As we reach the final weekend of September, the overall strengths and weaknesses of the 10 FBS conferences is beginning to come into focus. Major out-of-conference wins by teams out of the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 have dominated the headlines during the first month of the 2023 season, which has tightened up the gap between the SEC and everybody else.
In fact, one conference has had enough success that it has knocked the SEC off of the top step of the podium. That's right, the SEC isn't the best conference top-to-bottom in the country right now. Sure, the league boasts two-time reigning national champion Georgia, but there are flaws all over the place in the southeastern footprint of the country.
The Group of Five has been very interesting this year as well. The rise of Mountain West power Fresno State has been one of the more under-appreciated storylines of the season, wihle Air Force's defense has been lights out all season long. The AAC is led by Tulane for the second straight season, while Memphis has elevated itself into contention for a New Year's Six bowl berth.
So, let's break down how the conferences rank through four weeks of the 2023 regular season.
In its last season of existence as we know it, the Pac-12 has proven to be an absolute monster. Washington, behind Heisman Trophy contender Michael Penix Jr at quarterback, has elevated itself all the way to No. 2 in the CBS Sports 133. The Pac-12 landed five teams in the top 15 of our comprehensive FBS rankings: Oregon at No. 7, USC at No. 9, Utah at No. 12 and Washington State at No. 15. One-third of the top 15 teams in the country reside out west, and what's most impressive is that these teams are doing it on both sides of the ball. Four of the top five scoring offenses are in the Pac-12 (USC, Oregon, Washington and Washington State), while three are in the top 11 nationally in total defense (UCLA, Utah and Oregon). Is the Pac-12's dominance sustainable? That remains to be seen, but the first month of the season has been phenomenal for a conference that is in the midst of ugly divorce proceedings.
The SEC has not looked like its usual self this season -- at least not yet. However, No. 1 Georgia looks every bit like the monster that it was during the previous two seasons except for the fact that it has struggled early in each of its four games this year. There are flaws with the contenders outside of Athens, Georgia. LSU already has a loss to an ACC power (Florida State), Alabama dropped a game to Texas out of the Big 12 and Florida was dominated in Week 1 by reigning Pac-12 champion Utah. Granted, there have been some big out-of-conference wins for mid- and lower-tier teams out of the SEC, but the conference is way more top heavy than it has been in normal years, and even those "top" teams aren't as powerful as they should be.
3. Big Ten
The top three teams in the Big Ten are true College Football Playoff contenders. Ohio State just topped Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, in a battle of two CFP-caliber teams, Michigan is rock solid in all three phases and Penn State is as complete as any team in the country. The round-robin battle among those three teams is going to be fascinating as we creep closer to Selection Sunday. However, the rest of the conference is looking pretty rough. Wisconsin lost to a Pac-12 contender in Washington State, Iowa can't score and there are no signature wins anywhere outside of the "Big Three."
Florida State's season-opening win over LSU is one of the biggest of the season and has set the Seminoles up for a potential CFP run. The conference has four teams in the CBS Sports 133, including upstart Duke, which chimed in at No. 13 in the updated edition. North Carolina and Miami have been strong and are on the fringe of the CFP race, which certainly helps the ACC's case. However, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Virginia have been brutal this season, bogging down the conference as a whole.
5. Big 12
Texas has a signature win over Alabama, which might be the best win any team has this season. The Longhorns are as complete as any team in the nation and have an offense that could grow into an even bigger monster as the season continues. However, there aren't any other big wins by any other team in the conference. Oklahoma has improved in a big way, however, emerging as a fringe CFP contender through the first four weeks of the season. Kansas is undefeated and ranked No. 25 in the CBS Sports 133, but those three aren't exactly comparable to the top three teams boasted by the other Power Five conferences.
6. Mountain West
If you haven't watched Fresno State this year, you are doing a massive disservice to yourself. The Bulldogs are the highest-ranked Group of Five team in the CBS Sports 133 and are more complete than quite a few Power Five teams. Air Force is ranked 15th in the nation in scoring defense (12.8 points per game) and second in total defense (223.0 yards pre game). Boise State isn't as strong as it has been in year's past but appears to have righted the ship after losses to Washington and UCF to open the season. Group of Five conferences need to be judged more on its best teams since, for the most part, the bottom halves of each are going to be pretty rough.
Much like the Mountain West, the AAC has some powerful teams at the top. Tulane is ranked No. 33 in the most recent CBS Sports 133 and played Ole Miss very strong despite missing starting quarterback Michael Pratt. Memphis jumped out to a 3-0 start -- granted, mostly on cupcakes -- before losing to undefeated Missouri by a touchdown. However, the top end of the conference isn't as strong as the Mountain West this season. Every other team in the conference has at least two losses, which doesn't help the AAC's resume.
8. Sun Belt
There are three undefeated Sun Belt teams heading into Week 5 (Georgia State, James Madison and Marshall), and Texas State's win at Baylor in Week 1 boosted the reputation of the league despite the Bears' struggles this season. Thirteen of the conference's 14 teams have at least two wins with the lone outlier being the 1-3 Southern Miss Golden Eagles. We'll see if those undefeated teams can keep it up, but the back end of the conference is much better than the MAC and Conference USA, which is more important when judging Group of Five teams than it is when evaluating Power Five teams.
9. Conference USA
Liberty is 4-0 and boasts a tremendous coach in Jamey Chadwell who has picked up right where Hugh Freeze left off. The Flames have scored 33 or more points in all four of their wins, which include two wins against teams from the MAC (Bowling Green and Buffalo). Every team other than Jacksonville State has at least two losses and Sam Houston only has a total of 10 points in three games. Other than the Bearkats, the bottom of Conference in USA is slightly better than the MAC ... for now.
The top two teams in the MAC -- Ohio and Toledo -- are pretty strong. The Bobcats rank fourth nationally in total defense (237.2 yards per game) and are tied for seventh in scoring defense (10.8 points per game). Conversely, the Rockets are 11th in scoring offense (42.3 points per game) and took Illinois to the brink in Week 1. Miami (Ohio) is pretty solid, but six of the eight worst teams in the country hail from the MAC in the CBS Sports 133. The MAC is way too bottom heavy to be anywhere other than the cellar.