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How the Big Ten Caught Up to the SEC

July 31, 2018

The day the Big Ten started to catch the SEC in overall football "power" may have been Jan. 11, 2014. That's the day Penn State announced the hire of James Franklin, formerly of Vanderbilt. Franklin was one of, maybe the, best coaches in Commodore history. It was reasonable to assume that day that the move made the Big Ten better and the SEC worse. The gap has only grown since Franklin made the move.

Conference power is about as subjective a thing as you can find, but the Big Ten is being subjectively mentioned among the best in the country in recent years, a designation that used to be the sole domain of the SEC. If you prefer a system, Massey provides conference and division power ratings each season. (Divisions are ranked alongside conferences, so the SEC West might be No. 1 and the SEC as a whole No. 2 for example.) Last year the SEC was the top-ranked conference overall, but just 0.02 points ahead of the Big Ten. It was the first time since Nebraska joined the conference in 2011 that the Big Ten had finished within one spot of the SEC.

And the gap may still be narrowing. The preseason consensus top 25 currently has five Big Ten teams in the top 12, the SEC three, the ACC two and the Big 12 and Pac-12 one each.

Why is it happening?

It's probably not just one reason, and it must be noted that the SEC and Big Ten have a pretty significant money edge over the other conferences thanks to their conference networks, but I'm a firm believer that football programs are essentially as good as their coaches. Since Franklin went to Penn State before the 2014 season, and was replaced by Derek Mason at Vanderbilt, the SEC and Big Ten have each had 11 head coaching changes among their schools.

The Big Ten is trouncing the SEC on that front.

I believe that subjectively, but let's use a system there, too. McIllece Sports provides coach effect scores each season and that provides a way to at least try and quantify exactly who is winning and losing these coaching hires. To do that, I took the average coach effect for the current coach –– for example, Scott Frost's coach effects were 2.5 and 19.2 in 2016 and 2017 respective for an average coach effect of 10.9 –– and then subtracted that of the previous coach. The difference is the degree to which a school upgraded in the coaching department (or didn't). For first-time head coaches in 2018, I had to use McIllece's projected coach effect. For older hires, I'm using the average coach effect entering 2018.

Including the Franklin and Mason hires in 2014, the Big Ten and SEC have combined to "upgrade" by a total of 0.87 coach-effect points. It's a wash when you combine the two, but here's at least a little support for the working theory that the Big Ten has gained ground on the SEC through coaching hires. You get to 0.87 because the net plus/minus for Big Ten hires since 2014 is 57.97, meaning the SEC's is -57.10.

No power ranking in any sport is the gospel truth, but as a way into this discussion I think having a number aids the discussion, so let's look at the five best and worst hires (based on the score) over that stretch to see if the numbers feel accurate.

5 Best

1. Hazell-to-Brohm, 2017 (27.9): Jeff Brohm's predecessor at Purdue, Darrell Hazell, ranked among the worst Power 5 coaches in the country. But the bigger deal is Brohm delivered. If last season didn't clue you in, this guy can coach. He only has four seasons under his belt, but he's posted a coach effect of 8.3 or better each year for an average of 15.2

2. Riley-to-Frost, 2018 (15.1): Frost's sample size is smaller by half, but he has the potential for Brohm-like coaching-effect numbers and he doesn't have as long nor rough a road back at Nebraska as Brohm did at Purdue following the Darrell Hazell era. West Lafayette was a competitiveness desert when Brohm arrived there last year.

3. O'Brien-to-Franklin, 2014 (14.0): Bill O'Brien didn't have an easy job at Penn State by any means and his coaching effect suffered. That might be deceptively boosting this coaching-change score a little bit, but Franklin is the real deal. His only two negative coaching-effect seasons over seven years were his first two at Penn State.

4. Hoke-to-Harbaugh, 2015 (11.5): Brady Hoke started strong-ish at Michigan, but his coaching effect declined each season after that. Meanwhile Jim Harbaugh doesn't have any hardware yet, but he has posted a positive coaching effect in five straight season in college dating back to his Stanford days. Stay the course, Wolverines.

5. McElwain-to-Mullen, 2018 (11.1): There's no doubt in my mind that Dan Mullen is an upgrade over Jim McElwain, but this is a tricky one. Since we're looking at conference strength here, the overall value to the SEC of Mullen-to-Florida, will be tied up somewhat in how well Joe Moorhead does at Mississippi State (a hire I loved). It's possible, however, that in a few years we'll find Mullen's gains in Gainesville being eaten up by losses in Starkville (or vice versa). For now, this is the biggest gain in the SEC since 2014 and keeps the conference from failing to land on the leaderboard. But that's sort of the problem for the SEC. The best on-paper hire using the method described above is a hire Florida could've made back in 2011 or 2015, and it wasn't the Gators first choice this time around either.

Honorable Mention: If you're wondering where Kirby Smart is, give it a little more time. Maybe. Georgia pulled the move that rarely works, firing a very good coach in hopes of an upgrade. Early returns say the Bulldogs may have done just that, but they're still early. Mark Right was at a pretty high level even if he couldn't get over the final hill, and Smart's coaching-effect average only includes two seasons at this point.

5 Worst

1. Franklin-to-Mason, 2014 (-17.9): I liked Derek Mason. Always thought he was solid, but Franklin was great by Vanderbilt standards and the Commodores haven't come close to that under Mason, and his coaching effect scores ain't pretty. As the only SEC-to-Big Ten conversion, there's a reason beyond chronology this transaction led off the story.

2. Freeze-to-Luke, 2017 (-15.9): This one's not the SEC's fault. Ole Miss had its guy in Hugh Freeze. Given all that still has to be sorted out for the Rebels, removing the interim tag from Matt Luke made sense, but it almost certainly won't end up being an upgrade.

3. Pinkel-to-Odom, 2016 (-13.5): The coaching-effect numbers I have access to only go back to 2007, but man was Gary Pinkel good from 2007 to 2015 with an average of 7.8. Dave Odom hasn't come close to that over his first two seasons, but don't totally write him off yet. That said, it's likely going to be hard for Mizzou to do better than Pinkel.

4. Miles-to-Orgeron, 2017 (-9.9): Still a chance that Ed Orgeron works out, but it's Les Miles' average between 2007 and 2016 (4.4) that is causing problems here. This move is symbolic of the SEC carousel of late. The Tigers wanted Tom Herman (6.4 average coach effect) but lost him to Texas.

5. Spurrier-to-Muschamp, 2016 (-6.1): It's not South Carolina's fault that Steve Spurrier up and quit just a few games into the 2015 season, but the hire of Will Muschamp, who had already failed at Florida, was a head-scratcher. It looks a little better after two years in Columbia, but no way Muschamp has a higher ceiling than Spurrier.

Dishonorable Mention: The Big Ten's worst hire based on this scoring method? Mike Riley. Bo Pelini posted a negative coach effect twice over seven seasons, Year 1 and Year 6. His average coaching-effect (1.7) wasn't blowing anyone away but it was better than the -4.2 Riley posted over three seasons.

Overall, just three of the 12 SEC coaching hires since 2014 resulted in an average coaching effect upgrade at this point. It's not set in stone, of course. These numbers continue to change, but as a way to simply eyeball what's been going on in both conferences the difference is apparent. For comparison, eight of the Big Ten's 12 hires resulted in a positive coach-effect change.

Here's the complete list with the average coach effect change using McIllece Sports' numbers (keep in mind there are some small sample sizes as well as projections for first-time FBS head coaches here):

Purdue 2017 Brohm Hazell 27.9
Nebraska 2018 Frost Riley 15.1
Penn State 2014 Franklin O'Brien 14.0
Michigan 2015 Harbaugh Hoke 11.5
Florida 2018 Mullen McElwain 11.1
Indiana 2017 Allen Wilson 9.1
Mississippi St 2018 Moorhead Mullen 5.6
Minnesota 2016 Claeys Kill 5.4
Georgia 2016 Smart Richt 1.5
Minnesota 2017 Fleck Claeys 1.1
Maryland 2016 Durkin Edsall 0.8
Texas A&M 2018 Fisher Sumlin -1.0
Illinois 2016 Smith Cubit/Beckman -2.6
Arkansas 2018 Morris Bielema -2.7
Tennessee 2018 Pruitt Jones -3.9
Rutgers 2016 Ash Flood -4.1
Wisconsin 2015 Chryst Andersen -4.5
Florida 2015 McElwain Muschamp -4.6
Nebraska 2015 Riley Pelini -5.9
S. Carolina 2016 Muschamp Spurrier -6.1
LSU 2017 Orgeron Miles -9.9
Missouri 2016 Odom Pinkel -13.5
Ole Miss 2017 Luke Freeze -15.9
Vanderbilt 2014 Mason Franklin -17.9


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