There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that the Big 12 had a crappy 2016 in general. It was the only Power 5 conference left out of the Playoff for the second time in three years; its expansion inquiries turned into a national embarrassment when the league decided not to add any teams; TCU, Texas and Baylor were major disappointments; schools like Kansas and Iowa State continued to be among the worst programs in the Power 5—
You get the point.
So let’s add a little context to the Big 12’s suckitude. After all, every conference has its ebbs and flows. The SEC is historically thin behind Alabama, and the ACC only recently caught the Big 12 after years as the nation’s clear No. 5. Shoot, even the Big Ten was supposed to be bad before Meyer and Harbaugh.
First, let’s compare apples to apples—the Big 12 with the Big 12. It’s not a very old conference. By comparing the 2016 version with the last 20 years, we can learn just how down it was.
The Big 12 went 64-56 in 2016, a .533 winning percentage. That doesn’t look so bad—after all, some teams have to lose the conference games, right? But actually, the structure of college football means that Power 5 conferences almost always have winning records because of non-con play. That theory didn’t work out so well for Oklahoma, but light nonconference schedules definitely bolstered teams like Baylor.
So actually, that .533 percentage was the Big 12’s worst since the year the conference began. Big 12 schools went 74-66 (.529) in 1996, when the Big Eight absorbed the best schools in thr Southwest Conference. Oklahoma was baaad back then. Its 3-8 record had a lot to do with the Big 12’s down year, but 1996 and 2016 were, record-wise, almost exactly the same for the conference.
(For what it’s worth, the Big 12’s best year in terms of overall record was 2011, when it went 78-50 and Oklahoma State won the conference. Huh.)
Keeping it within our 20-year sample size—which feels appropriate, as it approximates the birth of the BCS and, therefore, modern college football—how many conferences have done worse than .533?
Take heart Sooners fans. It turns out dipping under the .533 mark is a semi-regular occurrence for every conference except for—you guessed it—the SEC.
The ACC, with which the Big 12 seems locked in a perpetual race to the bottom, posted a .526 record in 2012, .532 in 2011, .532 in 2006 and, incredibly, .495 in 1996.
The Big 10 did back-to-back .531 seasons in 2000 and 2001. The Pac-12 went .508 in 1999 and again in 2008 (both times, obviously, as the Pac-10).
Yeah, I know. Conference record is a pretty poor indicator of actual talent, influenced as it is by teams on either end of the extreme and by strength of schedule. But I think conference record paints a generally reliable portrait—it says the SEC is consistently solid, the ACC is spotty and the Big 12 had a particularly unmemorable year. Usually, it checks out.
But there is a stat that accounts for these variables, too. Simple Rating System, or SRS, is a stat that factors in strength of schedule and point differential. It attempts to take the criteria by which we evaluate single teams and spread them across a conference. Zero is considered average. 10 would be truly elite.
Here, then, are the ten worst Power 5 conference seasons by SRS since 1996 (stats courtesy sports-reference.com):
1. 2011 ACC (1.67)
2. 2012 ACC (1.92)
3. 1997 Big 12 (2.15)
4. 1999 Pac-12 (2.17)
5. 2006 ACC (2.32)
6. 2016 Big 12 (2.37)
7. 1996 ACC (2.60)
8. 2000 ACC (2.97)
9. 1998 ACC (3.06)
10. 2006 Big 12 (3.21)
So there you have it, Sooners fans. If you had a sneaking suspicion that the 2016 Big 12 was one of the worst conferences in recent memory—well, you were right.
But hey, could be worse. We could be in the ACC.