Three years ago ACC commissioner John Swofford made it clear at the conference’s football preseason media event he was challenging the entire conference membership to rise up in non-conference play. At the time the ACC had developed a bit of an image problem suggesting the conference was the weakest of the power conferences.
“Obviously, we need to win more of our high-profile games against non-conference opponents,” Swofford said in 2011. “That’s the one thing we haven’t done enough of in recent years. We’ve had some of it, but not enough of it. For us to gain the kind of respect we want for Atlantic Coast Conference football, those are the kind of games we need to win going forward.”
Some of the problems with the ACC extended beyond the football field, but there is no question the ACC was in need of some big wins on the field against the SEC and other power conferences. Just look at the conference’s bowl production over the past few years. The ACC went 2-6 in postseason play in the 2011-2012 bowl season, by far the worst among the power conferences. The ACC stepped it up the following year with a 4-2 postseason mark and went 5-6 last season. Throw in a struggle to beat SEC rivals and win other significant non-conference match-ups, and it was clear the ACC needed to show a pulse.
This season the ACC showed a pulse. It is a pulse the Big 12 could have really used too.
No conference performed better in non-conference play this season than the ACC. Using the McGuire Metric, the ACC scored 82.0 points in all non-conference action this season. To be fair, I should note games against Notre Dame counted toward the ACC’s total. The Irish may be a partial ACC member but they are a football independent with a scheduling agreement with the conference. The ACC recorded three wins over top 10 teams in non-conference play this season, three more than any other conference. No other conference in the country had as many wins against power conference teams (including Notre Dame) than the ACC, including wins against the Big 12, Big Ten and SEC.
The Big 12 finished sixth overall, behind the Mountain West Conference and just barely ahead of Conference USA.
The quickest way to build up a conference’s reputation is by thriving in non-conference play. For a visual on just how much the ACC excelled in this area, here is a bar graph of the final McGuire Metric numbers for non-conference play, by conference:
The Pac-12 came in a distant second, just ahead of the SEC. The Big Ten, despite a disastrous week two (Ohio State losing to Virginia Tech, Michigan State losing to Oregon and Michigan losing to Notre Dame the week after Wisconsin lost to LSU) rebounded to come in a solid fourth place among power conferences.
The Big 12 lacked signature victories in non-conference play this season. The best win of the year may have been TCU’s home victory over Minnesota, followed by Oklahoma’s home win against Tennessee. Other than that, there was not much to brag about from the Big 12 when it came to non-conference play. Losses by Oklahoma State and West Virginia against Florida State and Alabama, respectively, in week one may have shown the conference would put up a fight, but the Big 12 is now in a position the ACC may have been just a few short years ago.
Baylor head coach Art Briles was miffed at sitting out of the College Football Playoff field. It is his job to defend his program, and he suggested the Big 12 is among the best in the nation.
“I’m not obligated to [Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby],” Briles said Sunday. I’m obligated to Baylor University and our football team,” Briles said. “And we just happen to be a part of the Big 12. And we happen to be the champion two years in a row. So they need to be obligated to us, because we’re helping the Big 12’s image in the nation.”
The only problem is Baylor is not helping the image of the Big 12 as much as Briles wants to believe. Not with its non-conference scheduling and coming up small in the Fiesta Bowl against UCF.
The lack of a Big 12 championship game may have come back to haunt Baylor or TCU in the College Football Playoff picture. Both teams finished highly in the McGuire Metric, with TCU tied for first overall with Alabama and Baylor finishing ahead of both Florida State and Ohio State. But these teams each piled up points largely on the perceived strength of the Big 12. The Big 12 may be a very good conference, and I believe it is deeper than I initially expected it to be this season. But the numbers and results have a way of explaining why the Big 12 was shutout of the playoff. Not only is the lack of a conference championship game seemingly important, but the conference’s overall strength will be fair to criticize until the conference challenges itself, or changes the narrative, outside of its own 10-team circle.
This season the Big 12, as a whole, did draw line sin the sand. Oklahoma State battled defending BCS national champion Florida State in Arlington in the season opener. West Virginia gave Alabama a fight in Atlanta and traveled to Maryland. Iowa State played in-state rival Iowa. Texas played UCLA and BYU. Kansas State hosted Auburn and Oklahoma opened a home-and-home with Tennessee. Overlooking those games would be unfair, but coming back to a 4-7 in games against other power conferences (I’m also counting Texas-BYU in this) is fair. That is not a terrible mark, but it is a losing one.
Take it from the SEC. Winning games against other power conferences (ACC in regular season play, Big Ten in postseason play) can help lay the foundation for a strong conference reputation. The Big 12 needs to win its spotlight games before fussing over the lack of a conference championship.