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My annual post about the SEC

Posted by Doug on December 11, 2007

I grew up a fan of a team that was in the Big 8, but I never considered myself a "Big 8 fan." What does that even mean? Why would I care what Missouri or Colorado does in their out-of-conference games? Rooting for a conference is something that never occurred to me, and so I always considered people who did so to be a little weird. But since moving to the south six years ago, I've become a weirdo in a weirdo's world. I now have conference awareness for the first time in my life, but I don't have conference pride. I have conference animosity. Animosity toward the SEC, to be specific.

As long as this blog exists, I will continue to write at least one post per year that urges people not to hate the SEC as I shamefully do, but to at least think critically about its place in the college football world. Last year I pointed out that the SEC had a record of 72-72 against other BCS conferences in the BCS era (1998--present). That was before the bowl season, during which they went 5-3 (I'm counting Notre Dame as a BCS team). This year, they were 7-7 against the other BCS conferences, which brings their record in the last ten years to 84-82.


Anyway, my annual SEC post for '07 was going to be sarcasm-laced and confrontational, but while it was brewing in my brain I happened across this post at which, in all seriousness, might be the best post ever written in the history of blogs. SMQ has inspired me to be reasonable, to say what I have to say frankly and without gratuitous insults. I'll start with an anti-fisking of his post:

The worst result of last year's mythical championship game was the growth and perpetuation of this absurd notion of superior "SEC speed," based not on the collective 40 times and shuttle drills of hundreds of players on a couple dozen teams that make up the SEC and Big Ten, but on a handful of plays in a single game that was decidedly outside the season-long patterns of both participants, and not demonstrably decided by "speed" (unless you're willing to suggest Tennessee and Arkansas were done in a week earlier by "speed," too, which was at least as plausible). These conferences need to play more often [bolding added by Doug].

This is the crux of the problem. The SEC is 84-82 against the other BCS conferences in the last 10 years. That means there are about 16 games per year featuring an SEC team versus another team from a power conference, and a high percentage of those are bowls (otherwise known as meaningless exhibitions). That's just not enough to conclude anything at all. The fact is: we don't know and we can't know, given the current scheduling norms, how the conferences stack up against each other. Not last year, not this year, not any year.

One would think the false sense of inevitability that followed Ohio State prior to last year's championship (or USC the year before that, or that very, very fast Miami team in 2002, or, I don't know, LSU, Ohio State, West Virginia, USC, Oregon, Michigan, Oklahoma, California, Florida or LSU again prior to stunning upsets over the last three months) would demonstrate the virtues of humility to fans everywhere, and lead them to stop for a second to recognize --- last year's anomalous championship beatdown is a great example of this --- that anything can happen in one game, on one night, and "anything" will not necessarily reconcile itself with the accumulation of disparate performances that precedes it. It only adds to the accumulation; it doesn't define it. [bolding by Doug again]

The last sentence is a beautiful one. Of course, it needs to be interpreted correctly. In a sense, what happens in the championship game does define the season, because that's how the season will be remembered. But what SMQ is arguing against is the all-too-common notion that what happens in a given game was inevitable, that the loser was exposed. No. The loser lost. There might be some larger lessons to be learned from it but, even when the loser loses spectacularly like Ohio State did last season, there might not. Sometimes teams just lose.

Based on everything we know from the dozen "samples" on both sides leading up to last January, that Florida team couldn't beat that Ohio State team by 27 points again in a whole season of trying. There's a reason the Gators were underdogs, and it's not because they kept the fast guys under wraps when squeaking out wins against South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

I'm veering off topic just a bit here, but this hits on my main beef with the treatment the SEC seems to get in the media. It seems self-evident that little if anything can be learned about a conference's strength, relative to all the other conferences, by the results of intra-conference games. But somehow SEC games are viewed differently by a large and vocal contingent of college football fans. When LSU loses to Arkansas or a top 10 South Carolina team loses to Vanderbilt, it means There Are No Off Weeks In The SEC. But when Ohio State loses to Illinois, it means that the Buckeyes have been exposed.

The SEC rallying cry is that SEC teams "beat up on each other," which is of course true --- every conference has a .500 record against itself. But when a team that was 6-3 in the SEC loses to a team that went 3-6 in the Pac 10, what are we to make of that? It's just one game? Possibly a bit of a fluke and not necessarily representative of the true strengths of those teams? That seems obvious, which is why SMQ's post is so perfectly on point. The relative strengths of the conferences, to the extent we can judge them at all, must be measured by looking at all the data, not just one game.

Cal/Tennessee is certainly a convenient talking point for an SEC-hater like me, and there are others, but not too many. Which is why, when I look at all the data, I have to conclude that the SEC has in fact been the best conference in the country so far this year.

But let me put that into context. To do so, I've come up with an analogy that I hope SEC supporters can understand.

The SEC is the best conference in the country in the same sense that LSU is the best team in the SEC.

At times this season, LSU has looked clearly better than the field. At others, they've struggled to assert themselves against mid-packers like Kentucky, Arkansas, and Alabama. In the end, we're not really even sure they're better than Georgia is right now. Likewise, many bits of evidence point to the SEC being the class of college football while others tell a different story. In both cases, it's more of a best guess than a certainty.

But the more important part of the analogy is its implications for next year and for last year. The fact that LSU is the best team in the SEC this year doesn't mean Auburn or Florida or someone (the Pac 10 or the Big Ten or someone, in case you're having a hard time following along) wasn't better last year, or won't be better next year. Remember, my position isn't that the SEC is bad --- that's untenable --- it's that the SEC is JAC: Just Another Conference. It's one of a handful of conferences that vie for the top spot each year, with roughly equal long-term success. Just like LSU, sometimes it's up, sometimes it's down. Overall, it's 84-82.

Finally, just because LSU is better than Florida or Arkansas doesn't mean that Matt Flynn is better than Tim Tebow or that Jacob Hester is better than Darren McFadden. In the same way, the SEC's overall 2007 superiority over the Big Ten really says very little about a matchup between two individual teams from those conferences. There's nothing stopping the country's best team from coming from somewhere other than the best conference.

Not that I'm saying Ohio State is the country's best team. I don't have much of a feel for what's going to happen on January 7th, but the only thing I know for sure is that neither team will be exposed. To the extent that the word means anything, both teams --- and every other team in the country --- have already been exposed this season. One more game isn't going to change that, no matter what happens.