Inside the Numbers: A decade of parity in football and basketball

It’s a debate in sports that seemingly never ends, especially in college athletics because of the heightened passion – which sport has more parity? Which sport has been more unpredictable?

There are countless angles to look at this topic. We here at DSN have done some digging and research, looking at various ways to compare and contrast college basketball with college football. Part of the number-crunching will determine which conferences reigned supreme over the others over the last ten academic seasons. That’s the 2006 season onward for college football; 2006-07 basketball season.

In addition to disparity between leagues, while we know as well as anyone the potential flaws coming with the AP rankings every season, we decided to look at every week in both sports over the last decade. This will at least help us further determine which conference is considered the alpha of the pack. We also looked at the post-season win percentage for each conference in both sports (bowl games for CFB, NCAA Tournament for CBB).

Some of the results were not so surprising with the naked eye, while others will make you scratch your head some. We do remind you to take this with a grain of salt and dissect it however you wish, this is merely our approach. We also have to take into some consideration the wave of conference realignment moves that have happened over the years.

Let the debate begin.


Usually when the first true preseason top 25 list from the Associated Press is released, that means that our favorite sport is just right around the corner, whether it be football or basketball. It gets fans of their respective teams hyped up for a potential run at a national title, but it can also prove to give nothing but false hope as teams fail to live up to that preseason expectation.

BIG XIILet’s start with the boys on the gridiron. We found that since the 2006 preseason AP Top 25 rankings, there have been 48 different teams start off ranked and finish in the final AP poll unranked, with 30 programs have done it multiple times during that span. Two schools fall under this category having done it four times each – Georgia (2009-10, ’13 and ’15) and Nebraska (2006-07 in Big 12; 2013-14 in Big Ten).

Both Michigan State (2012) and Michigan (2013) each did it one time.

All in all, it has happened 93 times where a team started ranked and finished on the outside looking in. Here is a breakdown of the football conferences and the number of times their league’s teams have ‘underachieved’ if you will (# of different teams).

  • SEC: 20 times (10 teams)
  • BIG 12: 17 (10)
  • PAC-10/12: 16 (9)*
  • ACC: 14 (7)
  • BIG TEN: 13 (9)
  • BIG EAST: 6 (5)
  • MTN WEST: 3 (2)
  • INDEP: 3 (all Notre Dame)
  • WAC: 1 (Boise State)

[*Includes after additions of Colorado and Utah, neither were included in findings*]

ACCNow let’s look at the flip side, teams that started off the season unranked and were not getting as much love but cracked the top 25 in the final publishing of the AP polls. What we found was 49 different CFB teams who accomplished this feat over the last decade, with only 22 teams doing it more that once. A pair of schools were ‘overachievers’ during this time – Oregon State (2006-08 in Pac-10; 2012 in Pac-12) and Cincinnati (2007-09, ’10 in Big East).

The Wolverines did this twice in 2011 and again this past year in 2015, while the Spartans pulled it off three times in 2008, ’10, and ’13. Even the Chippewas of Central Michigan rose to the occasion in 2009 when they finished the season 12-2.

81 times over the last ten college football seasons did a team finish with a highly-coveted number next to their title by season’s end. Here is a conference breakdown for those 81, which features a little more variety.

  • ACC: 12 (8)
  • BIG TEN: 12 (7)
  • BIG 12: 11 (7)
  • SEC: 9 (8)
  • MTN WEST: 5 (4)
  • WAC: 5 (4)
  • PAC-10: 5 (3)
  • PAC-12 5 (3)
  • C-USA: 4 (4)
  • AAC: 3 (3)
  • MAC: 2 (2)
  • INDEP: 1 (Notre Dame)

So what do we see here with the college football aspect of the rankings? More conferences, particularly the second tier ones, end up having some representation as the season progresses. There is now 128 FBS Division I football programs being considered for this study. And over the last decade, 91 of those 128 have been ranked in the AP Top 25 for at least one week of the season, whether it be preseason, post-season, or anywhere in between.

As of how the conferences were realigned this past 2015-16 season (past or present), only the SEC has had every one of its teams crack the illustrious top 25. That includes recent newcomers Missouri and Texas A&M, who were also ranked during their days in the Big 12.


With nearly three times as many Division I basketball programs, the opportunity for more parity is already more evident. But how drastic of a difference is it really, if any?

American Athletic Conference - AACWe did a carbon copy test of finding the number of teams that started off in the AP Preseason Top 25 prior to the start of a basketball season. There were 60 different programs who fall under this class. That’s 60 out of 351, or a shade more than 17 percent of teams, compared to 37.5 percent (48 out of 128) on the football front. Out of the 60, 28 did it multiple times, or 46.67 percent (versus 62.5 percent of repeat offenders in football).

The University of Connecticut was the most frequent victim of this study having done it on five separate occasions – three times in the Big East (2006-07, 2009-10, 2011-12) and two more times in the American Athletic Conference (the last two seasons). However, the Huskies will end up having the last laugh by the time this entire exercise is over.

It happened a total of 98 times over the last decade. Michigan was on the hook for three of them (2009-10, and the last two seasons), while Michigan State’s lone casualty in this department came in the 2010-11 season when they were preseason No. 2 overall, finishing with a pedestrian 19-15 record on the season.

Here’s the conference breakdown:

  • SEC: 15 (9)
  • ACC: 14 (11)
  • BIG EAST: 14 (10)
  • BIG TEN: 12 (8)
  • BIG 12: 11 (7)
  • PAC-10: 8 (5)
  • PAC-12: 4 (4)
  • WCC: 4 (all Gonzaga)
  • A-10: 3 (3)
  • MVC: 3 (3)
  • AAC: 3 (2)
  • MTN WEST: 3 (2)
  • C-USA: 2 (all Memphis)
  • HORIZON: 1 (Butler)
  • IVY: 1 (Harvard)
  • SOCON: 1 (Davidson)

Atlantic-10As you can see, there are vastly more conferences represented in college basketball as opposed to the same study in football. Basketball has always had very good and competitive second tier programs that can hold their own with the ‘Power 5’ schools. Teams like Gonzaga, Memphis and Butler for example are perennial mid-major powers.

When we look at the flip side of things, teams that started off unranked to begin the campaign and finished in the top 25, it too happened 60 times over the last ten seasons. 25 teams did it more than once, just three less than the amount who ‘underachieved’.

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The team that has most excelled and exceeded expectations from the national media ‘experts’ has been Xavier, four times when they were a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference (2007-11) and this past season in their third year of the newer Big East Conference.

When you add it all up, it has happened 101 different times. The Wolverines did not account for any of those 101 instances. The Spartans did it back in 2011-12, when they finished in the top-5 of the AP poll.

Breakdown of each league:

  • BIG EAST: 22 (14)
  • BIG 12: 13 (9)
  • ACC: 10 (6)
  • MTN WEST: 10 (5)
  • BIG TEN: 8 (6)
  • A-10: 8 (4)
  • SEC: 6 (4)
  • MVC: 5 (5)
  • PAC-10: 5 (5)
  • HORIZON: 3 (all Butler)
  • WCC: 2 (2)
  • AAC: 2 (2)
  • PAC-12: 2 (all Oregon)
  • BIG SOUTH: 1 (Winthrop)
  • OVC: 1 (Murray State)
  • SOCON: 1 (Davidson)
  • WAC: 1 (Utah State)

Conference USAAgain, you see far more conference representation on the hardwood as opposed the gridiron. However, there are a couple things with this particular breakdown to point out. The Big East by and far leads the pack in both total times they account for and the number of different teams. This includes the original Big East Conference that ran from the 1979-2013 that had as many as 16 basketball programs, which has since then be drastically realigned and trimmed down back to ten teams.

We saw that better than 71 percent of college football FBS teams (91 out of 128) have been ranked for at least one week over the last ten seasons. When we compare that with those on the hardwood over the same stretch, only 31.1 percent of Division I college basketball programs (109 out of 351) found themselves in the AP Top 25 for at least one seven-day period.

When you add up all the current and former Big East clubs (19 teams in total), all but three have appeared in the top 25 at least once – the exceptions being DePaul, Rutgers, and South Florida.


Teams are often critiqued on their success following the conclusion of the regular season and rightfully so, it is where history and memories are made most. Part of our research into the parity of college athletics is how each respective conference did in postseason play, whether it was the bowl games for football or the always-exciting NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Let’s look at football first. We measured the the number of bids a conference received for bowl games over the last ten years and calculated a win percentage for each conference in those bowl games featuring their members. Here is what we found:

CFB Bowl Records - Last Ten Years

While the SEC being on the top in this department is not so surprising, the number of bowl games their teams have appeared in and the number of times they have won in those games can make one just sit back in awe. An eye-popping 67 percent of the time the SEC has won bowl games featuring an SEC club.

SECThe next thing that really stands out here is the success, or lack thereof, for the Big Ten in the postseason. They can hang their hat on having been in the second-most bowl games over the last ten years, but the 32 victories give them the second-lowest win percentage among the 12 leagues. Conversely, the Pac-10/12 has the fewest appearances among the ‘Power 5’ leagues but accumulated the most wins excluding the SEC.

Shout out to the AAC, formerly the Big East, as well as the Mountain West and Sun Belt Conferences for winning better than half of the games their programs have appeared in.

Let’s hone in even more on the last ten national championship games and once again, no surprise seeing the SEC dominate. Not only do they have eight of the last ten titles, but half of the 20 title game representatives come from the SEC – Alabama (4-0), Florida (2-0), Auburn (1-1) and LSU (1-1). The others?

  • ACC: 2 (Florida State – W in 2013-14; Clemson – L in 2015-16)
  • BIG TEN: 3 (Ohio State – L in 2006-07 and ’07-08, W in 2014-15)
  • PAC-10/12: 2 (Oregon – L in 2010-11 and 2014-15)
  • BIG 12: 2 (Oklahoma – L in 2008-09; Texas – L in 2009-10)
  • INDEP: 1 (Notre Dame – L in 2012-13)

If you do the math, that’s 11 different teams in total filling the 20 spots in the last ten championship games. We get it, SEC. You win.

Let’s look at basketball now. By and large we did the same thing in terms of measuring win percentage in the NCAA Tournament. However, we added up the number of bids each conference had and the number of games played from their members. We also looked at how many times a conference saw their teams appear in the Sweet 16, Elite 8, Final 4, etc. Here is what we found (NOTE: Only conferences whose teams played minimum of 20 games in the NCAA Tournament over the last ten years were included in this study):

CBB Tournament Records - Last Ten Years

As you can see with this graphic compared to the football feature, the difference in the win percentages between leagues are much more condensed as opposed to football. Surprisingly, the SEC takes home the trophy with win percentage of nearly 59 percent, but they also have appeared in the fewest amount of games among the major six basketball conferences.

PAC-12That claim goes to the Big East, new and old, who are tops in bids, games played, and wins. They also have three of the last ten championships, including this past year’s champion Villanova. And remember when we said UConn arguably might have been the biggest underachiever in terms of the AP rankings? Well they along with Duke are the only teams to win multiple titles since 2005-06.

The Atlantic 10 Conference is widely regarded as the best second tier Division I league in college basketball, and their numbers above would support that. And as far as the Big Ten, they boast the second-highest numbers in wins, games, and bids behind the Big East and their teams make as many deep runs in the dance as any other league. The four title game appearances are tied for the most, but they have gone ‘0fer’ in that time.

So what have we done with this exercise? I don’t know if we definitely answered the question posed at the very beginning, but we have laid out various pathways to explore finding the best answer. The AP polls have been known to be flawed at times but they more often than not present the idea of who the best teams have been for a single season, or over a stretch of multiple seasons. And what makes postseason play exciting is that it is a do-or-die situation for the teams involved, and all it takes is one bad game from a title favorite to skew the results….just ask Michigan State in this past Tournament after losing in the first round the Middle Tennessee.

Either way, we have presented our research. Sound off!

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