The Best Football Conference Also Educates Better

The best football conference is the Pac 12 in 2021-2022 baby! Go Bears! But actually, the best football conference is probably the Big Ten based on all the stats back when I first wrote this post in 2010.

1. Big Ten

F/+ Top 25 teams: 5 (35.7 percent)
Sagarin divisional ranks: No. 3 (East division), No. 6 (West division)
Average strength of schedule rank: 23.3

New Year's Six teams: 3
Playoff teams: 1

The Big Ten had 10 bowl-eligible teams out of 14, but what separated it from other Power Five conferences was how good it was at the top. Four of the five teams ranked in the F/+ Top 25 were ranked in the top 12. Additionally, each division was rated highly. Entering the final week of the season, Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin were all in the playoff hunt. Each of those teams either made a New Year's Six or College Football Playoff game. The bottom of the Big Ten was bad, but overall this was the strongest league from a strength-of-schedule perspective.

2. Pac-12

F/+ Top 25 teams: 3 (25 percent)
Sagarin divisional ranks: No. 2 (North division), No. 4 (South division)
Average strength of schedule rank: 32.3

New Year's Six teams: 1
Playoff teams: 1

The Big Ten may have had the highest number of top-end teams, but the gap between the best team and the worst team in the Pac-12 was smaller. (In fact, the conference's best team, Washington, needed overtime to beat its worst team, Arizona.) The Pac-12 also had an even split between its top six teams and its bottom six. Overall, this was a strong, and deep, conference.

3. ACC

F/+ Top 25 teams: 7 (50 percent)
Sagarin divisional ranks: No. 5 (Coastal division), No. 7 (Atlantic division)
Average strength of schedule rank:
New Year's Six teams: 1
Playoff teams: 1

The most impressive thing about the ACC was the number of top-25 teams in the F/+ rankings. Seven was the highest number of any conference. However, the ACC's overall strength of schedule was lower, as were the divisional rankings. This was a league with one elite team (Clemson) and several good to very good teams.

4. SEC

F/+ Top 25 teams: 4 (28.6 percent)
Sagarin divisional ranks: No. 1 (West division), No. 10 (East division)
Average strength of schedule rank:
New Year's Six teams: 1
Playoff teams: 1

It's shocking to see the SEC, long considered the best conference in college football, plunge to No. 4, but there's a simple reason for it. Alabama was unquestionably the best team in college football, but the rest of the conference simply didn't match up. The SEC East was particularly bad and ranked the 10th-best division, lowest among any Power Five division. The West division was strong and the schedules were tough, but the conference was really dragged down by that East division.

5. Big 12

F/+ Top 25 teams: 1 (10 percent)
Sagarin divisional ranks: No. 8 (conference)
Average strength of schedule rank:
New Year's Six teams: 1
Playoff teams: 0

The Big 12 was the weakest Power Five conference. It had one top-tier team (Oklahoma), two decent teams (Oklahoma State and West Virginia) and a handful of average to below average teams. Having only 10 members hurts the Big 12's chances to have multiple elite teams, but there have been recent years in which the conference was able to flex its depth. This was not one of them.

6. AAC

F/+ Top 25 teams: 2 (16.7 percent)
Sagarin divisional ranks: No. 9 (West division), No. 12 (East division)
Average strength of schedule rank:
New Year's Six teams: 0
Playoff teams: 0

There wasn't much separation between the Big 12 and the AAC. The top of the American, in fact, was a bit stronger. However, the strength of schedule was lower — albeit only slightly — and power programs like Houston and Navy weren't able to crack the New Year's Six spot. Otherwise, these spots probably would have been flipped.

7. Mountain West

F/+ Top 25 teams: 1 (8.3 percent)
Sagarin divisional ranks: No. 11 (Mountain division), No. 18 (West division)
Average strength of schedule rank:
New Year's Six teams: 0
Playoff teams: 0

This is where the statistical drop-off happens. The Mountain West didn't have a New Year's Six and its most well-known program, Boise State, didn't even win its division. However, half of the conference did have winning records — five in the Mountain division alone — and two 10-win teams. The overall depth was the tiebreaker here over the MAC.

8. MAC

F/+ Top 25 teams: 1 (8.3 percent)
Sagarin divisional ranks: No. 14 (West division), No. 20 (East division)
Average strength of schedule rank:
New Year's Six teams: 1
Playoff teams: 0

There wasn't much to distinguish between the MAC and the Mountain West. Both conferences had a bell cow team, but neither had particularly strong divisions — both, in fact, had an especially weak one — or strength of schedule ratings. The MAC did have undefeated Western Michigan, but the rest of the conference was weak.

9. Conference USA

F/+ Top 25 teams: 1 (7.7 percent)
Sagarin divisional ranks: No. 17 (East division), No. 19 (West division)
Average strength of schedule rank:
New Year's Six teams: 0
Playoff teams: 0

Similar to the MAC and Mountain West, Conference USA had a top-25 caliber team in Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers actually played a fairly tough schedule, too, and still won 10 games. Outside of that, there isn't much. The likes of Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech gave the conference some good teams at the top, but the gap between them and the rest of the group was sizable.

10. Sun Belt

F/+ Top 25 teams: 0 (0 percent)
Sagarin divisional ranks: 16 (conference)
Average strength of schedule rank:
New Year's Six teams: 0
Playoff teams: 0

Someone has to bring up the rear. The Sun Belt had some good teams (Appalachian State, Troy) and some terrible ones (New Mexico State, Texas State) with some bad strength of schedules to boot. The lack of a Western Kentucky-caliber team hurt the Sun Belt here.

A 6-6 Washington team beat Nebraska 19-7 in the Holiday Bowl.  Stanford demolishes ACC Champion Virginia Tech 40-12 in the 2011 Orange Bowl and now we have Oregon playing Auburn in the BCS National Championship game.  Clearly, the PAC 10 is the most dominant athletic/football conference in the country.  In 2010, Stanford also pounded Notre Dame 37 to 14 and UCLA crushed Texas 34 to 12.  Statistics don't lie, no matter how biased you are living in middle America or on the East Coast.

If you compare academic match ups, the Pac 10 wins as well.  Not only are Stanford, UCLA, Washington, and Oregon academically superior to Notre Dame, Virginia Tech,  Texas, and Auburn based on polls by every single college ranking system available, they also have superior athletic programs to boot.  Furthermore, the campuses of Stanford, UCLA and Oregon are like country clubs, with phenomenal facilities and fantastic weather all year around.

Notre Dame, Texas, Auburn and Virginia Tech are fine schools in their own right.  However, if you compare the four against their Pac 10 match ups, there simply is no comparison.  Hence, why is it that athletic recruits would ever go to a school other than one in the PAC 10 if they had a choice?  Let's find out.


I don't understand why all players don't go to the best football conference.

* Good salesmanship. If anybody has ever seen The Blindside, people know that snagging an all-star recruit is a highly competitive process.  The coaches and athletic directors who are the best salespeople generally land the best recruiting classes.  They must not only sell the athlete, but the athlete's friends and family.  This is where shady things start happening.  Auburn's Cam Newton in 2010 is a prime example of what happens when you payoff a dad.

* Timezone Perception. For some reason, there is a perception that middle and east coast athletics are superior to west coast athletics.  Timezone plays an important role in all of this because the majority of sports writers are east coast based, and the majority of games are televised for the east coast viewer.  As a result, recruits believe they will have more air time attending an southern or east coast school.  It becomes ingrained in their heads that southern and east coast schools are better because they seem them all the time.

* Manipulation. If you weren't an athletic recruit, it's obvious you would go to Stanford over Notre Dame, and UCLA over Texas for a better chance at landing a plum job upon graduation.  Hence,  what it comes down to is shear manipulation by the media, parents, and coaches to convince someone to attend a school.  More than 95% of college athletes go pro is something other than sports.  Remember that, next time you are a parent who is looking for short-term gain, rather than long term.  Send your child to the best academic AND athletic school.

* Lack of education. It is possible that athletic recruit may have no idea where each school lies in the hierarchy of academia.  Sports are their primary focus, and not academia.  Yet, as the scores show, Stanford and UCLA are better athletic programs after they crushed Notre Dame and Texas.  Hence, we need to educate our high school athletes more about a schools academic reputation as much as their athletic reputation.  Stanford has the highest SAT average in the country for athletes at 1,130 based on the old scale.

* Harder to get in. Stanford and UCLA have higher academic standards.  It's foolish to assume that all college athletes can get into Stanford and UCLA just because they are physically talented.  Academic standards are lower for those students who are going to “work” for the school, however the top schools in the country don't stoop as low as others.  Hence, we can't all blame the media and parents.

Always Go To The Best Football Conference

Adults hold significant sway over high school students.  Unless the athlete is clearly head and shoulders above everyone else athletically, and is already being talked about as a future professional, it's important to push him or her towards the academically superior school.  Goodness forbid he is one of the majority who graduates and never enters the NFL.  At least he will have a prestigious degree with connected alumni to help him land a job to start a good life.

The best football conference is still the Pac 12 no matter what people say!

Related: West Coast Living Is The Best

For more resources check out my:

Financial Samurai has been online since 2009 and is one of the most trusted and largest independently-run personal finances today. You can sign up for my free newsletter for more insights. 

39 thoughts on “The Best Football Conference Also Educates Better”

  1. I agree with you whole-heartedly. The student-athlete and his/her family should not lose site of how many blue-chip prospects are never heard of ever again. If my kids ever become athletically inclined, I will make it a point to remind them that they are student-athletes, not the other way around.

  2. Orlando CPA

    I guess you live on the west coast, which explains your bias towards the Pac-10. Most athletes prefer to stay close to home so that family and friends can watch them play and also provide support.

    1. Are you saying that most of the high school athletic population lives out East? Or probably that you are stating a very good reason why the students don’t ever leave too far from home?

  3. Motor Caravan Insurance

    What’s great is when Cal crushed UCLA this past weekend. Since UCLA crushed Texas, it’s obvious Cal would probably crush Texas by at least 40!

  4. As an update, the University of Southern California (USC) has passed UCLA in the latest US News academic rankings. I still like the premise of your article as I generally root for Notre Dame’s opponent each Saturday. From personal experience (I am the proud father of a Trojan alum class of ’10 who is also a current USC employee) USC is a fantastic school that provides an excellent educational opportunity for top students.

    1. Congrats! I’m impressed how far in the ranks USC has climbed over the past 15 years. They were outside of the Top 25 for sure 15 years ago.

      Good luck with your new president!

  5. Gee according to the polls the forum promoted PAC-10 only has Oregon representing them in the top 10 and maybe 2 other schools in the top 25.
    Welcome to college football! a victory or two over a big name school does not equate to an all powerful conference. College football is a long grind it out season. Everyone that knows anything about college football knows that the PAC -10 looks great early on with their fancy pass happy offenses but somehow they never seem to keep it going once midseason comes around. They get exposed very quickly. The only team that came out of the PAC 10 in recent memory that bucked the tradition was USC because they had it figured out; you need a solid running game and u need a strong defense. Although their pretty boy QB’s and receivers got all the accolades, everyone new it was their running game and defense that carried the heavy load to win.
    The best thing about playing in the PAC 10 as football fans know is that the players don’t get physically beatup in the conference; it’s akin to playing flag football and hopefully u get a shot at the title with a healthy team intact.

    You guys should stop pretending u know anything about football and stick to your wine tastings during the tailgaters.

    Bandwagon hoaxes!

    1. What’s great is when Cal crushed UCLA this past weekend. Since UCLA crushed Texas, it’s obvious Cal would probably crush Texas by at least 40!

      Remember, we’re talking about academics as well as athletics. PAC 10 with UCLA, USC, Stanford, and Berkeley have no academic match, and the football ain’t bad either!

  6. I would also add that a school’s past history of sending athletes to the professional leagues is a consideration. Many student athletes go to schools that give them the best chance of getting drafted at the next level.

  7. Powell are you Sams cabana boy by chance or maybe you are his gardener? Actually I retract those questions because that would be an insult to the honest and hard working cabana boys and gardeners. So let me rephrase that, are u his former college roommate turned stockbroker?

    Aside from regurgitating what Sam has mentioned(which is zilch) what do YOU know about college football?

    1. I employee people like you and never let you move up the ladder. Sorry again that you didn’t go to a good school and your football team sucks hehe. Hope you didn’t bet and lose a lot of money either! :)

  8. Here are a couple of more facts for you.

    1. Anyone that believes the rankings of US News and World Reports is a moron because first it’s nothing more than a marketing piece to sell magazines, second everyone knows that the schools provide the data to the magazine and third the data is manipulated by the very sources that provide it in order to game the ranking system. Rankings are a con game just like the new age value of a college degree.

    2. Another obvious fact is that you know absolutely zilch about college football

    3. Aside from USC in the last decade, the Pac -10 has been exposed again and again as lacking what it takes to play championship caliber college football. They are great in the 1st 5 games of the season but then they fade quicker than a tan in a Chicago winter.

    Tell me how many college grads go on to make six figures a year? Tell me how many actually get jobs that recoup their six figure investments from these top tier schools? I know I come across more college grads in 45k per year jobs and 120k in student debt than I do ones making 100k and no debt.
    I also know that schools and alumni networks provide more job/career assistance to ex ball players than they do the average alumnus.

    Don’t talk to me about college football, u lack any and all credibility on the topic. Are u that guy that brings white wine and truffles to a Saturday tailgater, wearing his polo shirt with the color popped up?

    1. Did you just say a fact is that “anyone who believes the ranks of US News and World Reports is a moron”? Was that your fact?

      Come on buddy, give me some facts! Just because you didn’t go to a top school, doesn’t mean you have to hate on them. It’s OK if you went to a tier 2 school, seriously. No need to deny reality. Why don’t you share with us what you know about football and tell us what conference/school you went to?

      Here’s another ranking list for your ref:

      The lists go on and on and on.


      1. Once again your “facts” are based on a magazine that wants people to buy more of their product. You drink kool aid much buddy boy? If you were truly EDUCATED then you would have the ability to utilize ‘critical’ thinking and ‘independent’ thought. Obviously you are one of the herd and believe in mantras, rhetoric, slogans, marketing pieces and editorials as so called facts. Yup I have u figured out Biff, you think Fox News is actually ‘news’.

        People like you are the reason why American higher education has turned into a souless factory of branding , concerned with meaningless statistics and data points in order to produce profits and not educating our best and brightest minds.

        FYI -Silly taunts within the vein of “I went to a higher ranked school than you” are for insecure children. What do u wish to compare next , that your German/Japanese automobile is superior to my German/Japanese automobile? Maybe you want to compare that your Ralph lauren polo shirt is superior to my Lacoste polo?

        Now Einstein, utilize that superior brain or yours and tell me what these so called college rankings actually mean in the real world. You see, I surmise that your knowledge of higher education is equal to your knowledge of college football. Aside from the cursory glancing over of rankings , you really don’t know squat.

        1. One question for you Jslugger: Are you delusional?

          Just because you didn’t study hard and go to a good school doesn’t mean you have to deny reality so much as you do now. The fact remains that Stanford crushed ND and UCLA crushed Texas. Why is this so hard to understand? Share with us what you think the best schools are then. You can’t b/c you don’t know.

          I’m amazed you just attack, back yourself up with no facts and dont accept reality. Are you that ashamed of where you went to school that you can’t even say? Guess so.

          Listen, it’s not Sam’s fault or anybody’s fault that you didn’t go to a good school, and are stuck with some crappy job. Just accept your life, know that you will never do anything good in your life and move on.

          Your hate is so sad.

  9. Holy mackerel u a truly have displayed your complete ignorance on college sports and most specifically football!!. I have never read such bandwagon opinionated misinformed rah rah rose colored glasses claptrap in my life!!
    You need an education in sports my friend.

    1. Notre Dame Football DOES NOT belong to a conference.
    – that simple fact alone completely destroys any shred of credibility created by your wasted written words.

    2. Div I football players recruited with scholarship offers have a legitimate shot of making the pros, so they are thinking about what school is going to give them the best opportunity to make the pros.
    There are tons of variables in the decision making process:
    -They look at the coaching system
    -they look at how many players from that system make it to the pros(did u ever hear of something called a a pipeline of talent?)
    -they look at how much media exposure they will get(Notre Dame has every home game televised on NBC)
    -they look at the depth of their competition for their position on the team
    -they look at the network of boosters and the under the table “gifts”
    -they listen to their handlers and soon to be agents that have been shadowing their careers and influencing their decisions since their pop warner days.

    3. Do u even understand that these athletes train all year round with no time off in order to develop into the best players possible, while other students are spending more time studying, going on spring/summer vacations, partying every wknd and just hanging out with friends? Do u even know that these guys are in the weight room or doing drills at 6am before classes while other students are still asleep or they are leaving training table or the training room at 7pm while other students are hanging out in the dorms playing x-box? Their goal is to go to the NFL not Goldman Sachs

    Obviously you are clueless about college football and don’t understand what a huge business it is; u strike me as one of those types that believe in the fantasy of the pure student athlete that wears the leather helmet, plays for the pride of the school and should be gratetful to have a “FREE EDUCATION” while the college makes millions off of him. Wake up my friend!

    Also your statement about academically superior schools is complete nonsense. You appear to be ignorant about that subject too. Come on you are comparing Stanford, UCLA to ND, Texas as if they are the top 1% vs the bottom 1% . What is your criteria for ‘academically superior”? I suppose u got your facts from the fanboy sites?

    Seriously what ‘FACTS’ did you base this post on aside from the win/loss result of a football game?

    Please tell me me that you are joking or doing some tongue in cheek type of post because you come across as a fool on this topic.

    1. Awesome comment! I haven’t read any facts from your comment though :(

      Here are two facts:

      * Stanford crushed ND, and UCLA crushed Texas last Saturday. Pow!
      * Stanford ranks higher than ND, and UCLA ranks higher than Texas in acadamics. Shizam!

      Please tell me what percentage of these football athletes make it to the pros. And then you will find why you are wrong. It’s important to go to the best college academically AND athletically, not just an athletic school.

      Of course ND is an indendent. The post wasn’t debating whether the Pac 10 is better than no conference, the post makes a claim that the PAC 10 is the best conference in the nation, and easily crushes perceived great football schools such as ND & Texas.


  10. Craig Gonzales

    This is Gilbert’s first real year. UT always starts slow with a new leader. UCLA blah blah! Texas will own next year.

  11. I don’t know much when it comes to sports recruiting except for what I saw in The Blind Side. I really liked that movie. Education is definitely important as it’s always good to have a backup plan if your “dream” career of being a pro athlete, movie star, etc. doesn’t work out.

    1. Ahhh… gotcha! OK, so out of those schools…. I would say a student athelete should aim to attend Northwestern, Michigan, then Wisconsin for academic excellence, just in case they are one of the 90% who don’t turn pro yes?

    2. I think you meant Michigan State in place of Northwestern.. Northwestern is 6th in the Big Ten, not 5th thus far..

  12. Kevin @

    How many Stanford grads are in the NFL?
    How many UCLA grads are in the NFL?
    Notre Dame?

    I’d be willing to bet that most kids who are good enough to play at Texas or Notre Dame thinks he is good enough to play in the NFL. Why then would he go to Stanford when they have 1/4th of the NFL players as Texas?

    I also think you are underestimating the importance of geographic location and school pride. If I could play college football, I’d do it at a school where my mom could travel to the games. If I grew up in Texas, I’d want to stay there for my family. I also have ND friends who live and die with that school. The whole family went to ND and wouldn’t consider another school.

    Players want to win national championships, and they have a better chance at Texas or ND.

    Certain schools have better reputations on specific subjects. If I want to be a journalist, I’d much rather go to Mizzou or Northwestern than anywhere in the Pac 10.

    I could go on. There are lots of reasons not to go to UCLA or Stanford. That’s the beauty of living in a free country. We can make our own decisions.

    1. How do you win a national championship at ND or Texas when you get blown out by Stanford and UCLA?

      America is way to inward. We don’t leave our hometowns, and therefore we don’t get educated and think with a narrow mind. It’s a shame that our abilities to speak a 2nd language is so lacking compared to the Europeans. No wonder the world laughs at us!

  13. Shouldn’t athletes aim for schools that are both athletically AND academically superior? Yes.

    Realistically, the vast majority of these athletes will not play one minute of professional sports at the highest levels – be it the NFL, NBA, or MLB. So, why don’t they just focus on using their athletic skills to get into the best academic program?

    Well, because they don’t think that way. Some athletes are academically oriented, but others are not. Some don’t value the education, just the idea of being part of a winning sports team, and being the big guy on campus.

    Here’s how I see it: Let’s say someone was a really good football player, not good enough to play in the NFL eventually, but good enough to at least be a starter on a Pac-10 team. Would you rather go play in the Pac-Ten at Arizona State, let’s say, with the great weather and great looking girls? There, you could be a star for 4 years, and have lots of fun:) When you graduate, you have a Pac-Ten degree but no ability to play pro sports, and have to find a job/go to grad school like everybody else in the country.

    Or, would you rather go to MIT, where you lose the opportunity to play college football, and settle for the intramurals (where you dominate). There aren’t that many girls there, and college will be a lot less fun. However, when you graduate, you’ll get a great job, a leg up for grad school, and will have much greater earnings potential?

    I would take MIT. You get no immediate glory, and may be branded a geek for the short term. However, over the long run, you’ll make more money and will be certainly be in more demand:) The coolness factor is just delayed!

    My suspicion is that most people, let alone athletes, would be enticed by the Arizona State option. Even if the comparison was changed to say, Arizona State and Northwestern, for example, people may choose ASU for the fun. Go to Northwestern, however, and you’ll get a premium degree.

    It’s all about instant gratification, not long-term logic, for many folks.

    By the way, I went to a Big Ten school (not NW), so the comparison should apply there equally. I just pointed out the Pac-Ten since it’s more fun to do that:)

    1. Of course you got to Northwestern over any other school in that conference, bc that is an excellent institution!
      You can’t use MIT as an example bc their athletics are so subpar and not DI anyway. Apples to oranges.

      Good thoughts, which is why you aim for the best athletic program AND best sports program if you are an athlete not some school in the SEC, gazoinks!

  14. Are you seriously making this post? Two examples does not a fact make. Its a long season, and the PAC 10 is most certainly *not* the most dominant conference in the country. If you have a conference with 2 schools who have good programs, and 8+ with crappy programs, that is not a ‘dominant conference’. I’m just giving you an example and not saying that that is the case with the PAC 10 this year; but you’re falling into your typical West Coast loving sentiment, and falling into logical fallacies as you go. There are many reasons for an athlete to choose Notre Dame, and many of them might just be they are historically, given all of history, a better program than either of the two schools you mention, just on longevity and tradition. While you discount longevity and tradition, some people do not.

    This is a really biased post with little factual commentary… I’m almost ashamed to have read it. You can do better, Samurai…

    1. The only factual commentary I need is that Notre Dame and Texas got SMOKED! Be in denial and cling to legacy all you want.

      Come up with a better rebuttal. You can do it!

      1. I don’t even like Notre Dame, and they aren’t in a ‘conference,’ so the claim of most dominant conference is just strange to me.

        The Big 10 is the conference you need to worry about, not the SEC

  15. I would personally choose Stanford as my number one school as it has amazing academics and a beautiful campus.

    That said, I’d have to say that the SEC has been the most dominant conference in football the last few years. No other conference is as physical and big. I went to a Northeast school, so I have no bias in this.

  16. Well, I guess all the teams that play Stanford and UCLA this year should just forfeit now and save on travel costs… :)

    In seriousness, I know it is very hard to get into UCLA if you are an out of state student. Whereas people at U of M seem to love that out of state tuition they get, California schools seem to prefer their own. (Talk about making some money in Cali, accept more out of state students so you can get that ridiculously inflated out-of-state tuition.) If I remember correctly, something like 94 percent of students at UCLA are California residents, compared with 66 percent from U of M. Is it that the out of state tuition is cost prohibitive or do they like to accept in state residents? I have heard that it is very hard for an out of state resident to get in.

    I am sure a lot has to do with ‘legacies’ and maybe some want to stay closer to home. (How many games can a parent go to if their child plays across the country??)

    1. Definitely! If I were an opposing team, I’d just wave the white flag and just call it quits!

      Good idea making more money off of out of state students, however the charter/mandate is for the UC school system to support local residents since the schools are state subsidized.

      Interesting stat on U of Michigan though!

      1. I just realized my little statistic about University of Michigan may have been written poorly and misleading. What I MEANT to say is that 66 percent of U of M students are In State residents, as opposed to 94 percent of UCLA. I didn’t mean to imply that 66 percent of U of M students are California residents, which is kind of how it sounded.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *