Sports, Thrill of Victory

Why “the SEC is overrated” isn’t the real discussion we should be having

The wolves had already started to howl, and the moment that Alabama fell to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, they kicked it up a couple of notches.

It’s not a surprise. The Southeastern Conference has lots of haters. Any time you dominate the college football landscape the way the SEC did when it won seven consecutive national titles, unless you’re an SEC fan, you get sick of hearing about it. It’s human nature; good luck meeting a sports fan who’s ambivalent towards the New York Yankees.

The know-it-alls have now joined the chorus. We’re told the SEC wasn’t really that strong, that anyone who was objectively watching football could have seen it.

I’ve heard that from people I know and respect. But I don’t believe it, and here’s why.

First, there’s the notion that a lot of SEC teams didn’t pass the “look test.” With all due respect to our eyes, the look test is one of the most overrated things in sports. Oklahoma certainly passed the look test early in the season. We all just knew that Oklahoma had the goods to be a national title contender; well, the Sooners finished 8-5 and won’t even be in the Top 25 of the major polls. Auburn, the defending national runner-up, certainly passed the look test when it started 5-0, including an absolute dismantling of LSU on the back end. On the other hand, Ohio State, which will be playing for a national championship, didn’t pass the look test when it lost 35-21 to Virginia Tech on Sept, 6, or when it struggled to beat Navy in its season opener, or when it struggled with Penn State or Minnesota, both of which it beat by seven.

I could cite countless other examples, but you get the point.

To the next point of “how were we to know?”: the only games of consequence that most of these teams play is against other teams from their leagues, and the way we process all that is dubious, at best.

If the SEC has two or three top teams that emerge, SEC fans regard those teams as dominant. Critics (I’m paging you, Bob Stoops!) will only say it’s proof that the bottom half of the league’s not any good.If the SEC’s teams all beat each other up, SEC fans say it’s proof of unprecedented depth, while its haters say that it shows that none of them were any good. In other words, we see what we want to see.

Even if you’re trying to be objective, there are issues.

Living in SEC country, I naturally propped the SEC up, not out of some sense of loyalty to the league, but because, if any entity deserved the benefit of the doubt, it was the SEC. Auburn came within an eyelash of extending the league’s title streak to eight games last year. And even with the bowl-game thumpings that ‘Bama, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State took, along with an LSU loss to Notre Dame that probably shouldn’t have happened, the SEC won more than it lost this bowl season. As a press release from the league over the weekend proudly pointed out, the league tied its own record for bowl wins this season, and now sits at 56-30 in bowl games since 2006. When in doubt about now, I’d prefer to go with history.

But the point of this, again, is not to glorify up the SEC. It’s to get us to focus on a more important topic, which is, the way the system’s set up, it’s hard to assert with much certainty who’s better than who. I do think the AP voters do a fairly good job of sizing up teams from week to week. I like Jeff Sagarin’s computer ratings, and there are others that do a good job, too.

But here’s the problem: all reasoning, even computer programming, becomes largely circular based on whatever preconceived notion we have of each league. College football as it exists offers us no solution because we have little real basis for comparison.

Case in point: only six times this season did a team ranked in the AP’s final regular-season Top 25 play another Top 25 team in an out-of-conference game. Those games were Oregon-Michigan State, TCU-Minnesota, Ole Miss-Boise State, Kansas State-Auburn, Georgia Tech-Georgia and Clemson-Georgia. The SEC went 3-1 here, while the Pac-12, which I guess would now be the chic pick if the SEC is no longer the best league, played just one game (which it won). Of course, there were other tests between Power Five conferences (OSU-Virginia Tech, UCLA-Virginia, Alabama-West Virginia and Tennessee-Oklahoma are the two that immediately come to mind) but some were not evenly matched and so their practicality as litmus tests comes into some question. Mostly, though, when Power Five teams step out of conference, it’s Texas Tech playing UTEP or Central Arkansas, or Georgia Tech playing Wofford or Tulane.

Nobody ever processes it this way, but outside of those precious few games, there’s little to go on. When we say that Alabama’s better than Baylor, what we’re really saying is that the combination of beating SEC teams, plus blowouts of Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss and Western Carolina, is better than beating Big 12 teams in additions to crushing SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo. And if you can agree that we really lack the information to know what league is better than the other, what we’re essentially basing our opinions of different leagues on is 75 percent composed of whose thrashing of a 90-pound weakling is better than the other guy’s.

You would hope that there would be more of a concerted effort to resolve this issue. The SEC said it was going to make its teams all schedule a Power Five opponent in the future, but apparently one is enough, as SEC commissioner Mike Slive reportedly nixed Tennessee’s attempt to put Baylor on its future slate. I understand the move; Tennessee is far more likely to beat Tennessee-Chattanooga than it is the Bears, which is another step towards a sixth win for the Vols, which is more bowl revenue for the league. But is college football better for it?

We can all visit this discussion again next year, and of course it’s the kind of thing that makes for great discourse during the season. Still, whether you like the Big Ten or the Big 12 or the SEC, there’s one thing we should all be honestly asking when we’re trumpeting our favorite leagues as best, which is, “How do we really know?”