Well, college is here and with it, the long summer hiatus of DCIAB is finally over, as Bob broke the long dry spell with his EPL post a few days ago. Matt and myself have settled in at our respective schools, him at Illinois and myself at Miami (yes the one in Florida, not the lame public school in Ohio) and Bob will get to Northwestern next month. (I’ll give you all a second to laugh at the kids in the quarter system instead of semesters. Need more time? I can wait. Good? Okay.)
Since Matt and Bob are both enrolled at Big Ten schools and I’m in the ACC, we had a bit of a debate yesterday about the assumption it seems many have that the Big Ten is a much better football conference than the ACC. A quick check of advanced metric states don’t back this up, as both Team Rankings and Football Outsiders had the Big Ten rated just a hair better than the ACC last year. But instead of just blindly trusting these difficult-to-comprehend numerical values, I’m going to go through each conference and take a look at each team.
I’d like to emphasize that this comparison will take into account the current state of each school’s football program, not its history. Obviously, the Big Ten is the much stronger conference historically. If you’re a fan of a school in the Big 12, you can stop reading and go back to watching the rodeo and SEC fans can stop pretending they’re literate and continue humping their first cousin because this solely looks at Big Ten and ACC schools.
To break the conferences down a bit, I’m separating the schools into the following categories. I’ll name a winner of each conference in each category and then an overall winner for the superior conference at the end of the post.
- Powerhouses: These schools are teams with a shot to get to the National Championship game and lose to Alabama and their clan of unwashed fat men with their fatter wives driving up their trailer homes from good ol’ Tuscaloosa. If Nick Saban weren’t creating an NFL minor league system deep in the Confederacy, these teams would have a shot at a crystal football. Examples from other conferences: Texas A&M, Oregon
- If You Squint Hard Enough: These teams have some glaring flaws, but if everything goes right they could contend for a conference championship and a bid in a BCS bowl, but hell would have to freeze over or the NCAA would have to become a competent organization for them to find their way to the National Title game. Hey, hell is still thawing out after Notre Dame’s run last year turned that place into Winnipeg in February. Examples from other conferences: Oklahoma, Florida
- Teams On The Rise: Teams that are certainly not ready to compete for a BCS bid, but are on their way up. They certainly won’t embarrass their conference most weeks. Examples from other conferences: Mississippi, Cincinnati
- Teams On The Downswing: Maybe these teams were once good and are headed for some rough times. Or maybe, even worse, they were just average and are barely holding on to stay out of the worst category on the board. Examples from other conferences: West Virginia, Tennessee
- Bottom Of The Barrel: I don’t think I need to explain this category much. These teams are doormats that wouldn’t even be suitable for putting in front of your doghouse. Being a fan of these schools would probably be like receiving a lobotomy for twelve Saturdays every fall. Godspeed to the pour souls who subject themselves to this. Examples from other conferences: Colorado, Kansas
Let’s get to the rankings:
The ACC lends…no one to this category. The title race should be pretty wide open, and although there are two teams in the conference that could rise to this category with solid play, I’ll explain why they’re not at least to start the year in the next category.
Out of the Big Ten, we certainly have Ohio State. The Buckeyes ran the table last season, finishing 12-0 in a season overshadowed by their inability to play in the postseason due to NCAA sanctions. Returning dual-threat QB Braxton Miller and thirteen other starters from 2012 should help keep the ship sailing relatively smoothly. While the Buckeyes probably won’t finish 12-0 again—there was simply too much luck involved last time around—they’ll still be a force to be reckoned with.
Category winner: Big Ten, as the ACC doesn’t yet field a team in this category in 2013 (watch out for FSU and Miami in the coming years though)
If You Squint Hard Enough
In the ACC, two teams immediately stand out. The class of the ACC this year as picked by the media and the eye test is Clemson, which returns dynamic senior QB Tajh Boyd and lightning-fast junior WR Sammy Watkins. The offense should be one of the nation’s best, and the Tigers really showed their mettle last season when they beat SEC thumper LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. This team certainly has the potential to make the leap to the Powerhouses category, but falls short because of a defense that will give up too many big plays and the fact that Clemson always seems to be overhyped going into the year. The other obvious pick in this category is Florida State. The Seminoles featured the ACC’s best defense a year ago, but they lost a lot to graduation and return just 10 starters combined on both sides of the ball from 2012. They’re also breaking in a new QB, with sophomore Jameis Winston being announced the starter this week. While he looked great in FSU’s spring game, he has no significant game experience. How well he can learn on the fly will determine how far this team can go. One more team in the ACC could find themselves in this category, but will have to work their way there. I’ll cover them in the next section.
Looking at the Big Ten, there’s really not much here. You can attempt to make a case for a few teams, as I will, but there’s so much volatility that you could easily slot them into the Teams on the Rise category. Wisconsin gave Stanford a great game in the Rose Bowl last season and returns many players to what will certainly be one of the Big Ten’s best defenses. Returning QB starter Joel Stave should provide some stability at the position, but the Badgers will still be too reliant on the run game to be a real threat to dethrone Ohio State in the Leaders Division. Nebraska won the Legends Division a year ago before they were stomped by the Badgers in the Big Ten Championship game. The offense should continue to hum as it did last year, with returning starter and senior QB Taylor Martinez directing the offense. The defense was a problem last year and will be one again this time around, keeping Nebraska out of the conversation of Powerhouses.
Category Winner: At this point the ACC, but teams from either conferences could move up and shift this battle
Teams On The Rise
In the ACC, Miami is the best team in this category. The Hurricanes return 19 starters and will feature the Costal’s best offense by a good margin barring injury to senior QB Stephen Morris and the best player in college football that you’ve never heard of, sophomore RB Duke Johnson. The defense struggled mightily last season, with true freshmen taking many snaps, but should drastically improve this season. The Hurricanes play Florida at home in Week 2. With a win—or even a close loss—you can definitely throw Al Golden’s bunch in with Clemson and FSU. Virginia Tech returns senior QB Logan Thomas and…not much else. However, a tough 7-6 campaign in 2012 should mean an inevitable bounce-back for Frank Beamer’s team. They’ll be pasted in Week 1 by Alabama, but not having to face Clemson or FSU might mean the Hokies could snatch the Coastal away from Miami with a win at Sun Life Stadium on November 9. North Carolina returns 16 starters and will certainly bounce back from a year held down by a bowl ban. Georgia Tech returns eight starters on both sides of the ball and looks to make some noise in the Costal Division race for the first time 2009.
On to the Big Ten. We’ll call Michigan the best team of this bunch by a narrow margin, but honestly it’s splitting hairs. The Wolverines return most of the starters that matter, but have glaring holes at the wide receiver, offensive guard, defensive tackle, and safety positions. Dual-threat junior QB Devin Gardner proved to be inconsistent but good in five starts at the end of last season and the offense should crack the Top 30 nationally. The defense should as well, but Michigan will need to knock off Notre Dame and Nebraska (both games at home this season) before they can jump up a category. We’ll keep it in the state of Michigan with our next team, Michigan State. The Spartans went just 8-5 last year, but they lost those five games by a total of 13 points. They’ll have the best defense in the Legends Division this year, but the offense should struggle with no clear option at QB. In addition to that, they lost RB LeVeon Bell—who carrried their running game despite porous support from the offensive line—to graduation. MSU still qualifies as a team on the rise because they will do better than 3-5 in the Big Ten this year. Northwestern had a dream 10-3 season last year and Pat Fitzgerald’s recruiting has NU fans dreaming of Pasadena. The offense is capable with running-threat senior QB Kain Colter and accurate-passing junior QB Trevor Simien. Sophomore RB Venric Mark could be the Big Ten’s best back this year if the ‘Cats offensive line can get him the holes he needs. The Wildcats achillies heel this year is—as always for them—their defense. Let’s also not forget this is still Northwestern we’re talking about. They’ll find a way to stay out of the Big Ten title race as they always seem to do. Penn State refuses to let their crippling sanctions hold them down too much, and coach Bill O’Brien will have them playing hard this year.
Category Winner: The Big Ten takes this one, as Michigan, MSU, and Northwestern all are in a class only Miami can match out of the ACC teams listed
Teams on the Downswing
NC State will struggle offensively after losing gunslinger Mike Glennon to the NFL. Syracuse and Pittsburgh also lost senior quarterbacks in Ryan Nassib and Tino Sunseri, respectively. Boston College and Wake Forest won’t be as bad as they were last year, but they’ll both need a miracle to reach bowl eligibility. Virginia has been nothing special for a while now. Duke actually found their way to a bowl game last season, but with a tougher schedule in 2013, they won’t repeat that. Maryland won’t be starting a linebacker at QB this season, so they’re up from the Bottom Of The Barrel category, but it will be pretty ugly. They’re pretty much already in the Big Ten anyway.
Iowa will be somewhat competitive on defense, but Ricky Stanzi or Drew Tate is not walking through that door. Indiana‘s offense should keep it competitive in a few games and watching QB Tre Roberson develop will be intriguing. Forget Drew Brees, Purdue fans have really got it bad when they have to long for the days of Kyle Orton and Curtis Painter. Minnesota showed a little fight at the end of last season with fiesty QB Phillip Nelson, but that’s only enough to get them out of the bottom category.
Category Winner: Pretty clear to the ACC, but this is hardly a proud victory
Bottom Of The Barrell
The ACC shouldn’t have anyone with less than two conference wins, and Maryland and Duke have a chance of getting to three. To me, none of these schools are quite bad enough to be down here.
Sorry, Matt, but the only Big Ten school to qualify for this distinction is Illinois. QB Nate Scheelhaase has the running potential to scoot the Fighting Illini out of the cellar category, but the defense is atrocious and poor Nate has no one around him. If he gets hurt, 0-8 in the Big Ten is nearly a lock. With him healthy, they might find one win in the conference. They can always look forward to basketball season in Champaign.
Category Winner: ACC by default
So who’s the best conference here? The Big Ten has the best team in the fight and a stronger upper-middle class. However, the ACC features a little more depth and slightly less futility at the bottom. There’s no question you’ll likely see a couple more Big Ten teams on SportsCenter this year, but bottom of the Big Ten is pretty ghastly so the ACC picks up some ground there. It’s very close to call, but if I had a gun to my head, the winner is the Big Ten by an extremely narrow margin. However, starting next season Maryland will jump to the Big Ten and Louisville will join the ACC. At that point, the ACC may very well eclipse the once-proud Big Ten.