In the South where football is akin to religion, most Southern folks were again were enamored with the South Eastern Conference. Southern football fanatics often claim that the SEC is by far the best football conference in the country, and in most years it is hard to argue with them. After Florida won the inaugural BCS National Championship game in 2006, the SEC then went on to also win the next six BCS titles in a row while showing total dominance. During that string Alabama won three national titles, Florida two and LSU and Auburn each one. Along the way, SEC teams bested teams from the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-10, and independent Notre Dame in those big games. In 2011 the best two teams in the land were both from the SEC with Alabama beating LSU to take the national title.
After the string was broken in 2013 when Florida State beat the SEC champion Auburn in the BCS game, to SEC fans it appeared that in 2014 their conference was again destined to take its rightful place at the top of the college football world. In the preseason polls the SEC had seven teams ranked in the top 25 with Alabama ranked at or near top of all of the polls. As the season progressed it appeared that Missouri and Georgia had fielded good teams in the SEC’s Eastern Division while Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, LSU and defending conference champion Auburn would battle it out for the Western Division championship. The SEC Western Division proved this year that it was superior East when the top five Western teams went on to win 10 out of 11 games against Eastern opponents during the season. This trend culminated with Western Division Champion Alabama overwhelming Eastern Division Champion Missouri 42-13 in the SEC Championship game.
After the regular season, with five of the seven Eastern Division playing in bowls and all seven of the Western Division teams accepting bids (meaning only 2 SEC teams were left out), SEC fans were looking forward to their teams again proving the SEC’s superiority in inter-conference bowl completion. Most importantly, the betting line opened with No. 1 Alabama rated as a ten point favorite to beat Ohio State in their national playoff game. It was also certain that Alabama would be favored to win the championship game as well if and when it disposed of Ohio State.
Things started off well for the SEC with their unranked teams, Tennessee, South Carolina, Arkansas and Texas A&M, all winning their bowl games. (The remaining unranked SEC team, Florida, is scheduled to play East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl January 3rd.) The winning continued with the two ranked SEC teams in the East taking care of business – 13th ranked Georgia beat 21st ranked Louisville 37-14 and No. 16 Missouri handled No. 25 Minnesota 33-17. With best five teams in the dominate SEC West yet to play, it looked like there was an excellent chance that the SEC would again to be proven to be the nation’s best conference in the country.
Then it all came unraveled in dramatic fashion. No. 23 LSU lost to unranked Notre Dame 31-28. No. 7 Mississippi State was beaten by No. 12 Georgia Tech 49-34 while No. 6 TCU demolished Mississippi State 42-3. Then, in a sign of things to come, 18th ranked Wisconsin (which lost to Ohio State in the 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship), won a close game over 19th ranked Auburn 34-31 in overtime. The final and decisive blow came when highly favored No. 1 ranked Alabama was beaten by a touchdown by No. 4 Ohio State in one of the two National Championship Semifinal games.
In the final tally, all three of the SEC teams ranked in the Top 10 lost and the combined bowl records of the seven SEC teams ranked in the Top 25 was dismal two wins and five losses. This is not the bowl record of a dominate conference. If their bowl performances are any indication, the top SEC teams were very over rated this year, not only by their fans, but also by the so called “experts” from all over the country. How did that happen? Actually there is a fairly easy explanation.
It is very difficult to compare the teams of the SEC with the best teams in the rest of the country during the regular season because there is very little inter-conference completion to use to make that comparison. Each of the teams of the SEC usually plays only one decent out of conference opponent per year. For their other three non conference games, the SEC teams usually pay three lesser opponents to play them at home in hopes of guaranteeing three easy victories. The SEC coaches claim that there is so much difficult completion within their conference that they don’t need a lot of outside completion to prove their worth, and there is a lot of truth to that. However, it is also true that this kind of scheduling is the best path to guarantee that one of the SEC teams will play for the national championship every year.
I believe that the SEC was over rated this year because over the past eight years everyone has come to accept that the top SEC team is also be one of the very best teams in the country. After all, an SEC team played in each of the eight BCS Championship games and they won all but one of them. Therefore, it was easy to assume this year that the best SEC team was also one of the best teams in the land. Thus Alabama was rated No. 1 at the end of the year. However, Alabama didn’t dominate the SEC or even its own Western Division. Alabama lost to Ole Miss early on and beat Mississippi State, LSU and even Western bottom feeder Arkansas by less them a touchdown.
However, because of the outstanding performances of top SEC teams in recent years, the perception was not that Alabama had regressed to the level of its SEC opponents. Rather the prevailing view was that rest of the SEC West teams had significantly improved and caught up with Alabama. In hindsight it is clear that this perception did not match reality. While it may be accurate to say that Alabama’s offense had improved over that of the team that lost to Auburn in the SEC Championship game last year, it is was also clear that the Alabama defense had regressed much more dramatically. Key defensive weaknesses, especially against the long pass, were exploited by Alabama’s opponents throughout the season. Ohio State, playing its third string quarterback, exploited those same defensive weaknesses for big plays throughout Semi Final game.
The SEC’s reputation took a big hit this bowl and playoff season. Its best teams failed time and time again. As a result the so called experts and talking heads may be somewhat less willing in the future to assume that the SEC always plays a better brand of football than the rest of the country.