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The computer rankings consider the SEC No. 1.::AP

By Hugh Falk, Pollspeak.com

Last weekend had little effect on the BCS picture.  It's still the SEC champion vs. Texas for the national championship.  Then the conference champions will take their BCS bowl slots leaving what little drama is left for who will get the at-large bids.

Depending on how the conference championships play out, there could be a lot of drama, but I'll leave that topic for next week.  This week the topic is conference strength... something that the championship games next week won't significantly affect.

Four of the BCS components also offer conference ratings:  Sagarin, Anderson & Hester, Colley, and Wolfe.  No two systems rank the conferences in the same order, but let's look at some of the things they do agree upon this week:

1)      The SEC is No. 1.   Fans from other conferences may complain on forums about ESPN's pandering to the SEC because of their TV deal...that the SEC isn't really that good.  Even if you don't believe the media consensus that the best football is played in the SEC, the arguments against are less compelling when every computer agrees.  At least this year, ESPN can say, "it ain't pandering if it's true."

2)      The PAC-10 is a strong No. 2.  Three of the four computers place the PAC-10 in the second spot.  Colley has the Big East No. 2 with the PAC-10 a close No. 3.  The PAC-10 also played the fewest FCS (1-AA) opponents of the major conferences.

3)      Admit it...the Big East is better than you thought.  Colley has them No. 2, A&H and Wolfe rank them No. 3, and Sagarin has them No. 4.  Amazingly, the Big East started the season with ZERO teams ranked in the polls.  There was a lot of forum chatter about how the Big East didn't deserve an automatic BCS bid.  Pollspeak published an article in the beleaguered league's defense, but the Big East proved itself on the field.

4)      The conferences ranked three through six tend to interchange with No. 6 split between the ACC and Big 10.  The ACC definitely hurt themselves last weekend.  They lost every SEC matchup (Georgia Tech vs. Georgia, FSU vs. Florida and Clemson vs. South Carolina); plus ranked North Carolina lost to NC State.  Miami was the best champion for the ACC's non-conference rep .

5)      The Mountain West and the WAC still have a long way to go to earn respect.  Every computer has the Mountain West over the WAC but also has both ranked below the big six conferences (and typically below the independents.)  So while Boise State and TCU are great stories this year (and past years) and other teams like BYU and Utah earned respect, the conferences can't be taken seriously as a whole until some more of their teams get with the program.

But what do conference rankings really mean?  According to Wes Colley they basically mean that an average team in the top-ranked conference is better than an average team from a lower-ranked conference.  And according to Jeff Anderson, "The top-ranked conference is the conference that, on average, has the best teams."  Note that the operative word in these sentences is "average."

Obviously, it doesn't mean that the SEC champion will automatically be the national champion.  Texas, TCU, Boise State, etc. could potentially beat any team in the country.  However, until the best teams regularly line up and play (during the season or in a playoff), conference strength is another tool to help voters rank teams.  It shouldn't take precedence over team strength of schedule since out-of-conference games count just as much in the national picture.  Teams like TCU and Boise State have admirably bolstered their weak conference schedules with strong out of conference teams.  However, it still isn't enough since TCU's schedule ranks No. 84 nationally and Boise's ranks No. 91 according to Sagarin.

If the teams in the conferences that are ranked No. 7 or lower want a serious shot at the national title, they either need to join a stronger conference or hope the rest of their teams improve.   Of course, they could always go undefeated against three or four top-twenty, non-conference teams, but that isn't likely, and is a harder task than playing against a bunch of "average" teams in conference.  And that's really the key with the computers - the AVERAGE.  The WAC and Mountain West don't need to focus on making their best teams better; they just need to make their average teams more average.  I'm not saying this will truly make one conference better than another, but I am saying it is the key to getting the computers to think so.

I'm running out of time to deal with the human voters this week, but let me give them a quick mention:

  • The Coaches have California ranked lower than any other BCS component.
  • Harris Interactive has West Virginia ranked lower than any other BCS component.
  • And I never thought I'd see the day when USC was getting a LOT more respect from the computers than from the voters. Actually, LSU isn't faring much better with the voters. One AP voter in particular, Teddy Feinberg, was the only one to leave LSU off of his ballot...and one of the few to leave out USC. It seems he needed to make room for Northwestern, which he ranks highest at No. 14.

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