Ranking the Top College Football Conferences Against the Spread in Nonconference Play
Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images. Pictured: The Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
With September in college football’s rear-view mirror and the majority of the nonconference schedules completed, which conference enjoyed the most success so far?
It, of course, depends on the definition of “success.” It’s easy to compare each conference’s non-league records, but those numbers can be heavily skewed by Power Five conferences loading up at home against inferior Group of Five teams.
The Power Five conferences should — and do — have better straight-up winning percentages so far. Well, that is, except for the Pac-12.
That’s why the Action Network decided to include the great equalizer — the point spread — to get a more accurate look at which conference truly had the most successful September. No contests against FCS opponents were included in our rankings — only nonconference games against FBS teams.
Congrats to the Big Ten, whose member programs report the best combined record against the spread (ATS) among college football’s 10 FBS conferences. The Big Ten covered 62.5% of its non-league games.
Shockingly, the ACC — which is a longshot to get a team in the College Football Playoff — has the second-best percentage (57.7%) against the spread, followed by the SEC (56.7%), Mountain West (53.3%) and Sun Belt (52%).
Here’s a quick look at each league’s success against the spread entering October. All records are against nonconference opponents, not including FCS games:
No conference has had more success against the spread in the season’s first five weeks than the Big Ten.
It’s the only conference covering more than 60% of its non-league games, and perhaps more impressively, is 9-5 (64%) against the number when facing other Power Five opponents.
Even when laying big numbers against Group of Five conference competition, the Big Ten is still 11-7 (61%) against the spread.
Rutgers (3-0), Nebraska (3-0) and Maryland (2-0) are the league’s only perfect teams ATS, while Indiana is a league-worst 0-2 ATS.
Despite being the only Power Five conference without a team ranked among the Associated Press’ top 22 teams this week — NC State, Wake Forest and Clemson are Nos. 23-25 — the ACC still has the second-best percentage (57.7%) against the spread.
A big reason is the ACC is covering 62.5% of its games against Group of Five opponents, compared to 54.5 against Power Five teams.
Six ACC teams have only one loss ATS in nonconference play, while Clemson, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech are a combined 2-6 ATS against non-ACC competition.
Not surprisingly, the SEC leads all conferences, winning 80% of its games. And even typically as prohibitive favorites — the SEC has been favored in 24-of-30 nonconference games — the league has still covered 56.7% of the time.
The mighty SEC also is the nation’s top conference against the spread (63.2%) when facing Group of Five teams, compared with 45.4% vs. Power 5 teams.
The SEC’s — and the nation’s — biggest surprise has been Arkansas (3-0 ATS), while Missouri (0-2) is winless against the number out of conference.
The Mountain West has held its own against the Pac-12, splitting 10 games outright between the conferences. But the Mountain West covered seven of those 10 games.
The Mountain West also has something in common with the Pac-12; they both have the identical SU and ATS winning percentage (although the MWC has been much more successful, winning and covering at a 53.3% clip).
No. 18 Fresno State tops the league at 3-0 ATS, followed by Utah State (2-0).
Take a bow, Sun Belt. The Fun Belt is the nation’s only conference with an overall losing record straight up (11-14) that is covering at over a 50% rate in non-league games.
Coastal Carolina and Arkansas State are both 2-1 ATS in nonconference play.
Georgia Southern is the league’s only winless team ATS in nonconference play (0-2). Earlier this week, Georgia Southern coach Chad Lunsford was fired after losing a Sun Belt contest against Louisiana.
The American boasts of being a so-called “Power 6” conference. And that’s exactly where the AAC ranks percentage-wise in nonconference games — as the nation’s sixth-best conference, right behind the Mountain West and the Sun Belt.
Cincinnati (2-0) is the league’s lone unbeaten team against the spread and is also the American’s best shot at earning a New Year’s Six bowl game.
SMU (2-1 ATS) also has been impressive for the AAC but needed a Hail Mary to escape with a non-cover win against Louisiana Tech.
The Big 12 has the nation’s worst ATS record against Power Five opponents (25%), yet has won 70% of its nonconference games outright, the nation’s third-highest winning percentage.
The Big 12 has covered only 45% of its non-league contests, a whopping 25% drop off, the nation’s largest difference between straight up and ATS winning percentage.
Texas has the Big 12’s top nonconference record (2-1 ATS), while TCU and Kansas are a combined 0-4 ATS in non-Big 12 contests.
Conference USA has covered the spread in 50% of its games against other Group of Five programs. However, it also reports a 33.3% cover rate against the Power Five — the lowest percentage of any conference vs. Power Five teams.
UTSA and Western Kentucky are both 2-0 against the spread with the Hilltoppers only seven points from being undefeated straight up instead of 1-2 overall.
First the good news: the Pac-12 has the same winning percentage straight up and against the spread. The bad news: the Pac-12 has won only 39.1% of its nonconference games, easily the worst overall Power Five record.
By comparison, the remaining Power Five schools have an overall 71.3 winning percentage. The Pac-12 has lost 14-of-23 nonconference games outright — compared to only 12 losses by the SEC and Big Ten, which have played a combined 50 games.
UCLA and Oregon State are each 2-1 ATS for the Pac-12’s only ATS bright spots.
The MAC hasn’t had much success straight up or against the spread in September. However, the MAC actually fared better ATS against Power Five competition (38.9%) compared to Group of Five teams (25%).
Bowling Green has been the league’s top team against the spread with a perfect 3-0 record.