Is the gap between the SEC and the rest of college football widening?
As early as a few weeks ago, it looked like the reign of the SEC was done. Alabama had lost to Texas A&M meaning there were no longer any undefeated teams in the Southeastern Conference. The anti-SEC crowd failed to remember, however, that November is often filled with drama, all the way until the end, and after Kansas State and Oregon both went down in one night, the SEC was back in the national title picture.
The reality, however, is that this season has been very good for the SEC even if it were Oregon playing Notre Dame on January 7th and not Alabama. The Tide going for yet another title is just icing on the cake for the current status of the SEC.
As this season unfolded, I began to ask myself if the gap between the SEC and the rest of college football was widening.
With the season now over, I can say that the answer is yes. And no.
Conference championship weekend is an annual reminder of how the SEC is far ahead of other conferences in certain areas. You saw the tweets making fun of the ticket prices of the SEC Championship compared to those of the ACC Championship. If you watched the ACC game, you saw tarps covering large sections of the upper deck coupled with plenty of Carolina Panther-blue empty seats throughout the stands. Most estimates put the crowd size in the 30,000-40,000 range. The Big Ten Championship attendance was reported to be around the 41,000 mark. The Pac-12 Championship Game was hosted on-campus at Stanford on a Friday night and pulled around 31,000 fans. At least the Pac-12 recognizes it can’t support a neutral site venue at this point and maintains an on-campus venue each year.
On the field, the differences between the conferences was just as massive. The SEC Championship of course included two elite teams, each with one loss, playing for a spot in the national title game. The ideal scenario for a conference championship. Each of the other conference championships involved teams with multiple losses, even 5 or 6 losses.
Why is the SEC Championship such a success when the other conference championships have mixed results at best?
The difference is in the number of high quality football programs in the respective conferences. A quick glance at the BCS standings tell the story. Six of the top ten teams are from the Southeastern Conference.
A successful conference championship game requires teams worthy of winning a championship. 6-6 Georgia Tech and 7-5 Wisconsin are not championship quality football teams. Moreover, a championship quality team has a potential BCS Championship appearance at stake in the conference championship game – something that was not at stake in the other three conference championship games. Higher stakes fuel interest, boost attendance and increase drama (like ice-cold Mark Richt losing his patience a little in the post-game press conference).
When you have the right mix of parity and high quality football programs within the conference, it’s almost a certainty that every year at least one, if not both, of the division winners in the SEC will be very good football teams. This is not the case in other conferences. It requires more than 2 or 3 top quality football programs in a conference.
The Big Ten should be the closest thing to the SEC, but because of sanctions and underwhelming years by teams like Michigan, it hasn’t happened. Moving forward, many Big Ten analysts think it’s going to become very top heavy with Ohio State and Michigan separating from the rest of the Big Ten herd.
The Pac-12 right now has the big three of USC, Stanford and Oregon, but Lane Kiffin can’t seem to put it together and many football analysts believe Chip Kelly (and maybe even David Shaw at Stanford) will hop soon to the NFL. Jim Mora Jr. is doing well at UCLA, but does anybody realistically expect UCLA to be elite?
The Big 12 has potential to be very good, but like many years, the top teams in the conference tend to be revealed as the season goes on to be good, not great.
The ACC is a joke outside of programs like Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech. It’s my opinion that the dismantling of the ACC as a football conference is inevitable.
Then you have the SEC with teams like Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Florida poised to be in the conversation annually for the years ahead. South Carolina is enjoying its best era probably ever in program history. Texas A&M is new to the party. Led by Coach Sumlin and a passionate fan base, the Aggies are showing they indeed belong in the SEC and in the list of top programs in the country. Each of these teams can’t be complacent because programs like Tennessee, Auburn and Arkansas won’t rest until they’re back in the conversation.
So, back to the gap between this conference and the rest of the country. At the conference level, yes, the SEC has widened the gap between it and the other conferences. From top to bottom, it’s just not even close right now. However, when you look at the individual SEC teams compared to the other top teams around the country, no, the SEC is not widening the gap.
Confused? As we talk about often here, the current environment of college football is one of contraction. The elite and top programs around the country are distancing themselves from the rest of college football. A fixed number of schools, they’re the most dedicated football programs. They invest in the best facilities. They pay their coaches the most. They are the same teams present in the recruiting class rankings each year.
The SEC simply has more of these elite programs than any other conference. And that’s why the SEC is the best.
The SEC isn’t the best because the best team in the SEC can beat any other team in the country by 40. That’s not the case. In fact, I’ll argue that Notre Dame will absolutely compete with Alabama in the BCS Championship. The SEC is the best because they have 5 or 6 teams that can handily beat or compete against every team in the country. South Carolina vs Notre Dame? Yeah, it’d probably be a good game. Florida vs Oregon? I’d love to see it. Alabama vs Kansas State? Done.
It’s an important concept to understand, because when you see the recent actions of the Big Ten adding Maryland and Rutgers, it shows you how they’re not getting closer to the current make up of the SEC. In fact, they’re getting further away. The worst thing you can do is add dead weight to a conference.
We loved Georgia vs Alabama in Atlanta because it was a high-powered matchup between two outstanding football teams. We’re excited for Alabama vs Notre Dame for the same reason. The big brand matchups between the best teams are what drive interest and fans in college football. Adding mediocre football programs doesn’t increase the inventory of big brand matchups to your conference. Instead, it increases the inventory of games that few people want to watch. It increases the likelihood of needing large tarps to cover sections of the stadium when your conference plays its championship game.
Why are fans upset about the bowl matchups? Because instead of seeing Florida take on a team like Oregon, we have to watch them take on Louisville. Instead of seeing Florida State take on a team like LSU, we have to watch them play Northern Illinois. We want powerhouse vs powerhouse.
There are a fixed number of elite and top tier football programs in the country. This is what the conference commissioners should be after. Instead, they’re listening to investment bankers sell them on business models driven by decades-old cable television strategies.
At one point, the Big 12 was thought to be collapsing. The Pac-12 was rightly making a hard move to add programs like Texas and Oklahoma to their conference. Now, the likely loser is the ACC. While many ACC football programs will suffer, programs like Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech will survive regardless of what happens to the ACC due to their strong football programs. The conference that adds these top programs – programs like Texas A&M – are the conferences that will win in the realignment shuffle.
The rest of the country should hope that the SEC doesn’t void that old gentlemen’s agreement to not add in-state schools to the conference. If the SEC changes course and decides to pickup Florida State and Clemson, the gap between the SEC and the rest of the country will get even wider.
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