I’m sometimes accused of having an anti-SEC or a pro-Pac-10 bias.
In actuality, I’m not for either conference, though I do not hide my West Coast roots (and, in fact, I have lived a considerable amount of time in the South as well).
However, I do sometimes take it upon myself to try to correct what I feel are imbalances in the way the conferences are covered and this sometimes results in the occasional bashing of the SEC or the tooting of the Pac-10 (which is, without a doubt, the most unfairly maligned of the major conferences). I don’t think it is even debatable that media coverage tends to tilt in favor of the SEC at the expense of the other leagues. To say otherwise is simply to have your head in the sand.
So why does this matter? Well, in a sport where opinion rules, it is very important that perception not get too far ahead of reality, since it is perception that ultimately determines success (see: polls, Heisman voting).
In particular, I’d like to address the No. 1 reason currently offered for why the SEC is supreme: Namely, that the league has now won four straight national titles and has done so by whipping its competition in convincing fashion.
Now, I do not throw that reasoning out with the bathwater. But to make a case for dominance based almost solely on one league being able to successfully navigate the choppy waters of the BCS system strikes me as tenuous.
To wit, the 2006 champion–Florida–needed a late UCLA upset of USC to sneak into the BCS title game. The 2007 LSU Tigers needed West Virginia and Missouri to stumble on the last weekend in order to get there as a two-loss team (the first two-loss team to win a title in the modern era, incidentally). The 2008 Gators made it ahead of Texas and USC teams that had the same records and were arguably just as qualified. Only the 2009 Alabama team actually climbed to the No. 1 spot and landed in the BCS title game without any major assist or hint of controversy.
The rest? With a couple minor twists, Florida ’06, LSU ’07 and Florida ’08 never make it to the title game. Then we would not be able to say that the SEC had won four straight titles. We would not be able to say with certainty that it is the “standard of excellence in college football”, as this story by the excellent ESPN writer Pat Forde contends, though I’m sure that would not stop some from doing so anyway. Whatever the case, do we really want to base the case for a conference’s superiority on a few twists and turns?
It is this sort of narrative that allows the SEC to get that all-important, self-fulfilling benefit of the doubt when it comes down to something like a close, controversial final BCS poll. The now glaring fact that the SEC has won four titles in a row will give one of its teams an advantage the next time a vote is in question, but it wouldn’t have won those four titles in the first place if the league hadn’t had been given the benefit of the doubt thanks to media coverage that automatically assumes the league is superior. Suddenly, circular reasoning takes hold and the rest of college football is on the outside looking in.
Not that there aren’t other reasons why the league should be touted. There are plenty of valid arguments for why the SEC is the best:
1. It has dramatically improved its quality of coaching in the last four years. Is it any wonder that these titles have come with the arrival of such heavyweights as Urban Meyer and Nick Saban? Not only has the head coaching gotten better, but the offensive side of the ball is no longer stuck in the stone age. Offensive heavyweights such as Bobby Petrino, Dan Mullen and Gus Malzahn are forcing defenses to cover the entire field. There are very few ‘phone booth’ offenses left.
2. The talent level. No, I’m not talking unproven, nebulous bromides about ‘SEC speed’. I’m talking about the overall depth of quality athletes who play in the league. In the old days of troglodyte SEC coaches (Fulmer being the best example of that breed; Miles the current epitome), the talent was there to help keep teams in games and hopefully overcome the dumb mistakes of the head man. Now, that talent plus the excellent coaching is creating dominant programs.
3. Improved scheduling. Much of the SEC will still duck the home-and-home series against legitimate teams, citing the need to play Botswana State for financial purposes. And the eight-game home schedule is still common. But in the last few years there have been concerted efforts by some SEC teams to actually travel on a flying ship (what some call ‘airplanes’) to play opponents outside of their time zone, away from the comfy confines. This has resulted in some losses (see Tennessee and Georgia), but it has also given the league more credibility in its scheduling practices and more exposure against quality programs.
So, see? I’m not so tough on the SEC. I think it’s the best conference in college football at the moment, but not because it has managed to finagle its way to BCS titles three of the last four years. That’s just too simplistic and unfair. Just like the BCS.
Anyway, here’s hoping that coverage in August doesn’t continue to influence the outcomes in December.