is definitely better than the Pac-12. Consider these intra-conference rankings and outcomes:
- B1G #8 Purdue defeated Pac-12 #6 Arizona by a score of 38-35.
- B1G #5 Michigan State defeated Pac-12 #4 Washington State by a score of 42-17.
- B1G #3 Penn State defeated Pac-12 #3 Washington by a score of 35-28.
- B1G #1 Ohio State defeated Pac-12 #1 USC by a score of 24-7.
- The Big Ten is probably better than the ACC. These outcomes are significant, but not as vast or decisive as the B1G/Pac-12 matchups.
- B1G #7 Iowa defeated ACC #7 Boston College by a score of 27-20.
- B1G #2 Wisconsin defeated ACC #2 Miami by a score of 34-24.
- The Big Ten is not better than the SEC. I give Northwestern (B1G #4) no credit for beating Kentucky (SEC #8) by one point after Kentucky’s best player was kicked out of the game. I obviously don’t give Michigan (B1G #6) any credit for blowing a large lead and losing to South Carolina (SEC #6) by a score of 26-19.
Is any of this surprising? No. Not really.
I’m a big fan of S&P+ ratings (see the full rankings here). Basically, these ratings are something of a proxy for predicting how a team would perform against an “average” opponent. For example, Alabama (the top team in the nation with a margin 0f 20.8) is a lot better than an average FBS team. Here’s how those ratings looked for the Big Ten’s Bowl Matchups.
|Bowl||B1G Team||S&P+ Margin||Opposing Team||S&P+ Margin||Big Ten Margin Benefit|
|Holiday||Michigan State||9.1||Washington State||5.4||3.7|
In layman’s terms, Iowa should beat Boston College, because Iowa is 3.8 points better than an average team and B.C. is only 1.0 points better than an average team. So the Big Ten (based on these rating) should have won every single one of these games. Alas, the Big Ten did not. That pesky South Carolina team, a team 5.8 points worse than Michigan by these margins, beat the Wolverines.
A point could actually be made that the Big Ten under-performed relative to expectation — if you believe in these numbers and you believe that bowl games matter.
So how would Big Ten vs. SEC matchups work on this scale? And which conference is better? Here’s a look:
|Rank||B1G Team||S&P+ Margin||SEC Team||S&P+ Margin||Advantage|
The Southeastern Conference would win nine total matchups based on S&P+ Ratings. Yes, this includes top-heavy advantages as the ratings do have Bama over Ohio State (the scores are cut-off for rounding) and Georgia over Penn State. What’s interesting, however, is that the narrative of the “top-heavy SEC” falls apart pretty quickly when the SEC wins each of the bottom-five matchups and seven of the bottom nine.
Where this is most telling is the cumulative impact of a stronger conference. Below is a graph showing the differential between the Big Ten’s S&P+ Ratings and the SEC’s S&P+ Ratings over time as additional teams are added. So, the first point on the lines is just the total margin of each conference’s top team. The second point is the margin of the first and second teams. The third represents each conference’s top three teams. The final point represents all fourteen teams from each conference.
The line that dies off faster is the top-heavy conference. That’s the Big Ten.
But look, it’s a tough narrative to sell if you’re the Big Ten. You don’t have a team in the National Championship (let alone two) or even in the playoff. So, you have to say the SEC is top-heavy, which it is (winning the top two matchups here). It just sucks that the SEC isn’t as bottom-heavy as the Big Ten either. The Big Ten has three teams (Rutgers, Maryland and Illinois) that are worse than any SEC team.
But congrats on winning lots of bowl games. I remember bowl games.
That’s all I got/