It’s been a golden age for Southeastern Conference football. The league has won seven straight national titles; two years ago, the league was so good that two of its teams, Alabama and LSU, played each other for the national title. If the world needed any reminder in the off-season as to how good the league’s been, a quarter of the players taken in last month’s NFL Draft came from within the SEC.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was recently asked about the SEC’s dominance, and evidently wasn’t impressed, opining that the league’s run of national prominence comes by virtue of the top teams beating up on the bottom half.
“So they’ve had the best team in college football,” Stoops was quoted in a recent piece by the Tulsa World. “They haven’t had the whole conference. Because, again, half of ’em haven’t done much at all. I’m just asking you. You tell me.”
I can hardly blame Stoops for trying to run down the SEC. The SEC has been the king of college football for a while and a lot of outsiders would love to take the league down. Stoops had nothing to lose by throwing that out there and seeing if it sticks.
Let’s stat with Stoops’ criticism of the “bottom half” of the league. What defines the “bottom half,” anyway? He didn’t specify; my presumption is the bottom half of last year’s standings, so let’s start there. According to conference records, last year’s bottom half was (in order): Mississippi State (4-4, 8-5 overall), Ole Miss (3-6, 7-6), Arkansas (2-6, 4-8), Missouri (2-6, 5-7), Tennessee (1-7, 5-7), Auburn (0-8, 3-9) and Kentucky (0-8, 2-10).
With regards to last year, there’s not much to get excited about; an overrated Mississippi State team went to the Gator Bowl, where it lost to Northwestern. An underrated Ole Miss team made it to the Compass Bowl, where it thumped a mediocre Pitt team by 21 points. The rest stayed at home for the holidays.
If Stoops meant for us to stop here and focus on last year’s records, maybe he has a point, but he seemed to be speaking to the league’s longer run of dominance. So, let’s look at some of the recent accomplishments of that lower half in a randomly-selected five-year window before last season.
In 2011, Arkansas went 6-2 in the SEC and 11-2 overall, finishing No. 5 nationally. The Razorbacks went 42-22 in the five seasons leading up to last one, and finished 12th in 2010 (10-3, 6-2). Yes, Arkansas took a tumble last year, but let’s not forget it also unexpectedly lost coach Bobby Petrino in the spring as well.
Until joining the SEC and stumbling last year, Missouri had been one of the top teams in Stoops’ league, the Big 12. The previous five years, the Tigers had gone 48-19 overall and 27-16 in the conference, and achieved final national rankings of 4 (2007), 16 (2008) and 18 (2010).
Auburn, of course, won the 2010 national title. Over the five years preceding last, the Tigers sported a 44-21 overall mark, with a 23-18 league record. For good measure, AU finished 15th in the final 2007 poll.
Tennessee has obviously been in a down cycle, but the Vols still managed to stay above .500 overall at 33-31. They even managed a No. 12 national finish in 2007 after going 10-4.
In fact, the Volunteers’ plight may make the best case for the league’s overall strength. Even after UT’s recent down years, the Vols still own the league’s second-best all-time mark in league games.
Kentucky is obviously the league’s weak sister at the moment. But even the Wildcats have had a decent run, tying Tennessee with a 33-31 overall mark.
Ole Miss (27-35 from 2007-11) has had an up-and-down history, which looks back on the way up with Hugh Freeze. In that span, the Rebels twice won nine games and finished 14th (2007) and 20th (2008).
MSU (33-30) shares a similar story with Ole Miss, and the Bulldogs’ high-water mark was the 9-4 campaign of 2010, which resulted in a No 15 final ranking.
So if you’re keeping score, that’s a 260-179 overall mark (59.2 winning percentage) for those seven teams. Only Ole Miss had a losing record over that span. There were 11 Top 20 finishes, meaning that on average, last year’s bottom half finished in the Top 20 31.4 percent of the seasons leading up to last one.
And, of course, there was Auburn’s national title.
Well, you say, maybe it was just an odd year in which the SEC was turned upside-down. The teams in the league’s top half were Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. I won’t even bother to repeat the exercise with those teams, because we all know the first five have outstanding football traditions. As for Carolina and Vandy, both programs are on the way up; Carolina is already a preseason Top 10 pick for next year, and the Commodores should crack the Top 25 in a few preseason rankings.
Any way you slice it, there’s no easy path through the SEC’s bottom half. Not by a long shot.
To be fair to Stoops, let’s consider the context: the bottom teams in the Big 12 last year, from the ground up, were Kansas, Iowa State, and three of the following 4-5 teams: Baylor, Texas Tech, TCU and West Virginia. For the sake of not having to play God, I’ll not distinguish between the last four and I’ll total the records of all six teams in the five previous seasons. It comes to 226-153, with a 59.6 percent winning rate – 0.4 percent higher than the SEC’s.
As for the rankings context, there were 13 Top 25 finishes in those 30 seasons, for a 43.3 percent success rate. That beats the SEC’s mark, though if you’ll note, I used Top 20 finishes for the SEC since none of those seven teams finished between 21-25 those years.
But there’s two things we didn’t mention.
First of all, the Big 12 now only has 10 teams. It’s harder to build a solid league from top to bottom when you have 14, like the SEC.
Second, TCU was in the Mountain West Conference until last year, and WVU, the Big East. It’s a whole lot easier to rack up wins (and probably, Top 25 finishes) in those leagues than it is in the SEC (or the Big 12, for that matter).
Look, those of us in SEC country tend to focus only how tough our neck of the woods is. Stoops’ comment perhaps at least accomplished one thing in making people realize how tough his own league is. But Stoops should stick to coaching rather than commentating, because his claim is a dubious one, at best.