I spent all day watching college football Saturday, as you might expect. After the dust settled, I knew the backlash against the SEC would be coming. I watched Michigan State hold off an impressive Oregon squad in a battle of top-10 teams, and I couldn't even enjoy the Oregon Duck doing push-ups for every point that Oregon scored. I knew that the story of the weekend would be the lackluster performance of the mighty SEC. An easy narrative this early in the season. An easy narrative for the media. The reality is much more complicated.
Let's start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. It was a bad week for the SEC. We thought the Tennessee Volunteers were ready to make the jump to elite status, only to squander a 17-point lead to the Oklahoma Sooners. Auburn played with fire against an FCS opponent, Jacksonville State, ultimately pulling out a 27-20 come-from-behind victory. The Tigers have looked terrible through two games, and my defense of quarterback Jeremy Johnson looks more questionable by the minute. Arkansas lost to (Holy) Toledo, where somehow quarterback Brandon Allen threw for 412 yards but the Hogs were held to just 12 points. Florida looked underwhelming against East Carolina, and coach Jim McElwain still has no idea who to start at quarterback. Treon Harris is a better dual-threat option, but Will Grier throws a better ball. I'd go with Grier, but either way, make up your mind, coach.
Missouri has been underwhelming, and quarterback Maty Mauk still hasn't figured out after three years when to simply throw the ball away. Incompletions are better than interceptions, Maty. That is Quarterbacking 101. You must have been asleep during that lesson. Georgia slogged through a win against a Vanderbilt squad that couldn't beat Western Kentucky in Week 1. Western Kentucky's nickname is the Hilltoppers. Just thought you'd like to know.
So is the SEC all it's cracked up to be? Surely when the "best" conference is having difficulty beating teams with nicknames like Rockets and Hilltoppers and Fighting Artichokes, they should no longer be viewed as a superior conference, right?
This is where it gets tricky. The best SEC team might be the best team in the country. They might not be. We don't know that yet, though. We won't know that for a while. Whether the SEC is the best conference may not have any bearing on the College Football Playoff.
Time to get a little more abstract. I almost majored in philosophy in college. Almost being the key word.
The notion of conference supremacy in college football gets a lot of attention. It has to do with the structure of the sport. Take schools from all over the country, lump them into different conferences, then decide which teams are the best based on not only who they play but how well they play against those teams. You can crunch all the numbers you want, too. The "eye test" remains a very important part of college football. This isn't baseball, where over the course of a 162-game season, the best teams rise to the top and usually win. The sample size is smaller, the data is not as complex and there are only a finite amount of games to determine which schools are better than the others. It remains an inexact science.
College Football is the only major sport, college or pro, where so much emphasis is placed on where you play. Four teams now make the College Football Playoff. The SEC's fairly recent stretch of dominance has taken the debate regarding conference supremacy to a whole different level. The SEC won six national championships in a row at one point. Last year plenty of questions were asked like, "Shouldn't a one-loss SEC team make the playoff over an undefeated team from a lesser conference?" Or, "Can the SEC get two teams into the College Football Playoff?" Some people believe the SEC is far superior. Others think the SEC is unfairly placed on a pedestal.
We want the right teams to make the playoff, but there is never going to be unanimity. Both Baylor and TCU felt slighted after being left out of the College Football Playoff. What was the main reason? They didn't play a CONFERENCE championship.
Let's backtrack for a second. Some of the recent conference realignment has made for some pretty entertaining results. Did you know that the Big Ten has 14 teams, and the Big 12 has 10 teams? The names used to represent the number of teams in the respective conferences. Not anymore. Because the Big 12 only has 10 teams, they can't hold a conference championship. That's the rule, I didn't make it. So because of something of a technicality, Baylor did not play TCU in the conference championship, and both teams were penalized as a result.
But conferences are made up, right? Surely we can all agree on that. They are in essence social constructs formerly based on geography but currently steeped much more in dollars and cents. I don't plan on getting into the monetary or legal aspects of college football now, including whether student-athletes should be paid for the use of their likeness, or paid for simply for playing at all. We'll save that for another time. Maybe.
I'm not knocking traditional rivalries, either. I'm not saying that I don't think a team like Alabama has a tougher conference schedule than a team like Ohio State. My English teachers would not be pleased with my use of a double negative there. Nor with the fact that I'm going to begin the next sentence with a preposition. But what I'm saying is that blanket statements such as, "The SEC is better than the Big Ten because it has more teams in the top-25" are silly. Do I believe the SEC teams beat up on each other? Yes. Just because they beat up on each other, though, doesn't mean they're better than everybody else. I am merely making the point that discussing which conference is better than the other is something used by talking heads to fill airtime. Because at the end of the day, each season stands on its own, each team stands on its own. Florida State, an ACC team, beat Auburn, an SEC team, for the BCS national vhampionship two seasons ago. Ohio State, a Big Ten team, beat Alabama, an SEC team, in the Sugar Bowl and ultimately won the College Football Playoff last year.
We want the right teams for the College Football Playoff. However, the concept of "conference supremacy" may not be the right way to evaluate which teams are most qualified.