“We know the SEC’s a supernova in terms of college football supremacy with seven national championships since the 2006 season and a Godzilla-sized recruiting stronghold over the rest of the country, but a closer look reveals a genetically-enhanced monster more menacing than the league itself: The Significant Seven: Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss make up half of the current Top 10, a first for a single FBS division.” Yes, you read that correctly, Mississippi is now part of the Significant Seven.
The year was 2014, the year of the inaugural College Football Playoffs. The SEC was fresh off winning seven of the last eight titles, the one misstep a last second loss to Florida State in 2013, seemingly just a bump in the road. And the predictions of the pundits appeared vindicated when “The Committee” released its first poll: three of the top four spots belonged to SEC West teams with another, Alabama, lurking in the shadows at # 6. That’s right, if the playoffs had started that day, three of the four contestants, all from one division in College Football, would have made the playoffs. And interestingly enough, it was Mississippi State, not Ole Miss, that occupied the top spot, which at one point saw Mississippi St. ranked # 1 and Ole Miss at # 3. All that was left was for the best division in football ever was its own little version of a family squabble that would function as the de facto coronation of college football’s next king of the gridiron. Unfortunately for University of SEC fan*, more football games would be played.
From the same article that gave us the “Significant Seven,” we get this hyperbolic little gem: “[t]ake a step back to appreciate what’s unfolding before us: construction is almost complete on the marvelous, high-speed bullet train known as ‘The SEC West’ and once it operates at full capacity, no opposing team, standout player or elite coach will be able to stop. it.” Sounds like the construction of a weapon akin to the Evil Empire’s planet demolishing Death Star does it not? It almost makes you feel sorry for the rest of college football.
It would be easy to look at Ohio State’s domination in the trenches against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl as proof that such a claim was obviously baseless. Truth is, though, anything can happen in one sixty minute football game. The train done jumped off the tracks though when one considers the Wisconsin win over Auburn, the same Wisconsin team that Ohio State dusted to the tune of 59-0 in the B1G Ten Championship game. In fact, The Significant Seven managed to only win two bowl games in seven tries. Ironically, it was the SEC East, and teams like Missouri, that rescued the conference, giving it a respectable but far from dominate 7-5 record in the 2014 bowl season (and let’s not forget that Missouri was seen at one point losing to traditional doormat Indiana at home, a Hoosier team that wouldn’t sniff a bowl game with a 4-8 record). And what of that Ole Miss team you ask? Well, they lost three of their last five and finished the year as tackling dummies for TCU in a 42-3 route (yes Ole Miss had some key injuries, but then, depth is certainly part of the strength equation, or at least it should be. Perhaps anointing them as part of the “Significant Seven” based on one excellent recruiting class was not the way to roll).
But with this information, the pundits and pollsters learned their lesson heading into the 2015 season, right? Not exactly.
One week into the 2015 season, the AP poll had ten SEC teams in the top 25, with five members of the SEC West duly represented. Alabama was # 2, Auburn was # 6, Georgia was # 10, LSU was # 14 (not having played a single game), Texas A&M # 16, Ole Miss was # 17, Arkansas was # 18, Missouri was # 20, Tennessee was # 23, and Mississippi State was # 25. Leaving aside for a second the silliness of selecting so many teams from one conference in the top 25 when inter-conference games dictate that many of these teams will almost certainly suffer multiple losses, the media was once again doubling down on the SEC superiority narrative generally and the SEC West supernova specifically.
So how did that work out for the AP pollsters? This narrative was dealt a significant blow less than six days later. Shortly after 41 point favorite Auburn barely beat FCS Jacksonville State in overtime, Bert’s Razorbacks, fresh off his comments about Ohio State’s strength of schedule, dropped a home game to the Toledo Rockets, a middling MAC team (um Bert, I think you were spending too much time on the wrong Ohio team). The cherry on top the sundae was Tennessee at home coughing up a second half 17 point lead to Big Game Bob and the Oklahoma Sooners (is it Okla-go-homa or Chokla-homa?), a Volunteer team ranked nearest this guy can tell merely because they pummeled Iowa in a bowl game last season.
Ladies and gentleman, the lipstick is officially off the SEC pig (literally in Fayettevile).
Some University of SEC fans have been living off of the coattails of Nick Saban for the better part of a decade now.
What has grown tiresome for the non-SEC portion of the college football fan base is the clinging to a lazy narrative that ignores the actual data (you know, the results on the field). No one is here to suggest that the SEC doesn’t have good teams, they do, but the overgeneralized conclusion that somehow the SEC is clearly the best conference in football from top to bottom is not born out by the numbers. One of my favorite articles on the topic was written in 2012, by a southern writer Chuck Thompson no less, which explains the fallacy of the SEC circle jerk– a reputation that has been built largely on public perception and partially on: 1) scheduling fairly weak out of conference games (“OOC hereafter) and, 2) by the flawed circular reasoning of, “hey, we’re good because we beat each other.” Years ago, I had multiple conversations with an internet poster who explained that SEC stands for, “scheduling equals championships.” There is something to this.
The circle jerk works like this: based on last year’s over ranked finishes, SEC teams are given the benefit of the doubt and ranked high preseason the following year (this is actually built off the reputation of the championships, which is discussed more fully below). As most fans know, college football teams schedule their own OOC games by contracting with schools, which gives teams the ability to control the strength of at least part of their schedule. The SEC OOC is often comprised of scheduling one MAC or Sun Belt team, one lower-tier FBS team (think someone like Kansas), one instate rival (so you don’t have to travel), and one FCS team, often played intentionally during the grind of late October early November when other conferences are playing hard fought conference games.
This last bit of scheduling, known as Chicken Shit Saturday by a favorite writer of mine at another site, is a stroke of genius so long as you don’t get penalized by The Committee for this blatant attempt to schedule a de facto bye week late in the season. By doing this, you schedule one of your “marquee” in conference games (“IC hereafter”) early, because not only are you likely to be the healthiest, giving you the best shot to win, but it also gives you additional time to recover from a loss. This is key, because, historically, early season losses in college football hurt less, at least if the loss is to a quality opponent. Conversely, a win over a quality opponent early can give you a bump in the rankings, which gives you some room to fall should you eventually suffer a loss or two.
Another key component when scheduling these games is to schedule them at home, where college teams by the numbers have statistically enjoyed a healthy advantage (in those few instances where you do play a quality opponent, schedule them at a neutral site, close to your home base). According to at least one source, home teams enjoy a winning percentage of 62.8% (67.27% for FBS teams), better than in any of the major sports except for Major League Soccer. Travel can be arduous for the college athlete, with more than one college season ruined by a cross county trip that presents unique challenges for the student-athlete. Certainly one way to avoid this problem is to avoid scheduling road games, which is precisely what some SEC schools have opted to do. For example, when Georgia agreed to play a home and home with Arizona State in 2008-09, the road game represented the first time Georgia had traveled outside of a 800 mile radius in 41 years. And it’s why Florida never seems to leave the state to play out of conference, instead regularly scheduling in state foes Miami and Florida State. This piece noted that not only did every SEC team play a FCS foe in 2014, but six of the league members didn’t play any of the OOC games on the road (and remember, the SEC plays 4 OOC games while several conferences play only 3).
By employing these tactics, SEC teams rack up very good OOC records, which factors into the strength of schedule model (the first part of the formula is your opponents’ number of wins). By the time you get to the in conference portion of your schedule, you are taking on opponents who have inflated records who are already preseason over-ranked themselves. Even if the over-ranked team you beat eventually drops several games and falls in the polls, the winning team still gets the fake bump early while we wait to see if that team is really any good, as happened to Texas A&M in 2014 when they knocked off over ranked South Carolina–in essence, a sophisticated version of the old shell game. And with so many SEC teams ranked early and often, pollsters are hedging their bets by essentially covering the field with the various SEC teams as the benefactors–sweeping a similarly situated SEC team into the playoff field then becomes a fait accompli.
And lest you think I’m exaggerating this, there is data to prove otherwise. At the beginning of the 2015 season, CBS did an analysis of the various strengths of conference schedules, primarily looking at the number of OOC games played against Power 5 conference opponents (“P5” hereafter). Regarding the scheduling of such games, the SEC was third with 11, behind the ACC (21) and the B1G Ten (17). Even this is somewhat misleading though because the conferences have different numbers of teams and different numbers of OOC games But percentages don’t lie– the SEC was dead last, playing only 19.6% of its games against P5 opponents. The ACC lead the way playing 37.5% of their games against P5 opponents, with the B1G Ten right behind them with 30.4%. It has lead some pundits to suggest that SEC schedules don’t get any easier than what’s on the slate for 2015.
And SEC teams know that this scheduling gives them an advantage, which is why the conference has refused to join the B1G Ten** and others and move to a 9 game IC schedule and ban the playing of FCS games, which would effectively shut down Chicken Shit Saturday. The SEC gets away with this, because, to date, the conference has not been punished for it. But recently, even networks like ESPN have been critical of this blatant and indefensible schedule manipulation, with Kirk Herbstreit calling the practice “the worst thing that happens in college football.”
And other conferences have taken note of SEC scheduling practices, calling the SEC out for its refusal to go to a 9 game IC format. As head coach Mark Helfrich of Oregon, whose team played in the championship game last year, said, “I think there’s a couple leagues who are in the minority of playing less than nine league games, that’s definitely to their advantage” (hey Mr. Thompson, I think he’s talking to you). If the SEC were to move to 9 games, most likely that ninth conference game would replace the cupcake that many of the league’s teams schedule for late October or early November each year. Though once such a scenario would almost certainly have been blasphemy, couple the crumbling SEC perception with the weight The Committee gave to overall SOS last year, and the SEC could one day see themselves on the outside of the college football playoffs looking in.
If you are following my argument above, then you know that the only way to really measure the strength of the various conferences is by assessing the data provided by OOC games and bowl games, as this is when the teams from various conferences square off against each. Surely it is here that the SEC establishes it’s supremacy, no? Ahem, no.
From the Thompson article referenced above, from the inception of the BCS through the 2011-12 bowl season, the numbers in these games suggest that the SEC holds a slight advantage against some conferences but actually has an inferior record against others (a losing record to the now defunct Big East is decidedly not a good look.). For example, despite a narrative that the B1G Ten is overall a very weak conference, especially as compared to the SEC, in the 38 bowl games played between the conferences in that time span, the schools split the games 19 apiece, though you would never know this from the pundits who continue to insist that the B1G Ten is on par with the Colonial Athletic Conference. Though not complete data, as it doesn’t include the last 3 seasons, here are the results of the all the OOC games from that time frame:
SEC vs. PAC-12 regular season: 10-12
SEC vs. PAC-12 bowl games: 1-0
SEC vs. Big 12 regular season: 6-10
SEC vs. Big 12 bowl games: 21-8
SEC vs. ACC regular season: 42-36
SEC vs. ACC bowl games: 16-9
SEC vs. Big 10 regular season: 7-4
SEC vs. Big 10 bowl games: 19-19
SEC vs. Big East regular season: 16-15
SEC vs. Big East bowl game: 3-8
If you don’t have a calculator handy, that comes to 141-121, or a winning percentage of .538, a few ticks north of a flip of the coin.
Want more recent data? This article from 2014 gives us more grist for the mill. “SEC teams combined to play 41 total FBS non-conference games this season, and those teams boasted a collective record of 34-7. Not bad, right? That’s a win percentage of .829, which is certainly nothing to shrug at. However, the SEC was just 5-6 in games against the other power conferences, indicating the conference is not quite as dominant as its non-conference record indicates.” This was from last season, where the SEC started 5-2 against Power 5 competition until dropping 4 straight in state games to ACC competition (dubbed by some as the Almost Competitive Conference). In that same article, the author noted, “SEC teams were fond of opponents from the Sun Belt and Conference USA, posting a 17-0 record against teams from those conferences. SEC teams also took out two of the three AAC co-champions (Ole Miss beat Memphis and Missouri beat UCF), and Ole Miss also took out Mountain West champ Boise State at a neutral site in Week 1…[a]nd in case you needed reassurance, the SEC was a perfect 14-0 in games against FCS foes.” Four of the fourteen SEC members in 2014 had schedules that ranked in the bottom ten of the 124 FBS teams. And from the link above, you can see the schedules weren’t really upgraded in 2015.
Much of the perceived strength of the SEC most likely stems from the conference winning seven straight title games, a feat that is both impressive but somewhat of an oddity from which little can be gleaned about overall conference strength. At best, all one can say is that the best of the SEC was better than the best of another conference winner in seven games, whether that other conference winner was even the worthiest challenger. I won’t belabor a system that no longer exists too much, but arguments could be made that in some seasons the SEC was given the nod over other similarly qualified teams.
In 2006-7, Florida was given the nod over Michigan in large part because Michigan already had a chance to play Ohio State, and lost (FWIW, Florida had a higher overall SOS that year). That made what occurred in 2011-12 particularly galling in that Alabama, who already lost to LSU at home, was granted a rematch despite the fact that Oklahoma State had only 1 loss and a higher overall SOS (pundits didn’t have a problem with this rematch as the narrative switched from best SOS to quality of the loss). As I discussed here, the computers actually picked Oklahoma State because of the overall SOS, but the human voters overrode this and picked Alabama utilizing dangling chad type ballot shenanigans discussed in that same piece– several voters, including Nick Saban, dropped Oklahoma State down to fourth or lower on their ballots resulting in the smallest margin between a # 2 and # 3 team in BCS history. And of course, as Thompson noted in his piece–when Oregon lost to LSU earlier in that same year on a neutral field, they dropped 10 spots in the polls, all but eliminating the Ducks from championship contention. But when Alabama lost to LSU in Tuscaloosa, they dropped just one spot, which allowed them to climb back to the # 2 spot for the subsequent farce of a rematch. Certainly one way to ensure that your conference wins the title is to have both teams from your conference in the game.
And while 2007 was perhaps the craziest year in the BCS era, the SEC was again given the benefit of the doubt when LSU, the only 2 loss team in the era, was allowed to play for a title. That fact alone was bad enough, but worse when you consider that LSU’s two losses came to two four loss teams, traditionally middling Arkansas and bottom dweller Kentucky. LSU was kept alive in the mix in large part because of a preseason # 1 ranking that kept the Tigers relevant once chaos ensued the final weeks of 2007. Still, an argument could have been made that a 1 loss Kansas team should have gotten the nod over a two loss SEC team (LSU was also picked over Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Georgia, Missouri, USC, and West Virgina who had two losses apiece, and undefeated Hawaii). Regardless, and probably because of these controversies, 2014 ushered in an era when a field of four will get a shot to play for the title. This means that any team winning it all now will have to play 2 quality games against top competition, with early returns not so favorable for the SEC. For those keeping score, it is now 2 straight years without a title for the conference with no participant in the sport’s finale played in 2015.
Ohio State’s win over Alabama in 2015 was the second straight Sugar Bowl loss for Nick Saban and has resulted in some questioning if the dynasty is over in Tuscaloosa.
There have been embarrassing losses for the SEC, such as Florida losing at home to a FCS team that didn’t complete a forward pass, a game that featured this interesting strategy. But in a country that has a 1% problem, it’s the cracks in the facade at the top that are beginning to change the conference perception. From a blog entitled, The SEC Exposed, in the previous three seasons, the SEC is 1-6 against the nation’s top out of conference teams. The conference went 0-4 against ten win teams in the bowl season last year, further eroding the narrative that the SEC wins the most important games. But perhaps most troubling is that a trend is developing regarding the conference’s bellwether team, Alabama.
Simply put, Saban is losing games and in a fashion he never used to. Alabama was knocked out of the title game in 2013 because Saban passed on a 30 yard field that would have sealed the game. He then lost the game on the now infamous “kick six,” a TD off a missed 57 yard field goal, a sequence of events that is stunning when one considers that it was universally believed that Saban was the game’s best coach. And it’s one thing to drop a game to the Ol’ Ball coach, who has won a national championship as a SEC coach himself, but another to suffer a loss to Mississippi, as Saban did in 2014–the same Mississippi team that lost 3 of its last 5 and was crushed by TCU in a bowl game.
Saban has lost the last two Sugar Bowls, including two years ago to a coach who has a nickname centered around his inability to win big games, and who has gone out of his way to put down the SEC as overrated. When one considers that Urban Meyer left Gainesville and reestablished a football factory north of the Mason Dixon line, then other than Les Miles (who is still trying to win games with a high school level quarterback), Saban is the only other current SEC coach that has won a title since the SEC run began. And for those that watched the 2015 Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State, while only a seven point final score, Alabama was spotted a 21-6 lead off three turnovers and coughed up the game. Alabama abandoned the run because Ohio State controlled the line of scrimmage, and Ohio State passed at will against an Alabama secondary that was once the hallmark of Saban teams, with a guy many considered Ohio State’s third option at quarterback. If Alabama’s run is over, and that is a big if, the mystique that is the SEC at the top of conference could be in serious trouble. Even if the run isn’t over, it certainly appears the SEC at the top has come back to the middle of the pack.
And it’s almost as if the SEC coaches sense that the tides of public perception are changing. In it’s hey day, all we heard from the field generals in the SEC was coach speak with some good-natured ribbing thrown in the mix. But recently, SEC coaches have resorted to grumbling and excuse making.
First, Nick Saban ruffled a few feathers after the 2014 Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, suggesting that the game was but a consolation prize for a Tide team used to winning titles. There was Bert’s allegations that the hurry up no huddle offenses were dangerous for the kids, which culminated in a midnight behind the dumpster attempt to put in a rule that would prohibit snapping the ball for 10 seconds after the previous play. This claim was made without any data to support such a notion. Then there was Gus Malzahn of Auburn, who suggested the SEC was at a disadvantage in the new playoff structure because of the “grind of the SEC schedule.” It didn’t take Gus long to begin spouting the SEC company line.
But there is more. Several coaches complained about satellite camps down south as an advantage since the SEC doesn’t allow them (the B1G Ten has an over-signing limit that the SEC does not have, but I have yet to hear one SEC coach raise this issue). It’s almost as if SEC coaches have forgotten about the Godzilla-sized recruiting stronghold they enjoy over the rest of the country. Then mysteriously there were statements from Tuscaloosa suggesting that part of Alabama’s problems in the 2015 Sugar Bowl were because they underestimated the Buckeyes starting quarterback and because the NFL graded out the draft prospects before the game started and their kids played not to get hurt (as Urban Meyer joked during Scarlet and Gray Days, we don’t have any NFL players here at Ohio State). Finally, in recent weeks, the Ol’ Ball Coach (and I intentionally went with Old over Head here) and Bert felt the need to weigh in on their perceived belief that Ohio State’s schedule is weak, odd comments from coaches whose early returns suggest they will be watching the playoff games on television like everyone else (and in the case of the latter, thanks to the Toledo Rockets, a virtual certainty). Such a litany of unprovoked excuse making seems to suggest SEC coaches see what the rest of the non-SEC fan bases are seeing.
For the longest time, the rallying cry of University of SEC fan centered around what I call fan boy error # 12–trying to make a point visa-via rank speculation which can not be adequately disproved. That is, until it is. The line usually goes something like this–if so and so was in the SEC and had to play the rigors of a SEC schedule, they would go 4-8. Of course, the data above suggests this isn’t true, but as luck would have it, we don’t have to extrapolate from those numbers.
In 2012, Texas A&M moved over to the SEC. Despite the fact that A&M was for most of its history a middle of the pack Big 12 team, they immediately went 11-2 (7-2 SEC) in 2012, with a stunning defeat of Alabama behind the sensational play of Johnny Football. In 2013, the results were a bit mixed, as A&M finished 9-4, (4-4 in SEC play). Still, A&M more then held their own. By their third season in 2014, A&M, despite only going 8-5, was already enjoying the benefits of the SEC spoils; over ranked much of the year themselves based on the win over the over ranked Gamecocks (yep, that circle jerk thing again).
The path for Missouri, who also moved over to the SEC from the Big 12 in 2012, has been even sweeter, winning the SEC East the last two years. Though they lost to perennial cellar-dweller Indiana in 2014, and only played two teams ranked in the final 25 poll that year, getting outscored by a tune of 76-13, a bowl win over # 25 ranked Minnesota was enough to garner a final ranking of # 14 for the Tigers (though under the old system, if one last poll had been released, Minnesota would have dropped out and Missouri would have had zero wins over teams ranked in the final 25). SEC benefits indeed.
I want to make something clear–I know the SEC has good teams every year, as do all conferences. The run of seven straight titles was remarkable, even if a few of games involved controversial participants. Recruiting rankings and NFL draft results suggest that the highest percentage of top shelf talent by conference comes from the SEC. This is not an anti-SEC hate piece, despite the carefully constructed argument that suggests its superiority is greatly exaggerated. It’s time for the media and fans to stop grabbing for the low hanging fruit, the tired and quite frankly factually inaccurate narrative that the SEC is clearly the best conference in America from top to bottom. It arguably never was, but recent developments suggest that even if there was some truth to that narrative, it’s ‘s a thing of the past. That’s what happens when the best division ever goes 2-5 in bowl games, or when the East champion loses to a 4-8 conference doormat at home, or when a 41-point FCS dog takes the “# 6 team” in the country into over time. Much to the chagrin of University of SEC fan, it’s time for a new narrative in college football.
* University of SEC refers to those conference homers in the SEC that collectively root for the SEC, as if this is a school somewhere whose campus can’t be located on any map. Think of the chant “SEC! SEC! SEC! heard at games. Not surprisingly, the loudest voices of University of SEC fan are comprised of fans from schools that wouldn’t know a college playoff game from the MAACO bowl. Think Kentucky, South Carolina, Arkansas fan to name but a few.