Least Common Dominators

Comparing the SEC and Big 12 from the bottom up

College Football Preview: Week 12

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Nov. 13, 2007

By Carolyn Braff

CSTV.com

 



Carolyn Braff

Carolyn is an assistant editor and writer for CSTV.com.
E-mail here!

After 11 weeks of play, too many conference superiority debates and almost as many upsets as points allowed by Miami in its Orange Bowl adieu, here stands the nation's best, the BCS Top 5, listed by conference:

 

1. SEC

2. Pac-10

3. Big 12

4. Big 12

5. Big 12

 


 

 

And no, those last three are not typos.

 

Starting with the easier-to-swallow top of the list, the SEC unquestionably deserves a top-five selection. The LSU-Florida, Florida-Auburn and LSU-Kentucky thrillers, among a myriad of other headline matchups, showcased this conference's speed, big-play excitement and, to some extent, parity. Every fight in the SEC is an all-out brawl and the lone team rising from the rubble certainly warrants a top-five spot.

 

No. 2 also checks out. The Pac-10 has provided three of the last five Heisman Trophy winners and some of the loftiest expectations ever to grace the gridiron. USC may have fallen off the radar after that jaw-dropping loss to Stanford, but the rest of the conference has picked up the slack, so save a top-fiver for the left coast.

 

Which brings us to the clerical error that must be Nos. 3 through 5.

 

In case you missed the preseason memo, this is a down year for the Big 12. Oklahoma started the season without a big-name quarterback, only to see its chosen freshman become a dark horse Heisman candidate. Across the Red River, Texas was primed to take back the conference crown until QB Colt McCoy hit his sophomore slump and the Longhorn defense realized it never plugged the leaks that made Texas such a friendly squad to pass against in 2006.

 

Meanwhile, the remaining South division teams had their all-offense, no-defense schemes ready to roll and the Big 12 North was preparing for another competition with the MAC East to crown the Mr. Irrelevant of conference divisions.

 

But that was then. Welcome to Week 12, where that mixed-expectations grab bag has grabbed itself three of the nation's top five slots, and two of those three come from the land up over, the Big 12 North.

 

Perhaps it's time to take the pin out of the nation's-best-conference argument and figure this out. After all, the "down" conference is outnumbering the toughies 3:1 in this latest who's who list. With at least one member of that Big 12 trio all but guaranteed to still be making noise in January, it's worth determining if the Big 12 deserves as much praise as an SEC delegation, or if these teams are merely reaping the benefits of some very generous scheduling.

 

A crude application of fifth-grade math says that finding the least common denominator will reveal the strength of a body of teams. In this case, those denominators are Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Baylor and Iowa State, the weakest teams in each division of the two conferences. The battle begins with the stronger of the two divisions, the Big 12 South vs. the SEC East.

 

As the can-liner of the Big 12 South, Baylor is the not-so-proud owner of a 0-7 conference record and a 3-8 overall mark, while the floor wax of the SEC East, Vanderbilt, is 2-5 in the conference and an even 5-5 overall. Based purely on record, the point goes to the SEC.

 

Just who are these dust bunnies playing? Sorting by cumulative opposition, Baylor has the 27th-ranked schedule in the nation, meaning that the laughingstock Bears play a tougher slate than both No. 1 LSU and Vanderbilt, as the Commodores' schedule is ranked No. 38. The discrepancy in opponents' winning percentage is not huge (0.54 vs. 0.56), but enough to give the advantage to the Big 12.

 

The brains of a team is its offense, and Baylor has Vanderbilt edged on that front - the Bears rank No. 87 in total offense, while Vandy is down at No. 101, averaging 25 fewer yards per game against leaner competition. Point: Big 12.

 

But the brawn of a team is its defense, and there, Vanderbilt takes the Bears to the butcher. Vandy has the nation's 23rd-ranked defense, allowing just 325 yards per game, while Baylor is No. 106, letting teams run (and pass) like water for 454 yards. Advantage: SEC.

 

How well a team takes care of the football is another solid barometer of success, and the SEC takes this one, too. Vanderbilt ranks No. 62 in turnover margin, having created 19 and lost 20, while Baylor is second to last at 118, creating 19 but giving up 35. Point: SEC.

 

In the final stronger-division tally, the SEC dregs edge the Big 12 by a 3-2 margin, but a look as the less competitive division is an even closer call.

 

Big 12 North doormat Iowa State sports a 2-5 conference record, 3-8 overall, while Ole Miss, the sawdust of the SEC West, is winless in conference play and 3-7 on the year. Advantage: Big 12.

 

How about these for measures of proximity: Iowa State has the 8th-toughest schedule in the nation, while Ole Miss' ranks 10th; The Rebels are No. 97 in total offense with the Cyclones No. 98; and Iowa State is No. 96 in turnover margin with Ole Miss next on the list at No. 97. Not exactly ringing endorsements of the teams' playing ability, but you can't get more evenly matched than that.

 

That is, until you get to total defense. The Cyclones boast the nation's 56th-ranked D, while Ole Miss is languishing at No. 96, allowing 441 yards per game to Iowa State's 374.

 

All together, the edge in this division goes to the Big 12 by a 4-1 margin (record, strength of schedule, total defense and turnover margin belong to Iowa State while Ole Miss takes the total offense cake by 0.5 yards per game).

 

A conference chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the weak links in these conferences are equally rusty. A head-to-head challenge is the easiest way to settle this debate, but short of that, a bottom-rung comparison reveals that the SEC is not the inside-out dominating force about which some commissioners like to wax poetic.

 

Judging from the bottom of their respective conference piles, these Big 12 squads have just as much claim to the top BCS spots as their SEC counterparts, so start working on a non-incredulous vocal tone for use in discussions of Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.

 

Come Jan. 7, you might need it.

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