There has been a lot of chest thumping from Big Ten fans about their conference this season. Some media have even bought into the idea that the Big Ten is better than the SEC this season — I’m talking about my good friend Paul Finebaum, who turned into William Sherman on his recent ESPN hit, blowing up my timeline with Big Ten antagonism as a result of his comments.
But is it really true that the Big Ten is the best conference in football this year?
Well, there are four bowl games matching up Big Ten teams against SEC teams. So this gives us an objective analysis of the two conferences to begin our break down. Alabama is a ten point favorite over Michigan State, Georgia is a seven point favorite over Penn State, Tennessee is a nine point favorite over Northwestern and Michigan is a four point favorite over Florida. That’s a pretty good approximation of conference strength. The SEC is favored by a touchdown or more in three of these four head-to-head match-ups.
So what would a 1-14 contest between both conferences look like? (Incidentally I don’t know why college football doesn’t set up opening weekend conference challenges from the top to the bottom. Can you imagine how awesome it would be to see the SEC and Big Ten play every year, 1-14? Seven games in SEC venues and seven games in Big Ten venues. You could seed teams based on last year’s standings. Play two games on Thursday, three games on Friday, five games on Saturday, three on Sunday and one on Monday night. The NFL season hasn’t even begun yet. Can you imagine the ratings? How much fun would this gambling be?)
Since this won’t happen I decided to set up a 1-14 SEC vs. Big Ten challenge and forecast the opening lines in Vegas. In seeding the teams I went with conference record as a primary ranking determinant except in cases of ties in conference record when I went with which team I believed was better or which team had the better out of conference record.
Before we go any further — and to forestall the inevitable responses — Vegas is the best arbiter of team and conference rankings. If you believe that Vegas is artificially valuing a team or conference then instead of Tweeting me about it you are welcome to put your money where your Tweet is and go heavy on the underdogs.
And before all you Ohio State fans start chirping about Ohio State being an underdog to Alabama and “we saw how that turned out,” — as if one game’s outcome somehow invalidates all of Vegas’s lines — prior to Alabama losing to Ohio State the SEC has covered every title game since 1996. (The conference also won ten of these games outright, with the only loss coming from Auburn to Florida State. That’s from the Florida Gators in 1996 all the way up to the Auburn Tigers against Florida State in 2013.)
Alabama is the only SEC team in a title game or playoff not to cover in almost twenty years. (Aside from LSU, which was the underdog against Alabama in the 2011 title game and ended up losing to another SEC team when Bama covered). That means SEC teams are 11-1 against the spread in title games or playoff games since 1996. (Florida and LSU both covered against Ohio State in 2006 and 2007, by the way, Buckeye fans). So if you thought the SEC was overrated and bet on the other side in these games, congrats, you’d have a 1-11 record against the spread.
Despite these three paragraphs, I’d encourage all of you to check my mentions on Twitter as soon as this column goes up. It will all be about Ohio State beating Alabama last year. Seriously, college football fans have the brains of particularly daft snails and the memories of goldfish.
Here we go:
1. Alabama -10 vs. Michigan State (actual line)
2. Florida vs. Ohio State -14.5
3. Ole Miss -3.5 vs. Iowa (Iowa is a seven point underdog to Stanford in the Rose Bowl. This line is probably generous to Iowa).
4. LSU -2.5 vs. Michigan (Michigan is only a four point favorite over Florida. LSU was favored by 7.5 over the Gators when Florida was undefeated).
5. Tennessee -9 vs. Northwestern (actual line)
6. Arkansas -6.5 vs. Wisconsin
7. Georgia -7 vs. Penn State (actual line)
8. Texas A&M -4 vs. Nebraska
9. Mississippi State -8 vs. Indiana
10. Auburn -6.5 vs. Illinois
11. Vanderbilt vs. Minnesota -2
12. Kentucky -4 vs. Rutgers
13. Missouri -2 vs. Maryland
14. South Carolina -6 vs. Purdue
You’re welcome to disagree with my lines — even though they’re entirely objective and three of them are actual Vegas lines — but I have the SEC teams favored 12 times and the Big Ten teams favored 2 times. I’m pretty confident about all of these lines until we get down to the final four teams where it’s harder to forecast the lines because the teams in both conferences have been so bad. But even the two worst teams in the SEC, Mizzou and South Carolina, have two good wins — the Gamecocks beat 11-2 North Carolina and Mizzou beat 9-3 BYU. The worst Big Ten schools have nothing remotely approaching these out of conference wins. (I’ve asked Todd Fuhrman to help with these final four lines and I’ll Tweet his projections. It’s possible I gave Minnesota too much credit in favoring them over Vandy, for instance.)
If the SEC would be favored in 12 of the 14 (or 11 or 10 or 13 if you want to quibble) head-to-head games between the two conferences, isn’t it laughably absurd to argue the Big Ten is the superior conference this year? Even if you want to flip the top teams and argue that Ohio State should be number one, then the actual results don’t change. Bama would be a small favorite over Ohio State and Florida would be an underdog to Michigan State. The SEC is better at the top, the middle, and the bottom than the Big Ten this year. And many of these games aren’t even projected to be close.
My point is pretty simple: the SEC is still the king of college football.
In fact, the Big Ten isn’t even the second best conference in the eyes of Vegas, it’s the Pac 12.
Update: here are my guy Todd Fuhrman’s official lines. I was pretty close, but actually too generous to the Big Ten teams:
Alabama vs MSU…already lined
Florida vs OSU: Ohio St -13.5
Ole Miss vs Iowa: Ole Miss -7.5
LSU vs Michigan: LSU -2.5
Tennessee vs Northwestern…already lined
Arkansas vs Wisconsin: PK
Georgia vs Penn State…already lined
Texas A&M vs Nebraska: Texas A&M -7
Miss St vs Indiana: Mississippi St -12.5
Auburn vs Illinois: Auburn -7.5
Vandy vs Minnesota: Minnesota -2.5
Kentucky vs Rutgers: Kentucky -4.5
Missouri vs Maryland: Missouri -5
South Carolina vs Purdue: South Carolina -6.5
So the Vegas lines per Todd Fuhrman would be SEC 11, Big Ten 2, and 1 pick’em. And most SEC teams would actually be favored by more than I predicted.