The powers-that-be who manage the major college football playoffs will soon be releasing their first rankings of teams; a few (probably 10 to 12) of the Power 5 football conference member schools still have a chance to be playing for the national championship. The Power 5 football conferences include the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pacific 12 (PAC 12) and the Southeastern Conference (SEC).

There are 65 schools in the Power 5 football conferences. These schools vary in terms of being public or private as well as the selectivity of their admissions. Some can fairly be called “football schools.” Their football attendance can be high, regardless of the team’s record.

Counting Notre Dame, which does not play in a football conference, there were 15 football schools that averaged over 80,000 fans per game during the 2015 season, according to the NCAA. These included not only Alabama and Clemson, which played for the National Championship but also schools such as Auburn, Texas, Tennessee, Nebraska and Penn State which had far less successful seasons although they have had much better records in the past.

There’s good and bad references that go along with football schools. Football fans might, for example, believe that the game day atmosphere helps to make for a great college town. For example, among Niche’s Top 50 College Towns for 2016, half are in communities that host a Power 5 football team. Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, ranked second. Michigan topped the NCAA’s home attendance rankings last season, averaging over 100,000 fans per game. At the same time prospective students and their families might be concerned that too much of the social life of the campus and surrounding community revolve too much around football or other sports. The University of Tennessee’s recent decision to cancel classes on the Thursday of their first home game is one good example where football might have “taken over” too much of campus life.

Which conference, when all of the member schools are considered might be the “smartest” of the Power 5 football conferences? This requires a look at each conference.

ACC: 15 schools. Ten schools (Boston College, Duke, Florida State, Wake Forest, UNC, Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Miami) graduate 60 percent or more of a freshman class within four years; one (Clemson) graduates just over 50 percent. Georgia Tech has one of the largest cooperative education programs in the US. It graduates only 40 percent of a class within four years. But most remain for five to do co-op or earn a master’s degree. Georgia Tech’s five year graduation rate? 78 percent.

Big Ten: 14 schools. Six (Illinois, Indiana, Maryland Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State)  graduate 60 percent or more of a freshman class within four years. Another six (Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Rutgers and Wisconsin) graduate more than half of a class on time. Purdue, like Georgia Tech, has one of the largest cooperative education programs in the US. It graduates only 47 percent of a class within four years. But most remain for five to do co-op or earn a master’s degree. Purdue’s five year graduation rate? 71 percent.

Big 12: 10 schools: Three (Baylor, Texas Christian, U of Texas-Austin) graduate at least half of a freshman class on time.

PAC 12: 12 schools: Four schools graduate at least 60 percent of a freshman class on time (Cal, Stanford, UCLA, USC) while two graduate at least half of a class on time (Washington and Oregon).

SEC: 14 schools: Three schools graduate at least 60 percent of a freshman class on time (Florida, Georgia, Vanderbilt) while two graduate at least half of a class on time (South Carolina and Texas A&M). Auburn, like Georgia Tech and Purdue, has one of the largest cooperative education programs in the US. It graduates only 44 percent of a class within four years. But most remain for five to do co-op or earn a master’s degree. Auburn’s five year graduation rate? 68 percent.

Overall, out of 65 Power 5 football conference schools, there are 23 that graduate at least 60 percent of a freshman class on time; another 14 graduate at least half in four years while at least three have much success with co-op students who alternate between work and school for three of five years. This is more than half of the Power 5.

If the Power 5 were to become a Power 6 to include the 15 schools in the American Athletic Conference (AAC)—and it probably should given their quality of play—then there would be four additional schools (UConn, Navy, Southern Methodist and Tulane) that graduate at least 60 percent of their classes on time; a fifth, Tulsa, graduates at least half a class within four years. The University of Cincinnati, which has the fourth-largest cooperative education program in the US (and the largest of any public university) graduates 59 percent of its students within five years.

It would be fair to say that the AAC is a smarter football conference than the Big 12 and probably the SEC. However, the Big 12 is the result of implosions in past history while it struggles to consider how to get back to 12 schools or avoid complete dissolution.

Formerly a merger of schools in the Southwest Conference and the Big Eight, the Big 12 lost four schools (Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas A&M) to other conferences while adding Texas Christian (a former Southwest Conference school) and West Virginia. The Southwest Conference once included four of the larger Texas state universities (Houston, Texas A&M, UT-Austin and Texas Tech) plus Baylor, Southern Methodist, Texas Christian, Rice and Arkansas. If the Southwest Conference were to exist today, it would have two public schools that graduate at least half of their freshmen (Texas and Texas A&M), two private schools that graduated more than 60 percent (Southern Methodist and Rice) and two that graduated at least half (Baylor and Texas Christian). While the Southwest Conference might not have been a viable operation from standpoint of TV revenues and national exposure, it would have been a smarter conference than the Big 12 is today and possibly a smarter conference than the SEC.

Is the smartest Power 5 football conference the ACC or the Big Ten?

The Big Ten has 13 schools that either graduate at least half of a freshman class or achieve success through co-op; the ACC has 12. Thirteen of the Big Ten schools are also members of the academic Association of American Universities, schools that are highly regarded for research. Five ACC schools are members of this august body as are three Big 12 schools (Iowa State, Kansas and Texas) eight PAC 12 schools (Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford, UC-Berkeley, UCLA, USC and Washington) and four SEC schools (Florida, Missouri, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt).

It would be fair to call the debate for the Big 10, unless you count Notre Dame being in the ACC. Notre Dame is a member of the ACC for all sports outside of football but also plays five ACC football opponents within a very tough schedule. Notre Dame students have the opportunity to participate in a virtual job fair jointly managed by the ACC and the SEC as well as two events managed by the Big Ten schools.  The loyalty of Notre Dame alumni is second only to Princeton among National Research Universities. The university had an endowment of $8.6 billion in FY 2015. Only Michigan and Texas A&M have larger endowments among the top football schools, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

The Big Ten might be the smartest conference. But Notre Dame students might be the real winners because their alma mater passed on a conference affiliation for football.

For more “inside baseball” about schools in the Power Five sports conferences and others to help you in your college search, please contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com

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