Mythbusters: SEC Football Edition

SEC BIG 10 Logos

The Southeastern Conference and Big Ten Conference logos are both trademarks of their respective owners. They are part of the Wikimedia Creative Commons collection and are used here for commentary purposes only.

My readers are most likely familiar with the television show Mythbusters, which takes a claim that is generally believed to be true (or at least intensely debated) and puts it to the test.  Today, I am going to do something similar, only with less explosions.  I am going to examine a claim that is often repeated in the world of college football fanatics: that the Southeastern Conference (SEC) has the best teams and/or is the best performing conference.

Full disclosure here: I grew up in the Midwest and am a fan of the BIG 10 conference.  My particular loyalty is to The Ohio State University, but I also want to see the conference do well as a whole.  Whether in its 10, 11, 12, or 14 team form, I would put its history, traditions, and fan loyalty second to none.  Thus, it is not with complete happiness that I have witnessed this ever increasing SEC superiority complex.

Granted, the SEC is a great conference in its own right.  Its fans are equally rabid and its traditions equally hallowed.  Had I grown up in SEC land, I’m sure I would be just as ardent a supporter of that conference as I am of the BIG 10, which is why I am so thankful that God did not assign me to that fate.

All kidding aside, even though I have a clear rooting interest with the BIG 10 and am thus annoyed by the perceived arrogance of my friends down south, I have no desire to ignore the truth, whatever that may be.  Thus, I will consider just how much better SEC football teams are than their BIG 10 counterparts, and I will attempt to do so using unbiased statistics.

There are two different measures I will use in this article, the first of which is to compare the annual winning percentages of the two conferences.  The purpose of this is to determine the quality of all the teams in a given conference.  It would do no good to examine only intra-conference games, because if my limited knowledge of mathematics is correct, there would have to be an equal number of wins and losses. (There are no ties in college football.) What I am really seeking to determine is how well a conference plays against other conferences, thus the overall winning percentage for each team is what I will use.

Here I must add one sad note: although BIG 10 football records have been added to Wikipedia for the entire history of the conference, our friends in the SEC are apparently not as enthusiastic about this whole Internet thing, or at least they are latecomers.  Only conference records from 2009 forward are available for the SEC, and as going back any farther would have required more substantial digging on my part, I concluded that a comparison of the years 2009-2012 would be good enough for now.  I apologize for my obvious laziness.  Ok, on to the statistics!

Overall Conference Win Percentage by Year (2009-2012)

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As you can see in the table above, the overall winning percentage for all SEC teams has been higher each year than the winning percentage for all BIG 10 teams.  However, the difference is perhaps not as great as one might expect given the reputation of the SEC: on average, SEC squads win 4.9% more often than those from the BIG 10.  The largest gap came in 2012, when SEC teams won 6.4% more games than their BIG 10 counterparts.  This was also the worst year for the BIG 10 conference of the four I examined.  The closest the two conferences came was in 2010, when SEC teams won just 2.3% more games than BIG 10 teams.

Overall conference winning percentage is not a perfect way to compare the two because you could have one really bad team or one really good team that skews the percentage, making the end result a bit deceptive.  Therefore, I chose to also look at the number of winning teams in both conferences during each of those four years.  Here is what I discovered.

Percentage of Winning Teams by Year (2009-2012)

Table 2

This is an interesting way of examining the numbers, because a winning record is often used to judge whether or not a team is a “quality” program, or less ambiguously, whether or not a team is bowl eligible.  According to this measure, the SEC has a slightly bigger lead over the BIG 10, with 7.4% more winning teams as opposed to 4.9% more wins over the same period.  The disadvantage of this measure is that it treats a team with an undefeated record the same as a team that is 7-6 for the year.  Likewise, a 2-10 squad is counted the same as one that is 5-7, although one of them is clearly more successful.

Unfortunately, none of the numbers I have discussed so far really get to the heart of the perceived difference between the two conferences.  When fans or analysts are trying to make the point that the SEC is the stronger conference, they typically will mention that it has a strong record in Bowl Championship Series (BCS) games.  For the uninitiated, the BCS is a system that has been in place for about 15 years (and will soon be discontinued) in which there have been first 4 and eventually 5 major bowl games that are better than the rest.  The champion of each conference and a select number of teams chosen at-large earn a spot in one of these games, the most important being the BCS Championship Game.

Alabama 2009-10 Champ Lawrence Jackson

The Alabama football team is congratulated by President Obama at the White House after winning the 2010 BCS National Championship game. White House photo by Lawrence Jackson

Looking at the results of BCS games can provide a good impression of how the very best teams from each conference fare against one another.  While this is not as comprehensive of a picture as the overall conference statistics, it tends to count more in terms of bragging rights because it is the biggest stage in all of college football.  Unfortunately for the BIG 10, the story usually is told like this: Once they are faced with the amazing speed of the SEC, they end up being exposed as a second-rate conference.

For this section of the article, I am going back a whole decade (11 seasons) with my statistics.  This is for three reasons, listed in order of professionalism: 1) Because there are only a few teams from both conferences in the BCS series each year, more years must be considered in order to gain a more statistically significant sample; 2) Wikipedia has listed the results of all BCS games, making it easy for me to compile the results; and 3) Going back to the 2002-2003 season allows me to include Ohio State’s victory in the national championship game in my statistics.  Ok, here are all the BCS games that the BIG 10 and SEC have been involved in over the past decade.

10 Years of BCS Games (2002/03-2012/13)

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* Signifies bowl games that also served as the national championship game prior to the creation of a separate BCS National Championship Game.

Wow, that’s as pretty overwhelming table – lots and lots of numbers and such (with unfortunately small print).  Never fear!  I’m about to sort it all out if you’ll just hang with me.  If you were interested enough to actually read through the whole thing, you’re probably thinking that the SEC has a better record in BCS games than the BIG 10.  Your eyes weren’t deceiving you: SEC teams are an impressive 13-5 in BCS matchups over the past decade, a winning percentage of 75%.

Even more impressive, nine SEC teams have played in the national championship game and amassed a record of 8-1.  The last time a team not from the SEC won the championship was in 2006 when the University of Texas – led by star quarterback Vince Young – triumphed over the University of Southern California.  Given this fact, it is easy to see why people would conclude that the SEC is the dominant conference in college football.

However, I have so far neglected to point out an important fact that makes the SEC’s record seem even better.  In 2011, two SEC teams – Alabama and Louisiana State – faced off in the BCS National Championship Game.  This guaranteed that the conference would have a loss as well as a win.  If we were to take that one loss out of consideration (since it was caused by an SEC team), the SEC is actually perfect in championship games over the past decade.  Wow!

What about the BIG 10?  How does its record compare to the amazing BCS success of the SEC?  Sadly, the statistics are not as impressive.  The BIG 10 has gone 8-12 in its twenty appearances over the past decade for a winning percentage of only 40%.  That means that SEC squads are almost twice as likely to win in BCS games.  What makes matters worse is that a BIG 10 team has only made it to the championship game three times in ten years.  On each of those occasions, it was Ohio State carrying the BIG 10 banner.  The Buckeyes won in 2003 but lost in 2007 and 2008, making the overall record 1-2 for a winning percentage of 33.3%.

It is easy to see that the SEC has outperformed the BIG 10 in this important area.  As much as I hate to admit it (especially given that I had to endure those two championship game losses), the BIG 10 has a lot of ground to make up if it wants to gain the same level of respect on the big stage.  However, I still feel that some of the criticism of the BIG 10 is unfair, and here is why.

2008 Champ Game Wiki JustDog

Ohio State and Louisiana State meet in the 2008 BCS National Championship Game. Photo by Wikipedia user JustDog

In twenty BCS games, BIG 10 teams have only faced SEC opponents three times, all three once again involving Ohio State.  Those two unsuccessful championship games were both against SEC opponents: a 27-point whipping by Florida in 2007 and a slightly more respectable 14-point loss to Louisiana State in 2008.  The final matchup came in 2011 when Ohio State defeated Arkansas, at least partially righting the ship for the BIG 10.  Yet, despite the limited amount of games played between the two conferences, there is a widespread impression that the BIG 10 always loses to the SEC in the big bowl games.

I suspect that this is due to two factors.  First, BIG 10 teams are more likely to play SEC teams in less important bowl games, such as the Capitol One Bowl (formerly Citrus Bowl) and the Outback Bowl.  Losses in these games may over time be remembered in much the same way as losses in the BCS games.  However, the fact is that most of the BIG 10’s losses in the BCS have been to non-SEC schools.  The other origin of this myth was probably the consecutive losses Ohio State suffered to SEC schools in the championship game.  While I can assure my readers from personal experience that these losses were indeed bitter, I would also argue that the results of two games do not establish a strong trend.

The Rose Bowl provides the most glaring example of BIG 10 mediocrity.  In nine appearances over eleven seasons, the BIG 10 has won exactly one time.  I am quite proud to say that this occurred the one time that Ohio State was sent as the conference representative in 2010.  In other years, these are the losses racked up by the BIG 10 in the “Grandaddy of Them All”: 3 by Michigan, 3 by Wisconsin, 1 by Illinois, and 1 by Penn State.  Ouch!  In all other BCS games, the BIG 10 actually has a winning record of 6-5.  Thus, I must conclude that it is the Rose Bowl (which usually features a PAC 10/12 opponent) and not the SEC that is a curse to the BIG 10.

Ben Hill Griffin Stadium 2007 Rudi Riet

Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, home of the University of Florida Gators, in 2007. Photo by Flickr/Wikipedia user Rudi Riet

In conclusion, the SEC is a stronger conference than the BIG 10 in terms of overall conference wins and individual BCS wins.  The difference is much larger in the BCS than it is in the regular season, and while the success of the SEC in these games does prove a substantial amount of skill, the failures of the BIG 10 are not actually due to their inferiority to the SEC: if anything, they show an inferiority to teams on the West Coast.

There is one other possibility for the BIG 10’s poor performance that cannot be demonstrated by statistics.  I will simply refer to this as a problem of geography.  First, BIG 10 teams normally have to travel much farther than their PAC 10/12 counterparts to get to the Rose Bowl location, which could help to explain the lack of success there.

In addition, the style of play historically favored by many BIG 10 programs is well adapted to the harsher climate that players often face in the months of October and November.  However, while bowl games are played in the middle of winter, they are almost always located in warm locations or indoor stadiums where poor weather is not a factor in the games.  Only by having teams from other conferences travel to the Midwest to play games later in the year would we be able to determine how their style of play would work in this very different climate.

Even with these caveats, I hope any SEC fans reading this article will be pleased that I have admitted that their superiority is no myth, at least when it comes to the biggest games of the year.  In light of this, I hope that they will allow me to indulge in one last exercise meant to make myself feel a bit better.

BIG 10 and SEC Team Appearances in BCS Games (2002/03-2012/13)

Table 6

* Ohio St had an undefeated record in 2012-13 but was not eligible to play in a bowl game due to NCAA disciplinary actions. Were it not for this ban, they likely would have nine BCS appearances.

Now, that is consistency, my friends.


A Note on Methodology: During the past 10 years, both Ohio State and Penn State were forced to vacate some of their wins due to NCAA disciplinary actions.  For the purposes of this analysis, I have still counted all of those wins.  I determined that the violations that resulted in these penalties did not impact the teams’ performances on the field.  Thus, in order to properly evaluate the two conferences, I maintained the original records.

2 thoughts on “Mythbusters: SEC Football Edition

  1. The numbers as presented here are indisputable. I would suggest two factors that render them not as conclusive as some might desire:

    1. Measuring out of conference win-loss records only provides an accurate measurement if the conferences play identical (or at least similar) competition. A clarifying statistic would be to provide a “strength of schedule” index which objectively weighted the quality of opponent. This would require a significant amount of research.

    2. Using BCS games legitimizes an illegitimate standard for college football success. College bowl games have become nothing more than a beauty pageant and the current system cannot be relied upon as a true foundation for any statistical measurement.

    • While I would agree that the SEC has better football programs and success then the Big Ten does..we completely dominate the hardcourt over them…and we all know that basketball is the only sport that really matters anyway. Go Green!!! Rated No 1 in preseason Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook for this year.

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