The SEC Is Dead, Long Live the SEC
The SEC is dead. The conference might as well give up football. The South's reign of dominance is over. Make way for the Big Ten or the Pac 12 or the Big 12 or the ACC as the new king of college football. If you only listened to the gleeful tap dances of derogation emanating from many national commentators who have been waiting nearly a decade to hastily pronounce the SEC's eulogy, you'd think the best conference in football went 0-12 in the recently completed bowl season. The SEC's standard of excellence is so high right now that merely equaling the most wins in the history of bowl games is a disappointment.
The SEC has won nine national titles since the BCS era began, seven in a row from 2006-2013. That standard of excellence couldn't be maintained forever. Not because the teams were becoming worse, but just because there's a reason one conference doesn't win every title for the rest of humankind's existence. I doubt the SEC's record of seven straight titles will ever be equaled again. But if it is equaled, it will be the SEC equaling it. Here's a better historical standard -- since 1998, when the BCS began and we commenced crowning a true champion, the SEC has nine national titles. Tennessee, Auburn, LSU, Alabama, and Florida, nearly half of the conference for most of those years, all won titles. During that same BCS era the Big Ten won one title, the Pac 12 won two titles, the Big 12 won two titles, the Big East won one, and the ACC has two. So five SEC teams won nine titles since 1998, the rest of college football won seven, with no other conference having more than two teams win championships. What's the future of college football look like? I suspect it will look an awful lot like the previous twenty years and that ratio will remain pretty consistent, the SEC's national titles will equal if not exceed what the rest of college football wins combined.
Since Ohio State's upset win Big Ten fans have come out of the woodwork recently to pronounce the SEC dead. But here's a stat that will stop any Big Ten fan in his tracks. Do you know how many titles the Big Ten has won in the past forty years, the past two generations of football? One and a half. One and a half! Why has the SEC so dominated the Big Ten in recent history? It's the demographics, stupid. The SEC has warm weather, better players, and a rapidly growing population. The more kids you have playing football year around in the sunshine, the better your teams will be. The SEC's massive advantage in resources, fan support, money, and players -- nine of the top 18 recruiting classes in the country are presently SEC teams -- didn't vanish overnight. In fact, every month it grows more substantial. Pronouncing the SEC dead because of one season's bowl results is like saying it will rain forever because it's raining on one day. It confuses a present situation with a long-term reality.
The continued rise of the SEC is an inexorable march, as sure as the sun rising in the east or setting in the west. So quick were many to dismiss the SEC, that you'd be forgiven if lost amid all the conference's eulogies you didn't realize the SEC tied its own all-time record for bowl game wins, set a record for teams playing in bowls, and set an all-time record for teams finishing with a winning record in a conference -- 12 SEC teams finished with winning records this year, every team but Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Remember when Bob Stoops accused the conference of being top heavy? Is the new criticism that the SEC is bottom heavy? Top to bottom the conference has never been stronger in its history. A rising tide of SEC dominance has lifted all boats. The SEC finished 7-5 this bowl season, the most wins for any conference this year and the second highest winning percentage in the country. The Pac 12 went 6-2 in bowls, the "resurgent" Big Ten went 5-5, the ACC went 4-7 and the Big 12, erstwhile challenger for top conference in football according to some, went just 2-5. The SEC was one win away from setting an all-time record for conference bowl wins. If LSU's touchdown actually counts at the end of the first half against Notre Dame -- how the refs blew that call I still don't know -- or Auburn doesn't miss a short field goal or clang one off the upright in overtime against Wisconsin we're talking about eight or nine wins for the conference, a new record for college football. Hell, if Alabama doesn't get upset by Ohio State -- a game the Tide would still be a touchdown favorite in if they rematched next week -- then we're talking about this being the greatest, deepest and most dominant year in SEC football history.
So beware national pundits selling false narratives.
The reality is bowl seasons sometimes produce aberrant results, it's what makes football so fun. The best teams don't always win bowl games. The best divisions don't even always produce the best results for a conference. The SEC East won every bowl game it played, notching a 5-0 record against the spread, winning four of its games by 8 or more, and knocking off opponents from three major conferences, including two 16+ point wins over the Big Ten. Yet everyone who watched the two divisions play during the season knows that the SEC West teams were superior. Are we supposed to toss out the 12 game regular season and the SEC title game and pronounce the SEC East superior to the SEC West just because of what happened in the post-season? Of course not. That's like judging a swimsuit competition by what hats the women are wearing.
The SEC won six of its bowl games by eight or more points, and won a single game by three points. Three of its losses were by a touchdown or less, two by three points, one of those games in overtime, the other on the final play of the game. When you break down the SEC West team performances, Auburn, LSU, and Alabama lost close games against inferior opponents, teams they would all be favored to beat if they played again next week. That's not to take anything away from Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and Ohio State, they won the single game the two teams played, but football results are sometimes outliers. Teams don't play a best of seven series like we get in baseball or basketball. They play once and sometimes the inferior team wins. That's the reality of probability, a team that would win seventy times out of 100 will still lose thirty times out of a 100. If the SEC wins all three of these close games, games that all three teams would be favored to win next week, the conference goes a whopping 10-2. (As for Ole Miss and Mississippi State, I'm not defending either of these teams or their performances. They played like crap and totally deserved to lose to TCU and Georgia Tech. Just when you think the state of Mississippi is finished embarrassing the rest of the South they disappoint us all over again.)
Four years ago the SEC finished just 5-5 in bowl season, the conference's worst mark in bowl games since before the SEC's title reign began. But Auburn beat Oregon in the BCS title game and the SEC notched its fifth consecutive title. That year I didn't see a single column or hear a single talking head bloviating about the rest of college football catching up with the SEC. But if Oregon had won that game, pushing the SEC to 4-6 overall in bowl games, a, gasp, losing bowl record!, you wouldn't have been able to escape the argument. The national consensus would have swung from SEC domination to SEC collapse, the exact same narrative swing we've seen this year. That story line would have dominated all post-game coverage. This year I was going to pick Oregon to beat Alabama or Ohio State. I think the Ducks are the best overall team in football right now and I think they're playing the best down the stretch. But that doesn't mean the SEC is worse, it just means Oregon is really good this year. Just like if Oregon had beaten Auburn in 2010 it wouldn't have meant the SEC's dominance was finished.
In fact, the year after Auburn beat Oregon in 2010, Alabama and LSU played for the national title. How stupid would anyone who claimed the SEC's reign was over have looked when that result emerged? (I'm kind of an expert on predictions looking stupid. Check out my gambling picks this year. So trust me, I know stupid.) If Alabama had beaten Ohio State, no one would have argued the SEC's run was finished. So now Alabama lost and the SEC's finished? Please. Write this down and store it for the next decade, if the SEC doesn't win at least five titles over the next ten years from 2015 to 2025 I will endow the Outkick scholarship at the University of Tennessee and pay two kids tuition for the rest of my life. (I might do this anyway, but this way we can at least make it a fun wager.) I'm going to win this one. Just watch.
The past is not dead, it's not even past. And the SEC doesn't even need to rise again, because it hasn't been knocked down yet. And it won't be. That's because it's the SEC's world, the rest of college football is just living in it.