Clemson won the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship, its second national title in three years, but the ACC only had one other team ranked in the final AP Top 25 Poll, so the conference offers an interesting profile for how it stacked up with the rest of the conferences nationally last season.
The Big Ten had a winning record in bowl games last season, including a win by its top-ranked program – Ohio State – in the Rose Bowl, but it wasn’t represented in the College Football Playoff making it another intriguing case.
We tried to sort through these various considerations – teams ranked in the AP Top 25, bowl success, College Football Playoff appearances, top-end strength and depth – to rank the best conferences in the country for the 2018 football season.
For many college football fans who lived outside of the South, it’s exhausting to continually read about the SEC’s dominance in the sport and while four of the last six national championships have been won by a non-SEC team, the Southeastern Conference was the sport’s best in 2018.
Four of the top eight teams in the final AP Top 25 Poll play in the SEC: No. 2 Alabama, No. 6 LSU, No. 7 Florida and No. 7 Georgia, as the latter two received the same number of votes in the final poll.
Kentucky and Texas A&M were also ranked in the top 20 at the end of the season.
The SEC only had a 6-6 record in bowl games, a stat that the conference’s detractors surely know by heart, but it produced 11 bowl-eligible teams and its upper echelon compares favorably to that of any other conference.
2. Big Ten
The Big Ten was left out of the College Football Playoff for the second year in a row, but you can make the case it had one of the four best teams in the country in Ohio State, which finished the season 13-1 with a Rose Bowl win over Washington, and four other teams finished the season ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll.
The conference went 5-4 in bowl season, including four wins by teams in the much-maligned Big Ten West, while the Buckeyes were victorious in the conference’s premier bowl matchup.
It’s fair to argue that the Big Ten might have only had one team, Ohio State, that could’ve competed at the highest level of the sport in 2018, but it had half a dozen teams worthy of Top 25 consideration by the end of the season.
3. Big 12
Oklahoma won the Big 12 Championship to clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff for the second year in a row and the Big 12 had two other teams, Texas and West Virginia, that weren’t far behind the Sooners. Texas beat Oklahoma on a neutral field for the Sooners’ only regular season loss and West Virginia fell 59-56 in Morgantown to Oklahoma in Week 13.
The conference produced Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray and fourth-place finisher Will Grier of West Virginia. Seven of the 10 teams in the Big 12 made a bowl game and the conference finished with a 4-3 record bowl season.
Oklahoma State, which finished second-to-last in the conference standings after finishing with the same 3-6 conference record as Kansas State and Texas Tech, beat a top-25 Boise State team by 23 in the regular season, upset Texas and West Virginia when both schools were ranked in the top 10, and the Cowboys finished their season with a 38-33 win over No. 23 Missouri in the Liberty Bowl, showing some of the conference’s depth.
The top four teams in the Big 12 – Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa State and West Virginia – were a strong bunch and as Oklahoma State showed several times last season, some of the Big 12 teams lower in the standings could punch above their weight on a good day.
The following can be true: the ACC had the best team in college football last season and the conference had a down year. Syracuse was the only other ACC team ranked in the final AP Top 25 Poll at No. 15.
The advanced metrics of Football Outsiders told a different tale. The site ranked Miami (FL) as the second-best ACC team at No. 25, followed by NC State at No. 31.
The Orange were the only other ACC team besides Syracuse that won at least 10 games as they went 10-3 with a Camping World Bowl win over West Virginia. Nine of the conference’s 14 teams won seven or fewer games and ACC Coastal champion Pittsburgh went 7-7.
It was a year to forget for the Pac-12.
The Pac-12 went 3-4 in bowl games after getting left out of the College Football Playoff for the second year in a row. Pac-12 champion Washington lost in the Rose Bowl and Pac-12 South champion Utah lost to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl, while USC had a losing record for the first time since 2000 and failed to make a bowl.
Washington State and Washington were represented in the final AP Top 25 Poll at No. 10 and No. 13, respectively, but no other teams in the conference finished the season ranked.
The conference needs USC, Stanford and Oregon to return to form as potential top-10 teams and hope that UCLA coach Chip Kelly and Arizona State coach Herm Edwards can lead their programs in a positive direction in Year 2.
UCF saw its 25-game winning streak come to an end against LSU in the Fiesta Bowl, but the AAC champion Knights played like a top-10 team for most of the season when quarterback McKenzie Milton was healthy before finishing No. 11 in the final AP Top 25 Poll.
Cincinnati climbed back into the Top 25 at No. 24 following its 35-31 win over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl, giving the conference a second ranked team to end the season. Outside of the Knights and Bearcats, the AAC had three eight-game winners in Temple, Houston and Memphis.
The bottom two teams in each division – East Carolina, UConn, Navy and Tulsa – each won three games or less in 2018, so the bottom third of the conference was severely lacking.
The AAC was 2-5 in bowl games.
7. Mountain West
The Mountain West finished with three teams ranked in the final AP Top 25 Poll – more than the AAC, ACC and Pac-12, and the same number as the Big 12.
Mountain West champion Fresno State, which won the conference title on the road against Boise State, defeated Arizona State 31-20 in the Las Vegas Bowl and finished the season ranked No. 18 after a 12-2 campaign. Football Outsiders’ S&P+ rankings placed the Bulldogs as the No. 9 team in the country.
No. 22 Utah State (11-2) and No. 23 Boise State (10-3) also ended the season with double-digit wins and a spot in the AP Top 25 Poll. The Mountain West went 3-2 in its bowl games.
Nevada and Hawaii both won eight games, but half of the Mountain West’s 12 teams were .500 or worse in 2018.
8. Sun Belt
The Sun Belt East had a strong year with Appalachian State, Troy and Georgia Southern each winning at least 10 games. The efficiency metrics of Football Outsiders’ S&P+ rankings loved Appalachian State, ranking the Mountaineers as the No. 11 team in the country.
In the other division, Louisiana won the West and finished with a 7-7 record, while Arkansas State was the only other team in the Sun Belt with a winning record at 8-5.
Four of the conference’s 10 teams had a losing record and two had a .500 record.
The Sun Belt went 3-2 in bowl games.
9. Conference USA
Conference USA had the best bowl record of any conference – 4-2 – and while UAB was the conference’s only team that won at least 10 games, six teams had at least eight wins.
North Texas was the highest-ranked C-USA team in the S&P+ rankings at No. 34 nationally, so while the conference had some bowl success and strong win/loss records, it didn’t produce many top-end teams.
Ohio was the highest-ranked team in the MAC at No. 35 in the S&P+ rankings, followed by No. 50 Toledo, No. 61 Miami and No. 62 Eastern Michigan, so the conference’s best teams were better than average, nationally. But the MAC had the worst bowl record of any conference at 1-5.
Ohio was responsible for the MAC’s only bowl win, a 27-0 shutout of San Diego State in the Frisco Bowl.