Conferences that give athletes the chance to become students

Universities with big-time athletic programs like to advance the myth that their student-athletes (emphasis on “student”) are there to get an education.

Never mind that they are valued as the main cogs in multi-million dollar sports operations, and that some of the schools they attend are unlikely to graduate them with anything resembling the useful skills they will need when they don’t realize their dreams of playing professional sports.

Proposals are now being floated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the umbrella organization for big-time college sports in this country, for the use of the players’ images and likenesses. That’s an indirect way of saying they’re going to be paid for making their athletic programs big money makers.

But some of the big athletic schools do make it possible for their student-athletes to actually get a good education while playing big-time sports. That leads to another question: How do you rate and identify them? What schools and conferences are really best for student-athletes?

I was pondering those questions when the Wall Street Journal’s annual report on college rankings landed in my yard. The Journal, in conjunction with Times Higher Education, ranked 500 schools on a variety of factors that make for a good student learning experience.

The rankings are based on 15 factors across four main categories:

–40% of each school’s overall score comes from student outcomes, including graduates’ salaries and debts;

–30% comes from academic resources, including how much the college spends on teaching;

–20% from student engagement, including whether students feel prepared to use their education in the real world;

–10% from the learning environment, including the diversity of the student body and academic staff.

Not one word about the intercollegiate athletic program.

This being the Wall Street Journal, money has a lot to do with the rankings. Thus, it’s no surprise that six of the top 10 schools are Ivy League institutions, and all of them are well-endowed private schools. Three schools with big-time athletic programs—Stanford, Northwestern and Duke—did make the list, but the rest of them pay little attention to athletics.

(In case you’re wondering—and you probably are if you’ve read this far—Harvard finished on top and Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA, finished last at 500.)

Since I have plenty of time to kill in these days of COVID-19, I took the rankings and grouped the football members of the five most prestigious athletic conferences in the country: The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, and Southeastern Conference (SEC).

I added up the rankings of each of the schools, and then computed the average of each conference because they vary in size from 11 to 14 schools. (I didn’t include Notre Dame with the ACC because its football team is just a temporary member of the conference this year.) The conference with the lowest average score came out on top.

The five most prestigious conferences ranked as follows:

Big 10, 106

ACC, 110

Pac 12, 126

SEC, 255

Big 12, 280

Other than Northwestern (ranked 10) and Michigan (23), the Big 10 schools didn’t rank real high, but they weren’t very low either. About what you would expect from a conference dominated by schools from the Midwest: Steady but unspectacular.

The Big 10 was followed closely by the ACC, which I thought would finish No. 1 when I started compiling the data. But while Duke was ranked fifth, the next-highest team in the conference was North Carolina at 33 and Louisville dragged down the average at 393.

Following that was the Pac 12, which showed a real gap in the schools. The four California schools—Stanford (4), Southern Cal (19), UCLA (26) and California (34)—were followed closely by Washington (45). Then there was big gap, starting at Utah (133) and ending with Oregon (225) and Oregon St. (318). The fact that California is the fifth largest economy in the world has a lot to do with this.

The top three conferences are closely bunched, but the most successful football conference (SEC) is well behind the others. The best academic school in the conference (Vanderbilt at 17) is also the conference doormat. Florida follows at 56, but three of the schools are ranked in the 400s: Alabama (400), Arkansas (406), and Mississippi St. (457).

That leaves the Big 12 in a league of its own: Not only is it the lowest rated conference, but it is the weakest football performer among the five. The top ranked school is just 61st (Texas) while three schools are ranked well into the 400s: Kansas St. (444), Texas Tech (487) and West Virginia (496).

So the lesson is clear: If you’re a decent student who is good enough to get a major conference sports scholarship offer, consider a Big 10 or ACC school. If you don’t care about school and want to play right away, the Big 12 is the place for you.

Here’s the ranking of every school by conference:

Big 10: Northwestern (10), Michigan (23), Illinois (43), Purdue (47), Wisconsin (65), Maryland (77), Michigan St. (82), Minnesota (91), Ohio St. (100), Indiana (104), Penn St. (109), Iowa (162), Rutgers (235), Nebraska (336)

ACC: Duke (5), North Carolina (33), Virginia (51), Miami (53), Boston College (55), Wake Forest (64), Georgia Tech (71), Pittsburgh (97), Virginia Tech (109), North Carolina St. (112), Syracuse (124), Florida St. (187), Clemson (189), Louisville (393)

Pac 12: Stanford (4), Southern Cal (19), UCLA (26), California (34), Washington (45), Utah (133), Arizona (135), Colorado (173), Washington St. (203), Arizona St. (196), Oregon (225), Oregon St. (318)

SEC: Vanderbilt (17), Florida (56), Texas A&M (83), Georgia (149), Auburn (243), Louisiana St. (264), South Carolina (289), Tennessee (291), Mississippi (298), Missouri (303), Kentucky (315), Alabama (400), Arkansas (406), Mississippi St. (457)

Big 12: Texas (61), Texas Christian (71), Baylor (175), Kansas (239), Oklahoma (242), Iowa St. (264), Oklahoma St. (323), Kansas St. (444), Texas Tech (487), West Virginia (496)


Betting on football has more than the usual obstacles bettors have to contend with this season. Naturally, all of this involves COVID-19.

For starters, what is the home field advantage worth these days? Aside from sleeping in your own bed and playing in familiar surroundings in front on your fans, we know from several studies that officials have a bias toward the home team. Some people think this is in fact the home field advantage.

But with few if any fans in the stands, what is the home field worth in terms of points? Historically, bookies assign three points to the home team when setting the point spread. What’s it worth this year? Who knows.

Then there’s the problem of the COVID protocol, with players being ruled out, then reinstated before game time. This is a good way to disrupt pre-game preparation, and make betting even more of a gamble.

For these and other reasons, I’ve been going slow this season, but have been able to maintain my goal of 60% winners (15-10) to date. Here are this week’s plays. As usual, no guarantees.


Purdue (-1.5) over Minnesota

Iowa (-2.5) over Penn State

Arkansas (+2) over LSU

Texas State (+6) over Arkansas State


Minnesota (-7) over Dallas

Miami (-3.5) over Denver

I also like Carolina getting points against Detroit, but Teddy Bridgewater was questionable for the game when I had to put my money down Thursday so I passed. I never bet a team when the starting quarterback is out.

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