The best in college football in 2012, as in most years, is found in the SEC and Big 12 conferences.
There has long been a debate - not among SEC fans or Big 12 loyalists, mind you; we all know where they stand - over which conference prevails over all others as the creme de la crème of college football.
With a member of the Southeastern Conference claiming the past six BCS National Championships and another one, Alabama, the defending national champion, playing in the title game this season against undefeated and top-ranked Notre Dame, many question what other proof is needed for the SEC to lay claim as the best football conference in the land.
If national championships were the lone measure of college football supremacy, the debate over the best football conference would be a moot issue, certainly over the past half-dozen seasons. But there are other tangible factors to consider as part of the analytics that help frame and fuel the argument. We thought it would be fun to take a deeper look at some of the statistical comparisons between, undeniably, the nation's two best football conferences.
Some truths: Among the 70 NCAA FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) schools participating in 35 postseason bowl games between Dec. 15 and Jan. 7 this holiday season, nine are from the Big 12, while the SEC will be represented in seven bowl games, including the BCS National Championship. Along those same lines, the SEC has two teams in BCS bowls this season (Alabama in the BCS title game and Florida in the Sugar Bowl), while only one Big 12 team, Kansas State, is going to a BCS bowl (the Fiesta Bowl, as the Big 12 champion).
In the 14 seasons under the BCS bowl format, an SEC team has been crowned the national champion eight times; a team from the Big 12 has won on two occasions. An SEC team has appeared in nine of the championship games, while the Big 12 has been represented in the title game six times (four times by Oklahoma).
There have been 16 Heisman Trophy winners since the 1996 season. The Big 12 has five Heisman winners (RB Ricky Williams, Texas, 1996; QB Eric Crouch, Nebraska, 2001; QB Jason White, Oklahoma, 2003; QB Sam Bradford, Oklahoma, 2008, and QB Robert Grifin III, Baylor, last season). During that same time, the SEC has had four players (Danny Wuerffel of Florida, 1996; Tim Tebow of Florida in 2007; Mark Ingram of Alabama in 2009 and Cam Newton of Auburn in 2010) honored with the Heisman Trophy. The three finalists for the 2012 Heisman include Collin Klein of Kansas State and Texas A&M's freshman quarterback sensation Johnny Manzeil, along with Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o.
This season, the 14 SEC schools combined for an overall record of 98-48, a winning percentage of .670. The overall 2012 regular-season record of the 10 Big 12 schools was 71-49, which translates to a winning percentage of .590. The SEC had one 12-win team (Alabama), two with 11 wins and three schools that recorded 10-win seasons. By comparison, just two Big 12 teams (Kansas State and Oklahoma) posted double-digit win totals in the 2012 season.
The SEC has a decided advantage insofar as teams ranked in the BCS top 25. Six SEC schools were ranked in the final BCS poll for this season, all six in the top 10. The Big 12 meanwhile, had Kansas State at No. 6 in the final BCS standings and Oklahoma at No. 11. No other Big 12 schools made the BCS top 25, although Texas, TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech were all ranked in either the AP media poll or the USA Today coaches' poll at various points in the season.
As might be expected, teams from both the SEC and the Big 12 were nationally prominent in several of the major offensive and defensive statistical categories. Some more truths:
- We've heard for years that the Big 12 is an offensive league, and in the SEC, defense dominates. The national statistics, for this season at least, bear that out in spades. The Big 12 boasts four of the country's top 10 teams in total offense, including No. 1 Baylor. The highest rated SEC team in this category is Texas A&M, ranked third in the nation. The same is true in scoring offense, in which seven Big 12 schools are ranked in the top 25, led by Oklahoma State at No. 4, averaging 44.67 points a game. This compares with four from the SEC, with Texas A&M (44.75 ppg) the highest ranked from both leagues at No. 3 nationally.
- The tales are flipped when it comes to defense, though. Three SEC teams are ranked in the top 10 in total defense, with Alabama at No, 1 (allowing 246 yards per game), followed by Florida at No. 5 and LSU No. 8. TCU is the highest ranked Big 12 school at 18th. Scoring defense is very similar, with Alabama leading the country, allowing opponents an average of just 10.7 points a game. Five other SEC schools are ranked among the top 20. Kansas State leads the Big 12 in scoring defense (26.1 ppg), the 24th best in the country.
- Behind some of the best starting quarterbacks in college football, the Big 12 is a pass-heavy league, with five of the nation's top 10 teams in this category coming from the conference. Texas Tech is second in the country, averaging 362 passing yards a game. Baylor ranks third, Oklahoma fifth, West Virginia sixth and Oklahoma State seventh. Texas A&M, with Johnny "Football" Manzeil, is the best passing team in the SEC. The Aggies average 317 passing yards a game, good enough for 14th best nationally.
- No Big 12 or SEC team ranks in the top 10 in rushing. Texas A&M, averaging 235 yards on the ground per game, and Baylor, averaging 225 rushing yards, are the best from both leagues in running the football.
- Two Big 12 teams, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, rank fifth and ninth in the country, respectively, in red-zone offense. Oklahoma State has been successful in scoring points 92 percent of the time this season when it has had the ball inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Oklahoma boasts a 91 percent red-zone efficiency rating. Not surprisingly, red-zone defense seems to be the SEC's forte, with four of its schools ranked in the top 20 nationally. No Big 12 teams rank in the top 25.
Another way of examining the strengths of both conferences is by the number of players drafted into the NFL. The 2013 draft class won't be available until next spring, but looking at historical trends, the SEC has long been the most fertile ground, and by a sizeable margin, of all the major conferences sending players to the NFL. In the 20-year period between 1992 and 2011, for example, 576 players from SEC schools were drafted by NFL teams, 180 more than the conference with the second most, the Big Ten. By comparison, 224 players from the Big 12 were drafted during that same period.
Eight of the current SEC schools rank among the top 25 schools with NFL draftees in the 20 years covered in this analysis compiled by the National Football League. Only three of the 25 are current Big 12 schools.
Based on all of these other factors, it's still not totally clear which conference can lay claim to the title of being the best in college football. It is probably safest to say that the SEC is the best in the country when it comes to playing defense, and the Big 12 is the most prolific conference in terms of offensive football excellence, but that doesn't come anywhere close to settling this long-running territorial argument.
In future years, these two major conferences will be able come much closer to settling their inter-league differences on the field. Beginning in 2014, the champions of both leagues will be matched up annually in the Sugar Bowl, providing that both league champions are not participating in the four-team playoff that will determine the national champion.
Head to-head competition between the best of both conferences - your strength against my strength - is really the only practical way, short of hosting a basketball-like challenge series every season between the two leagues, of determining which conference is the best on a year-in, year-out basis
There was only one head-to-head matchup of Big 12-SEC schools this season, and none of the nine bowl games involving Big 12 teams is against an SEC opponent (although Oklahoma vs. Florida, the projected Sugar Bowl matchup prior to the official announcement of the pairings, would have been a good one). In September, Texas hammered Ole Miss 66-31. In 2011, Arkansas and the SEC were 2-0 in head-to-head contests with the Big 12: The Razorbacks defeated Texas A&M (now an SEC school) 42-38 and then took care of Kansas State 29-16 in the Cotton Bowl Classic.
In the meantime, we can continue to have fun and fancy - and, most likely, agree to disagree - debating and discussing the Big 12 vs. SEC issue.
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