Before I address this argument and whether I believe it has merit, I want to point out a few things. First, what determines the "best" college football conference. Let's look at last season and particularly the bowl season. The SEC clearly had the top teams. Sending two teams to the national championship game and having several others in pretty big bowls. However, they did not send the most teams to bowls for any conference and did not have the highest winning percentage of any conference. For a conference that is anointed as the best on a yearly basis, those shed at least some doubt.
Of course, the SEC had teams competing on the highest level and were actually guaranteed a loss because of the odd national championship game match-up, something unprecedented in college football history. Despite this, the SEC trailed the Big 12 in winning percentage (would have been tied if the Big 12 had to play itself in a bowl game) and trailed the Big Ten in bowl bids. So this leads me back to my original concern; how do we truly anoint the "best" conference in college football?
There are always comparisons in terms of non-conference scheduling, bowl records, and overall rankings, but how does the SEC truly compare when one breaks down these measures? Without breaking down the stats, the SEC has been very good. Every team had a winning non-conference record from 2000-2010, they went 6-3 in bowls last year, and have two teams in the top five right now. The SEC is the best conference in college football by all of these measures. The problem I have is in the comparisons between conferences such as the SEC and the Big Ten.
Since this is a Michigan blog, I'm going to be primarily comparing the Big Ten and the SEC. Most would say that the SEC would blow the Big Ten off the map. Alabama blew out Michigan, right? The Big Ten hasn't won a national championship since 2002. The Big Ten had a losing bowl record last season and hasn't won it's chief cornerstone, the Rose Bowl, since after the 2009 season. How could anyone argue or justify the Big Ten being better than the SEC?
The easy answer is that I don't believe the Big Ten is better than the SEC. From top-to-bottom, there is no way you could match up the Big Ten to the SEC and hope for a postiive result. However, I don't believe the SEC is as "deep" of a conference as many in the media argue. As I said, including all the teams in the SEC, which now amounts to 14 teams (2 more than the Big Ten), the SEC is better, but what if we adjust on that number?
The top of the SEC is absurdly good. So good in fact that 7 of the last 12 teams in the BCS National Championship Game have been from the SEC. That's at least one team for each of the last six years, including the two teams that appeared in the game last year. When you're talking about the elite teams, the SEC reigns supreme, but what about the rest? This is what I want to breakdown. Is the SEC really that "deep" of a conference when you remove the top teams?
Of course, this is all hypothetical and relies on some logic flaws. Frankly, if you remove the top teams from any conference, their performance is going to drop substantially. However, I want to do this with the SEC because I believe it's a much larger drop-off for the SEC than other conferences such as the Big Ten. The top SEC teams are better than the top Big Ten teams, as I already stated, but if the SEC is really as "deep" as many claim they are, then their 2nd level teams should be good as well. Here are the top ranked SEC teams for 2011 and 2012 according to the AP poll:
- #1 - Alabama
- #2 - LSU
- #5 - Arkansas
- #9 - South Carolina
- #19 - Georgia
- #27 (Votes) - Auburn
- #1 - Alabama
- #3 - LSU
- #7 - Georgia
- #8 - South Carolina
- #18 - Florida
- #27 (Votes) - Arkansas
- #30 (Votes) - Mississippi State
To be frank, that is extremely impressive. In the final rankings of last season, the SEC had four teams in the Top 10 in the country and currently have the same number after week two of the season. No other conference can claim that distinction, but as I alluded to earlier, I want to break down how the SEC stacks up against other conferences without their "elite" teams. Since 2008, Alabama and LSU have a combined 50-14 record against SEC opponents during the regular season. Of course, teams like Auburn and Florida have made runs during that period, but for the most part, Alabama and LSU have reigned supreme, especially over the last couple of years. For comparison, let's look at the Big Ten:
- #10 - Wisconsin
- #11 - MSU
- #12 - Michigan
- #24 - Nebraska
- #33 (Votes) - Penn State
- #10 - MSU
- #12 - OSU
- #17 - Michigan
- #28 (Votes) - Nebraska
- #32 (Votes) - Wisconsin
- #40 (Votes) - Northwestern
There's absolutely no doubt that the SEC's rankings are significantly better. However, outside of Alabama and LSU, is the SEC really that much better than the Big Ten? I certainly don't think so. Arkansas certainly could have competed with and had a great shot at beating Wisconsin, MSU, and Michigan in 2011, but South Carolina simply got boosted by a win over an over-matched Nebraska (blown out by Wisconsin & Michigan) and Georgia lost to MSU in a bowl game.
Right now, the SEC's rankings look much more impressive than the Big Ten. However, it's pretty unlikely that Nebraska and Wisconsin will stay unranked for long and does anybody really think South Carolina or Florida have been that impressive? South Carolina almost lost to Vanderbilt in week one (a team Northwestern beat) and Florida has been extremely inconsistent. If you took the SEC teams (excluding Alabama and LSU) and put them against the Big Ten teams, I think the Big Ten would fare very well, if not win the majority of those games.
This exercise isn't meant to make anyone believe the Big Ten or any other conference is better than the SEC, because that would simply be false. It was meant to specifically point out that outside of the "elite" teams of the conference and nation, the SEC isn't that deep and is as vulnerable as anybody. Alabama blew the doors off Michigan in week one, but they blew the doors off most of the SEC last year as well. They are an outstanding team, but are teams like South Carolina really that great?
So if the SEC really isn't as "deep" as many speculate and much of their success is due to a few great teams, then what's the difference between the SEC and the Big Ten? Well, the SEC is certainly more than just two teams, but the majority of their dominance has been from those top teams. The problem for the Big Ten is that they haven't had those "elite" teams in the last few years. They had three good teams in Wisconsin, MSU, and Michigan last year, but none of them were "elite". They would have fared quite well, in my opinion, against SEC teams like Arkansas, South Carolina, and Georgia, but just can't compete with teams like Alabama and LSU quite yet.
If Michigan and OSU can get rolling again, as many assume, and programs like Wisconsin and MSU can continue to be good/relevant, the Big Ten will be just as good as the SEC. I can't reject that the SEC conference is the best in the country or that they are relatively "deep", but one can point out that they aren't nearly as "deep" as many in the media project. Their "elite" teams are fantastic, but beyond that, they are no better than the other conferences. If other conferences can get the elite teams (the Pac 12 appears to have done that with USC and Oregon) then they can truly compete with the SEC. It will just be a question of who can do it and for how long.
I believe the Big Ten can be there in a few years, but for now, let's just stop the SEC love fest. Yes, they are the best conference, but it's not like their teams are unbeatable. Alabama and LSU are great teams, but beyond that, they're not going to crush other conferences. Arkansas was supposed to be great, right? Now, they're unranked. Bottomline, the SEC is great, but let's keep it in perspective.