College football conference power rankings are strong handicapping tools, particularly when it comes to early-season non-conference play and bowl season. 9-4 LSU squared off against 8-5 Purdue in the Citrus Bowl this past season. Each team lost their conference championship to College Football Playoff teams. Removed opt-outs and injuries, LSU was an expected heavy favorite. Including opt-outs, the Tigers set records in their 63-7 drubbing of the Boilermakers in January.
LSU played a much more difficult schedule than Purdue this past year. Debate between passionate southerners and midwesterners flares during the fall between which conference is better: the Big Ten or the SEC? The consensus is that the SEC is the nation’s toughest conference, exhibited by this exact Citrus Bowl. But how do we quantify that?
Below, we will quantify college football conference power rankings. These ratings can help handicap college football odds like win totals and early-season games.
College Football Conference Power Rankings
OK– where do these numbers come from? They are an average of current, respected power ratings; namely ESPN’s FPI, Bill Connelly’s SP+, Football Outsiders’ FEI, and Sagarin power ratings. All of these factors play into the market and affect where spreads stand each week. Taking the aggregate of these respected metrics gives a pretty strong picture of where each team stands.
Spoiler Alert: The SEC Reigns King
It’s not all that surprising to see who sits atop the rankings. With two perennial championship contenders, the southeast dominates college football. However, the SEC doesn’t come without its variance. Mainly, Vanderbilt weighs the conference down as the only team that rates under 17. Bring the Commodores up to the conference average (23.9), and their average rating jumps to 25.1 – nearly a touchdown favorite over the Big 12.
Contrary to some arguments, the SEC is not top heavy. Beyond Georgia and Alabama; LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Florida, and Arkansas all rate higher than 20 power points.
Even those under 20 – Kentucky, Auburn, South Carolina, and Mizzou – are respectable top 25 candidates.
The Big 12: Better Than You Think?
Conference realignment talk paints a picture of two mega-conferences: the SEC and Big Ten. These two conferences do dominate the nation in terms of influence and finances, but not necessarily in terms of football on the field. In fact, the Big 12 top-to-bottom (including the four newbies in BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF) rates out as the best conference for 2023.
The group is led by Texas – who, despite underperforming, rosters some of the most talent nationally – and is brought up in the rear by BYU (12.8). Historically, the Big 12 might lag behind with a Kansas, but the Jayhawks roster some respectable talent and their seven-win season last year wasn’t a total fluke.
Not only does the Big 12 have the highest floor, but BYU ranks 5.5 points higher than the next low floor, Vanderbilt (7.9). In general, we can expect a competitive season this year.
Consistency, Consistency, Consistency
November MACtion is a lot like March Madness. On any given night, any team can win a wild back-and-forth game that comes down to a playmaker making plays. This past year, Bowling Green pulled off a stunning upset of Toledo thanks to receiver Odieu Hilaire erupting for 246 receiving yards. The game combined for 77 points in a sleet/rain mix.
Why is it that MACtion always seems to deliver?
Because the variance in rating in Mid American teams is the lowest of any conference. The gap between 10-win Ohio (4.4) and three-win Northern Illinois (-1.7) is less than a touchdown. The overall variance of the MAC (14.9) is nearly seven times less than the overall variance of the Big Ten (100.9) – the nation’s most varied conference.
While the MAC overall has the lowest average power rating and the lowest ceiling (Toledo, 7.9), teams are so clustered together in talent and the playing field is so even, the conference produces some of the most entertaining games. However, when it comes to non-conference play and, historically, bowl season, the MAC oftentimes falls flat. (Note: The MAC led all conferences with a .667 win rate this postseason. Historically, they sit around .300.)
Applying College Football Conference Power Rankings
Win totals are beginning to trickle out at sportsbooks. FanDuel Sportsbook released numbers for eight teams, all nationally competitive and mostly from legal betting states. Expect the rest of the Power Fives to release next, followed by the remaining teams.
When assessing a team like Oregon State, consider both their average conference power rating and the conference’s variance. The Pac-12 (93.9) carries the second-most variance, behind only the Big Ten. This means the top of the conference – Utah, Oregon, USC, Washington, etc. – has a much higher rating gap over the bottom of the conference (Stanford, Colorado, Cal).
Oregon State, whom I believe will be a very good team, can nearly guarantee at least three wins in-league this year: Stanford, Arizona, and Cal. (Note: Colorado is a wild card given their rebuild.) The Beavers rate out at least 14 points higher than all three of those opponents. We can be more confident leaning over that win total when it releases because of the disparity between Oregon State and the bottom of the Pac-12.
On the other end, you have a win total for Eastern Michigan. The Eagles might be one of the top two or three best teams in the MAC, but given their preseason power rating (3.0) won’t be more than 8.4 points than their worst opponent (Akron, -5.4), there’s a lot of coin-flip games for them to lose. Should sportsbooks come out high on EMU, betting under their win total may be fruitful.
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