It’s funny—except not actually funny—just how much reverence the Southeastern Conference (SEC) commands in the eyes of the college football community.
This is a fairly ridiculous thing to say, seeing as the SEC has won the last seven national championships, but the sort of adulation the SEC gets can be a bit grating. When the Pac-12 eats itself alive in conference play, it’s called mediocrity; when the SEC does so, it’s called depth.
Last week saw fireworks across the South. The most renowned conference in college football has all sorts of teams with massive flaws—LSU and Texas A&M are giving up points by the boatload, Florida is sputtering beyond belief on offense and Georgia and South Carolina, beset by injuries, have been killed by their lack of depth. Formerly moribund teams like Ole Miss and Tennessee and even Vanderbilt beat squads that had been penciled in for 10 wins. Alabama remains the ultimate conference standard-bearer, and Missouri and Auburn have fielded strong teams as well, but the vulnerability of the SEC seems clearer than ever.
After the smoke cleared, we’re all wondering: What happened?
The easiest question to ask is: Was the SEC simply overrated? People love to bash the conference for its commitment to scheduling badly. The SEC only schedules eight conference games a year, and its teams love to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to play and beat squads that are overmatched for the sake of being overmatched. Scheduling is a science and the SEC caught on more quickly than anybody else that strength of schedule doesn’t really matter.
But that’s not the whole story. Though SEC teams are for the most part disinterested in playing out of conference, they still understand that some out-of-conference linkage makes comparisons possible. If the SEC didn’t play strong teams out of conference, they’d be the D-1 version of the New England Small College Athletic Conference.
Under Nick Saban, Alabama has played Florida State, Clemson, Michigan, Virginia Tech twice and Penn State twice. LSU kicked off its run to the 2011 national championship game by beating the daylights out of Oregon. Georgia was willing to schedule Boise State when almost nobody would (and lost, but it’s the thought that counts).
The latest round of conference realignment has killed Texas A&M-Texas and Missouri-Kansas, but the SEC has traditionally paid attention to its great out-of-conference rivalries; Georgia-Georgia Tech and Florida-FSU immediately spring to mind.
Moreover, the SEC has traditionally done well in bowl games, even outside its national championship streak. Its bowl tie-ins have entrenched a certain sense of superiority—bowls are supposed to match up similar teams, and the SEC’s No. 3 team plays the Big 12’s No. 2, its No. 4 plays the Big Ten’s No. 3, its No. 5 plays the ACC’s No. 2 (!), and its No. 6 plays the Big Ten’s No. 4. Despite these unfavorable matchups, the SEC wins 60 percent of its bowl games. Let’s not underestimate what has been a marvelous run for a marvelous conference.
When the SEC is looking weak, I doubt it’s because it wasn’t any good before. Teams ebb and flow, and it’s just not easy to field six good teams year in and year out. The conference’s upper-middle class was always going to regress to the mean one way or the other, and let’s not forget that every team in the country is still looking up at Alabama until proven otherwise.
David Shaw made news when he needled the media for comparing Stanford’s style of football to Alabama or LSU.
“I don’t necessarily take [those comparisons] as a compliment,” he said. “I’d rather have people say we’re old school.”
He’s right in that no team has a monopoly on pro-style offense or staunch defense. I remember when Alabama was clawing its way back from irrelevance, and LSU has slipped up at times as well. Shaw’s words weren’t a knock against the SEC, but they definitely sounded like one, and Shaw is too smart to not know how the media would run with it.
It’s nice to poke fun at the SEC. It reminds the world that there are other conferences out there. One might even call it a public service. Luck has played a massive role in the SEC ascendancy, as it does for all runs of success; but if not for Stanford, Baylor, Iowa State and not one but two absurd blocked field goals by Terrence Cody, Nick Saban would still be ring-less in Tuscaloosa.
If the Pac-12 wants respect, it needs to bring an end to what the SEC can always hold over the rest of the country. This is as good a chance as any to strike. End the SEC’s streak, and the pundits will finally shut up.
If you’re still unclear as to what Winston’s feelings are towards the SEC, email him at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu and he will gladly elaborate.