That's deep. (Photo courtesy: USA Today Sports)
I imagine when Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby circulated his conference-mandated talking points e-mail to the league’s coaches before this week’s media days, he put the word in boldface font. He probably underlined it a few times. I bet exclamation points were involved.
One by one, as the league’s coaches faced the media firing squad on Monday and Tuesday, they somehow seemed to work the notion of the Big 12’s depth into the conversation. They echoed the sentiments expressed earlier this year by Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, who brewed up a tempest in a teapot when comparing his home conference with the SEC.
It’s a nice concept, and if I were a Big 12 head coach, I’d use it, too. Of course, I’d also have no clue what everyone else is talking about.
Does the deepest conference have the greatest number of elite teams? Is it the conference that has best quality up and down the ladder? Does it have the strongest teams in the middle?
And what even constitutes a good team? Big 12 partisans like to trot out the stat that nine of 10 Big 12 teams qualified for bowl games in 2012. Is that really the standard that we use for judging quality?
(Sidebar: I really cannot wait for the day when we direct our conversation about college football away from conferences and back to the teams themselves. This whole “conference identity” deal makes being a sports fan feel even more pathetic than it already is.)
Let’s take a quick look at the constituency of the Big 12 in terms of F/+, a statistical approach designed by Bill Connelly and Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders with the intention of generating objective college football power ratings. I’ve included two different stats – the individual teams’ F/+ rankings for 2012 along with their five-year F/+ rankings, which reflect each team’s overall performance from 2008 to 2012. (I pulled the five-year F/+ rankings from Connelly’s outstanding team preview series over at Football Study Hall.) I’d argue the five-year measures give a better sense of a program’s strength at this point in time than just using a snapshot from a year ago.
Big 12 F/+ Rankings
For comparison’s sake, what does the SEC as currently constituted look like?
SEC F/+ Rankings
The first thing that jumps out to me about the SEC is the disparity between the numbers for 2012 and the five-year period. A handful of teams fell far below their five-year marks in ‘12: Arkansas, Missouri, Auburn. I’d argue that illustrates just how lousy the league was last season once you got past the murderer’s row at the top.
Even so, the five-year numbers indicate that the SEC stands as the deeper of the two conferences from top to bottom.
*What would the Big 12 look like sans realignment?
"Original" Big 12 F/+ Rankings
Last season, having Texas A&M back in the league would have been a boon for the league’s upper division. Nebraska would have been above the Mendoza Line. On the other hand, Missouri wouldn’t have helped. Colorado’s crapulence would really drag down the league on average.
Looking at the five-year numbers, it appears the old Big 12 would have been about the same from a depth standpoint. Three of the teams that left would all fall somewhere in the “upper-middle” portion of the league. The conference would also have a Colorado punching bag to compete with Kansas for honors as the league’s worst squad.
*If you’re wondering if the parity in the Big 12 of late is more a matter of the best teams coming back to the back or the middle of the league getting stronger, the answer is both. The gap between 2012 Texas and its longer-term rank offers up a pretty good indication of the Longhorns’ slide. Conversely, Baylor and Kansas State surged.
*Remember that whole national championship rematch thing in 2011, Mike Gundy? Here's a little lesson in "framing."
Looking at depth from this perspective, the difference between the Big 12 and SEC really isn’t huge. If I’m a Big 12 coach lobbying the pollsters, I’d emphasize the difficulty of the round-robin schedule. Even if the league is slightly “less deep” than the SEC, playing a ninth conference game arguably makes the league’s regular season schedule more difficult, especially if you add another decent opponent in the non-conference portion of the slate. That's why the round-robin conferences tend to have better strength of schedule rankings.