BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF appear headed to the Big 12, and that means a shake-up among the Power Five. Can the Big 12 keep up with the others in money, power, perception, and (most importantly) winning? To try to answer that on-the-field question, I turned to advanced metrics.
Specifically, I reviewed SP+ data from 2016 through 2020 to compare the New Big 12 – adding the four additions and subtracting Oklahoma and Texas – against the leagues likely to be its closest peers, the ACC and Pac-12. I analyzed every team’s end-of-season SP+ rating and averaged them across each league to determine overall conference strength.
SP+ is a metric created by Bill Connelly, now at ESPN, to compare all college football teams in spite of vastly different schedules. SP+ is an “opponent- and tempo-adjusted look at the most sustainable and predictive aspects of college football. It is intended to be predictive and forward-facing; it is a power ranking, not a résumé ranking that gives credit for big wins or brave scheduling.” This well-respected metric gives us an apples-to-apples look at teams that play different schedules.
SP+ assigns a numerical rating to each team based on its performance in every play from every game of the season. The ratings are both positive and negative; in 2020 the top rating was Alabama at 35.6, while the worst was UMass at -34.3. (The worst Power Five team in 2020 was Kansas, ranked 121st overall with a -18.4 rating.)
The average SP+ rating (and where that average rating would rank if it were a team playing in that season) of each of the New Big 12, ACC, and Pac-12 are:
|New Big 12||ACC||Pac-12|
|2016||4.9 (57th)||10.3 (39th)||8.0 (47th)|
|2017||4.8 (52nd)||11.3 (27th)||7.0 (45th)|
|2018||6.0 (47th)||5.3 (51st)||6.1 (47th)|
|2019||5.2 (47th)||3.0 (53rd)||5.3 (47th)|
|2020||7.1 (39th)||4.4 (52nd)||5.9 (48th)|
In 2016 and 2017, the clear order of these leagues was ACC > Pac-12 > New Big 12. In 2018 and 2019, the New Big 12 and Pac-12 were nearly identical, with the ACC trailing. And in 2020, the New Big 12 seized top billing and left the Pac-12 and ACC behind.
Over these five seasons overall, there’s no obvious picture about which league is ahead or behind the others. The Pac-12 is remarkably consistent, while the New Big 12 rises and the ACC falls. The big takeaway to me is that the New Big 12, ACC, and Pac-12 are all very comparable in on-field performance over the past five seasons. Based on top-to-bottom conference performance, the New Big 12 belongs in the Power Five.
There are some other interesting lessons to be learned from the SP+ data, too:
The Clemson Outlier. In the last few seasons, the ACC had an extreme outlier in Clemson. While it’s been one of the top teams in the sport, the rest of the league has trailed far behind – without even a #2 team of similar caliber.
Clemson’s rating (and national ranking) along with the #2 team in the ACC for the past three years illustrates this well:
- 2020: Clemson 27.4 (3rd); North Carolina 17.1 (12th)
- 2019: Clemson 28.1 (4th); North Carolina 10.3 (30th)
- 2018: Clemson 29.7 (3rd); Miami 12.7 (27th)
In two out of the last three seasons, the ACC had the SP+ equivalent of one playoff contender and none of the rest of the conference so much as cracking the Top 25. While many people may consider “conference strength” by thinking about the elite teams in the sport and weighting playoff contenders too heavily, the ACC’s relative weakness from teams 2 through 14 has been an issue recently. If this keeps up, the ACC’s complete lack of a “middle class” could hurt its perception and elevate the Pac-12 or the New Big 12.
The Kansas Outlier. On the other side of the coin is Kansas. The New Big 12’s rating is dragged down by the Jayhawks. For example, in 2020, Kansas’s -18.4 rating – by far the worst in the Power Five – was ahead of the conference’s second-worst team by a whopping 17.6 points (Texas Tech, at -0.8, ranked 11th in the New Big 12 and 77th nationally).
Kansas ranks 12th in the New Big 12 for each season from 2016 through 2020, and KU’s best SP+ performance from 2016 to 2020 was a -9.8 rating in 2019, good for 104th nationally. Meanwhile, the worst performance from any other New Big 12 team, in any of these five seasons, was BYU at -7.4 (97th) in 2017.
While top-to-bottom conference strength includes outliers, removing Kansas would brighten the picture even further for the New Big 12. In 2020, simply dropping Kansas raises the league’s rating from 7.1 to 9.4, a jump from the 39th ranking as a conference average to the 31st. If KU is able to improve to even a mediocre program rather than playing through one of the worst stretches in the history of the sport, the New Big 12’s overall strength has plenty of room to grow.
The Best of the New Big 12. The New Big 12 might be Power Five-worthy from top to bottom, but strength at the very top of the league is still in question. Here are the top-rated teams from each of the past five seasons, broken down by whether they’re already in the league vs. joining soon:
|Best of Original Eight||Best of New Four|
|2016||Oklahoma State, 16.4 (13th)||Houston, 10.1 (39th)|
|2017||Oklahoma State, 19.1 (15th)||UCF, 14.1 (22nd)|
|2018||Oklahoma State, 13.8 (22nd)||UCF, 16.5 (18th)|
|2019||Baylor, 17.8 (18th)||UCF, 19.1 (14th)|
|2020||Iowa State, 18.7 (11th)||BYU, 23.1 (7th)|
In these five seasons, only one New Big 12 team cracked the Top 10, with BYU’s performance in 2020 led by the #2 NFL Draft pick Zach Wilson. Worse still, if the 12-team playoff proposal (with six spots reserved for conference champions) were implemented, SP+ indicates the New Big 12 would only have been in position to compete for the six at-large bids in one of the last five seasons. (The league’s best SP+ team would have been in line for a conference champion bid in each season, though.)
If the New Big 12 wants to be seen as a power conference, it may benefit from one of its teams breaking out and becoming a perennial contender. Or it may benefit from an expanded playoff giving teams a chance to show their worth on the field – after all, if the New Big 12 wins playoff games, the perception will follow.
But even if neither of those things happen, the numbers don’t lie. The New Big 12, ACC, and Pac-12 all stack up competitively on the field, and all three leagues should be thought of in the same light in the Power Five.