Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reflections of... Southeastern Conference (SEC) dominance

The past two weekends combined to be one of the few situations where a person could reasonably say "Out of chaos, there came order."

Sorry, SEC fans. My boys get top billing!
Two weeks ago, the Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game looked like a chaotic montage of horror. Three teams sat with undefeated records and a serious claim to a title shot. What's more, the SEC had none of them, which meant that the statistically strongest conference in the BCS era could only get in via total B.S. move.

And then Baylor decided to take pride in their team and blew out No. 1 Kansas State. Minutes later, No. 2 Oregon fell at home in overtime to Stanford.

Finally, despite a big-time scare in Los Angeles, Notre Dame – No. 3 two weeks ago, No. 1 since – took down Southern California in a rivalry game to be the only eligible undefeated team in line for a title shot.

Meanwhile, now-No. 2 Alabama shut out rival Auburn in the Iron Bowl to clinch a spot in the SEC title game, and now-No. 3 Georgia completed an 11-1 regular season by crushing rival Georgia Tech.

I do love the classics.
This sets up an SEC title game between 'Bama and Georgia with the winner very clearly getting the title shot against Notre Dame. While people on this blog know I have no respect for the BCS, surely we can all agree that this is the absolute top 2, right?

I thought so, but the answer actually is: Wrong. Fans of Kansas State (now No.6), Oregon (No. 5) and No. 4 Florida are now beating their chests that they should have the shot.

Oh, and Ohio State, who sits at No. 4 in the Associated Press' poll and is the only other undefeated remaining, thinks they should be considered best in the country.

Let me get my lesser thoughts out of the way before tackling the main issue. Yes, I am an Irish Catholic who loves Notre Dame football. Yes, I'm thrilled they went undefeated. I've said many times that teams who go undefeated should take precedence in this system REGARDLESS OF CONFERENCE AFFILIATION OR LACK THEREOF, so I'm all for this.

Ohio State certainly can make that claim, but because of their bowl ban, not only can't they play for the title, they aren't even allowed in the Big Ten title game to prove they are the best in their conference. They're grade will always be incomplete, and given that what they've accomplished so far looks like a cruise through Easy Mode, I can't say that they have had a truly perfect season or are a champion of any kind. So goes their punishment, I suppose.

And as to Florida, I do respect that their schedule shames Alabama and Georgia's. I respect that their loss was far more respectable than the other two. But the fact is, they lost to Georgia head-to-head and did not win their division. I only recognize conference champions or undefeateds as having a claim to a title shot when only two spots are open. I didn't buy Alabama's title claims a year ago, and I don't buy yours now.

Oregon: Please insert your loss and name into the last three sentences and reread if you would like to keep moaning.

For some reason, the angle of this K-State cheer
shot really jumped out at me...
Lastly, I come to Kansas State, and this is the point of this blog. The Wildcats could actually have a real claim.

K-State took out every team in front of them, and their schedule to this point has been more impressive than Alabama's, which was two tough games, nine pushovers and whatever the hell you consider Michigan to be. (I say legitimate team well below a contender's standards.)

By contrast, K-State has wins over TCU in Fort Worth, Miami (yes, they aren't that good, but they're at least Michigan quality) and both Oklahoma schools. And their blowout loss is as lopsided as Georgia's.

But ultimately, Alabama/Georgia will have a win over the other, and the SEC has earned a benefit of the doubt regarding its teams.

Don't think so? Let's look at the stats. Below in the left column are the BCS champions since its 1998 inception. In the right are my personal champions because I didn't recognize the title game for some reason:

1998Tennessee (SEC)Tennessee (SEC)
1999Florida State (ACC)Florida State (ACC)
2000Oklahoma (Big 12)Oklahoma (Big 12)
2001Miami (Big East)Miami (Big East)
2002Ohio State (Big Ten)Ohio State (Big Ten)
2004USC (Pac-10)Auburn (SEC)
2005Texas (Big 12)Texas (Big 12)
2006Florida (SEC)Boise State (WAC)
2008Florida (SEC)Florida (SEC)
2009Alabama (SEC)Alabama (SEC)
2010Auburn (SEC)Auburn (SEC)
2011Alabama (SEC)LSU (SEC)

Told you I don't recognize non-champions if a viable champion is available, and I don't recognize non-undefeateds if an undefeated is available. Also, USC was heavily overvalued in 2003.

Bottom line, however, is that in 14 seasons, the SEC has produced more than half of the champions. One more would guarantee that the non-playoff BCS era would have more SEC national champions than non-SEC national champions.

It's not a fluke. It's not a conspiracy. The SEC, for years now, has had more elite competition at the top of its conference than any other conference. Most of the time, it was even strong in its weak links.

This year is not one of those times. Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee epitomize the back-end of Division 1-A football this year, only comparing favorably with bottom-feeders in the Big East, Big Ten, ACC and non-AQ conferences. Missouri, Mississippi State and Ole Miss are OK but are not near high-caliber competition, and while Vanderbilt is good, they're not a huge threat to a title contender.

That's one reason I give K-State's claim some credence. The Big 12 is deeper. Except for Kansas, who could compete with UNLV for some grand award of basketball-to-football transitional failure, every other team in the conference has skills.

West Virginia has the disadvantage of being the kind of team Big 12 systems devour, and they still reached the middle of the standings. Baylor is eighth- or ninth-best and took out a title contender on their home field, a feat similar to Vandy beating a top SEC school this year, in my opinion.

If all but one team in your conference is average or better in another conference, they look pretty good. Heck, I've used K-State's argument before to justify TCU over Oregon in 2010. The Mountain West's teams compared favorably in most match-ups with their counterparts in the then-Pac-10 standings.

But here's the difference: TCU and Oregon could only be compared on conference strength and non-conference schedule strength (which TCU also won. Seriously, TWO 1-AA opponents, Ducks?). They had no losses to compare against. These teams do.

If Kansas State pointed to signature wins, they'd have Oklahoma and maybe Oklahoma State. TCU, (possibly) Texas and Miami are their next three best wins and no matter how those are sliced, they lose luster when taken with a blowout loss to a decisively inferior opponent.

Will the Tide Roll for 3 times in 4 years?
If Alabama won next week, they'd have wins over LSU and Georgia, and their next three best wins over Missouri, Michigan and one of the Mississippi schools compared to a five-point loss to a top-10 elite: Texas A&M.

If Georgia won next week, their blowout loss to top-10 elite South Carolina (who was at full health at the time) would have to compare with the Bulldogs' wins over Florida, Alabama and their next best three: Missouri, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.

Losing to elites in the SEC is almost expected nowadays. And while the Big 12 has more good teams, the SEC does have more elite teams ('Bama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, LSU and Texas A&M) than they do (K-State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State if reaching).

This is the same reason Oregon has no claim. Even if you discount the fact that they can only finish third in their conference at best, I can't pinpoint one single solitary win that looks elite. Oregon State comes closest, and it's overshadowed by a home loss against Stanford, the only absolute elite on their schedule.

Or will a 6th SEC team have a shot at
The Big One?
And if a conference as dominant historically as the SEC maintains this well at the top, they've earned a smidge of Benefit of the Doubt that the middle schedule is better than we gave it credit for. Heck, last week, the SEC blew the barn doors off of four ACC squads, two of which will face off for the conference's title. That tells me there's still something there.

I get people don't like the SEC and think it is overrated, but until they have fewer than six elites in one year, or another conference starts proving themselves, it's hard to argue against it.

If I was going by whose resume (regardless of titles) was most impressive, Florida would get the shot.

If I was going by who has played the best football from start to finish, Texas A&M would get the shot.

And if I was going by the system I've seen, where the season is supposed to be a playoff, and only champions and undefeateds should EVER be considered, the Alabama-Georgia winner would get the shot.

No matter how you slice it, the game next January will be the right one.

(He said before he realized the lower-ranked team could win and not jump the higher one.)

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