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Ranking College Football’s Group-of-Five Conferences

Five Football Conference Logos And Houston Cougars Players

Did anyone else catch those weird off-season headlines that seemed to imply Connecticut was “moving to the Big East” in 2020? Some automated college-stats sites have found themselves listing future games in “Big East Football” like UConn vs…vs…Georgetown?

Hope those Hoyas get that power-running game cranked up again this season.

There used to be a Big East in football, of course, and now there’s an American Athletic Conference. The AAC has been proclaiming itself “Power-6” for many years, and with the Pac-12 having faded somewhat for the time being while programs like Central Florida rise to prominence, it begs the question of whether the Power-5 is really the best 5.

There are many simple ways of ranking CFB conferences. The simplest is to compare their aggregate records against each other. If the Pac-12 has beaten the AAC a majority of times whenever representatives from the leagues have squared-off (and it has) then the gap between P5 and Group-of-5 is yawning.

The problem with ranking conferences that way is that schools often schedule their opponents for geographic or traditional reasons, leading to skewed results from a macro-analytical POV. Alabama and Clemson do not combine to schedule a lot of opponents from Conference USA, for instance, but the Sun Belt is a go-to for both programs. That tends to put a damper on the Sun Belt’s stats against the SEC and ACC while letting other Group-of-5 leagues (such as the Mountain West) off easy.

Instead, I suggest a “3 categories of merit” system for ranking G5 conferences:

A – How high are the best teams’ ceilings?

B – How low is the floor for the worst teams?

C – How deep is the conference in nationally-competitive programs?

What Gamblers Think of the Conferences in 2019-20

Vis a vis the 2019-20 College Football Playoff, it’s also easy to just look at the preseason betting odds in a given year and gauge what Sin City ‘cappers and the public think of the conferences.

The ACC and SEC reign supreme with a small handful of teams at the top. I maintain that Georgia (+850) is a superior January-2020 futures wager based on the Dawgs’ massive payoff compared to the Tigers or the Crimson Tide (each hovering around 2-to-1). But it’s noteworthy that a “2nd tier” of national-title futures lines belongs to Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan and Ohio State – not the SEC or the ACC.

Washington is the shortest Pac-12 futures market at (+4000). The acknowledged 3 strongest mid-majors – judging by the “shortest” lines of 150-to-1 each – are UCF and Memphis of the AAC and Boise State of the Mountain West.

That’s an excellent barometer for at least Category A of our conference-ranking system. You don’t necessarily have to play in the best conference to win a CFP championship. It’s often easier to win-out and qualify if your league isn’t a gauntlet. But college football’s national champion is often the team which proves to have the highest ceiling…and you have to beat P5 opponents to qualify.

Win-totals are low in Las Vegas for teams out of the MAC and Sun Belt who must play nearby Power-5 programs in the opening few weeks. The Mountain West and the AAC schedule a wide variety of opponents, and enjoy competitive games against the Pac-12.

Suppose that the top 3 teams from the ACC (1) and SEC (2) are on a level above other contenders nationally. If we can look at the results and see which of the pair of conferences has produced more close games involving its very best team/s, then we can rate the “highest high-jumps” of the division-contenders in each league, jumps in “form” as the English would say.

What’s true for the goose is true for the gander, and we can use a similar litmus test for gauging the strength of the Group-of-5 leagues.

A single school, after all, can’t hold up the ceiling while everyone else loses the pole. That just makes “TeePee” on the gridiron as far as its rivals, and subsequently its street cred, are concerned.

Rising tides lift all boats…even though more teams get thrown overboard. Here’s a quick look at the state of the 5 mid-major FBS conferences, ranked from worst to best.

NCAA Football’s Group-of-Five Conferences: Ranked Worst to Best

#5 – Sun Belt

It’s telling that the Sun Belt really shouldn’t be #5 in the Group of 5, or #10 out of all FBS leagues, but probably #11 or maybe #12.

At least a couple of FCS conferences – including the mean Southern league which Wofford, Samford, and The Citadel play in (and Appalachian State used to play in) – could make a case for #10 instead.

But it’s not the mediocrity of most of the teams that irks me most about Sun Belt football, not even the mind-numbing conformity of its worst playbooks. It’s that the organization has trouble making decisions and getting the right branding out to the public. We have a recently-made policy at Legit Gambling Sites of double and triple-checking anything that comes out of the Sun Belt’s official site on the web. We have that policy because the site screwed up its Championship Game info in 2018.

So when there’s outstanding teams who could flourish on national TV, the Sun Belt doesn’t know how to properly promote them. Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, and Troy have in-turn threatened to become the “Boise State of the East.” But none has sustained success in recruiting over a long period.

This season the league has trimmed the fat – that’s a step in the right direction. The newest East Division actually feels pretty classic with the Mountaineers, Trojans, Eagles, and Coastal Carolina, which used to be a punch-line but is now known for a bizarre cats-and-dogs monologue:

And at least the West Division is playing some heady schedules, starting with Arkansas State. The mini-powerhouse from Jonesboro opens against SMU, UNLV and Georgia this year.

#4 – Conference USA

I wouldn’t think of ranking C-USA ahead of the MAC. The league completely fails at Category A – its best teams’ ceilings are woefully low.

Marshall won the Conference USA title in front of about 25,000 people in 2014, and only made the Boca Raton Bowl. (In fairness, it wasn’t the best year for the MAC, which sent its champion NIU to play Marshall.) WKU won the hardware the next 2 seasons and was only ranked in the Top 25 once. UAB won the conference as a virtual start-up program in 2018.

Meanwhile, Lane Kiffin’s collect-a-stud project at FAU has mostly been a huge bellyflop.

The dregs of C-USA are also pretty bad. Charlotte has changed head coaches after going 22-48 under Brad Lambert. It would be better for everyone involved if the 49ers moved to the FCS and allowed a strong Football Championship Subdivision team, or maybe even a team that lives in a subdivision to take its place for a few scrums.

#3 – Mid-American Conference

The MAC doesn’t seem like it should land smack in the middle of the Group-of-5 leagues, but it should. Northern Illinois and Western Michigan are recent New Year’s Six bowl representatives, and the Toledo Rockets are known nationwide as a fast, flashy team that is fun to watch on TV.

Regretfully, a lot of MAC contests are not fun to watch on TV, and I wonder if most of those Tuesday and Wednesday night snooze-fests during the regular season aren’t a bad idea from the outset.

Sure it’s awesome for a G5 conference like the Mid-American to get national TV coverage for multiple games every week throughout much of the season. “MAC-tion” is a catch-phrase. But when we say “MAC-tion,” it’s almost with pity. The league has pervasive branding of the wrong kind.

It would help if all but 3 or 4 schools in the MAC didn’t run the same offense. What is there for viewers (or potential recruits) to latch onto when there’s 2 non-descript QBs and tailbacks running the same Read-Option over and over for both sides? Meanwhile the soundtrack is a couple of nattering C-list announcers and the occasional soft clapping in the background.

But doggone it, the MAC is pretty good in Categories A, B and C – its best programs make noise nationally and its also-rans are surprisingly OK against marquee teams.

Toledo is a (+12) underdog at Kentucky in Week 1 at MyBookie, and while I’m not recommending a point-spread wager at this time (I’m dubious of 12-point spreads that might as well be 12 ½ or 13-point spreads the way final scores usually work) but the Rockets will have a puncher’s chance to win and could be a decent ML underdog pick at 1 or 2-units only.

#2 – Mountain West

The Mountain West is a quiet driver of pigskin culture in lands between the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast. In some ways the MWC’s finest teams suffer from the defects of virtues – too many good athletes play in the conference for any school to go unbeaten against all of them.

Mid-major bids for the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six can only be based on perfection. Lose early in the season and the squad is out of the conversation for good. Fresno State of the Mountain West put a glorious team on the field in 2018-19, a team that would beat Boise State in a memorable conference title scrum before whipping Arizona State from the Pac-12 in bowl season. However, the Bulldogs were essentially playing the season in “B-Flight” mode because they had lost to Minnesota in Week 2. That blemish was enough to bar the MWC champs from a New Year’s honor.

Rocky Long’s San Diego State Aztecs play a neato game against UCLA on September 7th, and (together with Hawaii, most likely) will challenge Fresno State for a West Division crown in 2019. But if the Boise State Broncos don’t get their mojo back, it’s not because they don’t have opportunities.

The Boise Blue opens the season with a trip to Florida State on August 31st. Boise administration has finally gotten the knack of scheduling “sweet spot” opponents that come with a maximum of name-brand interest but who aren’t national-championship caliber right about now. Notre Dame is good at it, and mid-major teams in the Twitter era need to be good at it too.

If Boise State beats Florida State, it gets all kinds of credit. If FSU wins…well, FSU might win, but it’s less likely now as opposed to in the Bobby Bowden era.

August 31st is a Saturday, but BSU’s secret to recruiting is ruling the national airwaves on Friday nights. The Broncos’ pretty color scheme helps a heck of a lot too.

Boise State Offensive Line Blocking For QB

The Mountain West is 11-7 overall against the AAC. I’d be ready to rank the MWC as the #1 Group-of-5 conference…except for 1 factor.

#1 – American Athletic Conference

The AAC and the Mountain West are just about equal in the “best teams’ ceilings” category. Boise State at its peak has shocked the CFB landscape, and so have Houston and UCF of the AAC.

You can argue that the American wins the “ceiling” award because of UCF’s winning streak and Mackenzie Milton’s dominance. But Milton won’t even make it back on the field this season, and last year’s MWC winner was a much, much stronger team at the end of the year than when losing 21-14 to Minnesota. UCF had the opportunity to play LSU while all Fresno State got to do was embarrass Herman Edwards.

I’m also not prepared to argue that the Mountain West’s worst teams are any worse than the dregs of the AAC. Colorado State, a downtrodden MWC program, still showed flashes of coming alive in 2018 – and nobody in any conference is worse than UConn of (as of now) the AAC.

But there are simply more solid programs in the AAC that could make noise at any given time. Navy, considered an outside contender for New Year’s Six after beating Houston and Notre Dame in 2016, wasn’t even close to the radar screen in 2018-19. The league has simply gotten that much better on the tiers below the top. Tulane is a big, athletic squad under Willie Fritz, Memphis and Houston are annually hard for Power-5 teams to stop, and Cincinnati is among the best defensive programs in the game.

UCF under Milton is something special – that’s why we’ll give ‘em all a pass for getting blown out by the Knights every so often. This season and going forward, the AAC should continue to produce the most significant number of dangerous underdogs against Power-5 and Top 25 teams.

And I’m especially interested in Houston (+26) at Oklahoma on September 1st.

ODDS-110

MY PICK:
Houston ATS

*If you want to stay away from Houston you can take the moneyline on Toledo as well.