Hey, guys. Not sure if anyone heard the news, but top-ranked SEC juggernaut Alabama was beaten in last week’s Sugar Bowl by a third-string QB and a 230-yard rushing performance from a sophomore. SEC Speed indeed!
The loss means that, for the first time since 2005, an SEC team won’t be in college football’s ultimate game — instead, Oregon will meet Ohio State in what’s basically a Rose Bowl on steroids. (Is that a touchy word to use in a football article? My bad.)
What it also means is that we’ll be mercifully spared another long off-season of listening to the most overrated conference in college football jerk itself off. Hooray!
The conventional wisdom is that the SEC is beyond compare in the FBS landscape, what with the Floridas and the Alabamas and the LSUs and the Auburns of the world perennially challenging for the national title. Part of the reason they’re so highly regarded by humans and computers alike is that they’re thought to play a brutal conference schedule — I mean, if you can come out of the best conference in the country unscathed, clearly you deserve to compete for a national title, right?
Well, sure, that’s right. If your goal is to create an uncontrollable circlejerk in which everyone agrees the SEC is the best because they have to play against the SEC, that is. If that’s what you think: oh hey, ESPN writers/readers, what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be off slamming Patron shots and talking about what a choker Tony Homo is? Up top brah!
Let’s take a slightly more critical approach to things: thanks to the legit effort of CFB Trivia, I was able to query the conference and non-conference results dating back as far as I wanted, in order to help provide a sense of unbiased context for results on a macro scale. Here’s how each conference fared against non-conference foes from 2000 to present:
Not bad, right? The SEC is the head of the class when it comes to beating non-conference foes, whether unranked, ranked or in the top ten. The nice thing about this data is that there’s no qualitative bias: an SEC game against a non-conference top ten is just as likely to be Florida against USC as it is to be Vanderbilt against Oklahoma. (Well, not really, but still: it helps smooth out human bias and offers a better view of conference strength.)
Now here are the same charts from 2010 to present:
Whoa! That overall winning percentage shot way up — the SEC must be way better than everyone else, right? Moreover, they’re trending upward — that’s a full 4.5% higher than before, which equates to roughly 16 wins. But wait, what are those last two charts telling us?
Hmm. Well that’s weird. Turns out when you actually stop to look at the numbers instead of just parroting some bullshit conventional wisdom, the SEC has gotten relatively worse against non-conference/top ten foes over time — from 2010 – 2014, they’re only negligibly better than the PAC-12 (though both remain considerably better than the rest of the country). What was once an overwhelming edge is now just a slight one.
But if their overall winning percentage has gone up and their record against ranked/top ten teams has gone down…could that mean that they’re scheduling more non-conference cupcakes just to rack up easy wins? That’s certainly what the data implies. Now, this would be incredibly problematic for most teams, because strength of schedule matters a lot in the eyes of voters and computers alike — just ask TCU and Baylor about overcoming conference bias after both were spurned by the playoff committee this year. But this is the SEC we’re talking about: When your conference is universally regarded as college football’s cream of the crop — not to mention when ESPN owns the rights to your network and gives you considerably more air time as a result — I guess you deserve to fatten up on cupcakes. It’s win-win when your conference schedule is always going to be the great equalizer. Fair!
Here’s the same data for the last two years, keeping in mind this year’s title game has yet to be played:
Well shoot, now the SECs’ winning percentage lead is REALLY negligible overall, with the PAC-12 being just one additional win away from overtaking them. And as far as ranked/top ten opponents go? Small sample size alert, to be sure, but the SEC looks downright abysmal — in fact, the SEC’s record against the top ten is far and away the worst of any Power 5 conference. They’re 1-11! Even the AAC has a better winning percentage!
What does all of this mean? Well…nothing, in essence: the last ~15 years of college football have seen numerous coaching changes, conference realignments, NCAA sanctions, you name it. If you’d mentioned the spread offense to Lee Corso in 2001, he’d probably have slit your throat and called you a demon — 15 years is a long time. Drawing a meaningful conclusion about conference strength is all-but impossible because the game has been so volatile.
So…why are ESPN and the like so quick to do it for the SEC?
All we hear about is what a dominant conference the SEC is — but when the numbers are this clear, how can that be anything but bias-and-reputation-driven nonsense? Remember, the first playoff rankings of the year featured three SEC teams in the top four (!) with Alabama hovering right behind at #6; Mississippi State makes sense on account of being unbeaten at the time, but was there no skepticism about Auburn or Ole Miss? Let’s not forget what happened to those guys during bowl season.
All we heard for years was that the SEC was far and away the superior conference — and when your top-heavy conference sends its champion to the BCS title game and gives it a month to prepare for its opponent, it’s probably not very hard to figure out why. Yes, Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Les Miles are tremendously gifted coaches with great programs, but a lot can happen in small sample sizes nonetheless. Sports are crazy like that. Now that the results are being settled on the field of play, though, the once-invulnerable SEC is left with more questions than answers.
Fortunately for all of us, the “SEC football is overrated!” perspective is starting to gain some traction within the mainstream media — perhaps a few years later than it should have, but hey, better late than never. What’s more, people seem more willing than ever to call out pro-SEC bias when they see it.
Maybe that’s because the playoff gives us a wider margin of error than before, meaning there’s less risk in treating the SEC like any other conference. After all, now they’ll have to prove themselves on the field instead of just relying on positive perceptions. Maybe the playoff has nothing to do with it — maybe it’s just a down couple of years for the SEC. Maybe everything in college football is cyclical and, like, the Big 10 is due for a resurgence soon while the SEC and PAC-12 will fall off. Maybe the whole landscape will collapse in on itself altogether for no reason at all and all former players will take up Starcraft.
What I’m getting at is that nothing is set in stone, and that very much includes the supposed superiority of the SEC. What is set in stone, though, is that we’ll have our first Big 10/PAC-12 national title game since 1969. Down with the SEC circlejerk, up with the nostalgiajerk, am I right??
But seriously, SEC: go fuck yourself. Get over yourselves, guys. A half decade of dominance can only do so much to mask the fact you still have Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Arkansas in your conference. Let’s not get carried away in calling ourselves anything special.