PRINCETON, NJ -- College football is on the menu every Thanksgiving weekend for many Americans, with games filling the airwaves as the national championship picture comes into clearer focus. College football fans have long debated which major football conference is the strongest, citing the conferences' records in bowl games, the number of national championships won by conference teams, and the number of players from each conference in the National Football League as evidence in support of their argument.
The Nov. 2-4 USA Today/Gallup poll put the question of conference strength to a nationally representative sample of college football fans, which includes just under half of U.S. adults. When asked to indicate which of the six major football conferences has been the strongest over the past decade, fans are most likely to select the Southeastern Conference (SEC), with the Big Ten coming in a close second.
Specifically, 30% of college football fans choose the SEC as the top conference over the past decade, with 23% choosing the Big Ten. The Pacific-10 or Pac-10 rates third, with the Big 12 fourth. The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and the Big East, the two other conferences that receive automatic bids to one of the top bowl games each year (those that comprise the Bowl Championship Series or BCS), rank behind the other conferences. Only 1% of fans name a conference outside of the six BCS conferences.
The conferences themselves are primarily arranged along regional lines, with the SEC and ACC mainly consisting of Southern schools, the Big Ten and Big 12 consisting mainly of Midwestern schools, the Pac-10 of Western schools, and the Big East primarily of Eastern schools.
Opinions of which conference is best vary greatly along regional lines, with fans more likely to choose conferences in their home region as the strongest than are fans in other parts of the country. For example, a majority of Southerners rate the SEC as the top conference. The Pac-10 is nearly as dominant in Westerners' responses. Those in the Midwest rate the Big Ten as the strongest conference.
Fans in the East rate the Big East more highly than do fans in other parts of the country, but because the conference's teams have not had as much demonstrable success on the gridiron as SEC and Big Ten teams, for example, the Big East rates as only the fourth strongest conference among Easterners. Fans living in the East are most likely to believe the Big Ten, which includes one Eastern school (Penn State), is the strongest, followed by the SEC and the Pac-10.
These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 509 college football fans, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 2-4, 2007. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±5 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.