What did Alabama's National Championship loss mean for the SEC?
When the game was all but over, you knew you were going to hear it.
The chant was out in full force at Levi’s Stadium as the clock ticked away Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship, just as it had so many times before.
The only problem? It wasn’t Alabama fans doing the chanting. It came via the Clemson contingent, which had plenty of fun mocking Alabama and the almighty SEC at the same time.
After all, it was the SEC that made Alabama No. 1 overall every week of the 2018 season and not Clemson, which wasn’t as battle-tested playing in what was a down year for the ACC. Monday night’s result didn’t change that the SEC was better than the ACC this year, though.
One had 6 Top-25 teams and the other had 2. You can do the math.
But there’s other math that didn’t necessarily help the SEC as the 2018 season came to a close. A 6-6 bowl record certainly wasn’t the expectation considering the SEC team was favored to win 10 of its 12 matchups. It probably didn’t help that the SEC’s 2 highest-ranked teams, Alabama and Georgia, both lost in convincing fashion to close the season.
Actually, Texas fans had the “S-E-C! S-E-C!” chants going first when the Longhorns stymied Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The SEC hater would look at that and say it’s probably not the best look for the conference that its 2 best teams were beaten and mocked in their final games of the 2018 season. It’s a fair point. While many argued that the SEC Championship featured the 2 best teams in America, bowl season didn’t exactly confirm that.
So what? Does that mean the SEC lacks elite teams all of the sudden?
Of course not. I still believe that the SEC was clearly the best conference in America in 2018, regardless of what a 6-6 bowl record suggested. Bowl season really wasn’t going to change my belief in that subject with 3 months of data preceding it. The SEC went into bowl season with 8 ranked teams for a reason, and it wasn’t just because of some bias. It was because of a 9-4 record vs. Power 5 teams in nonconference play.
What the anti-SEC crowd wouldn’t bring up was that there were 4 teams in the conference (Florida, Kentucky, LSU and Texas A&M) that surpassed conservative preseason expectations en route to top-20 seasons. All of them won their bowl games and finished with 9-10 wins. The ACC and Big 12 had 2 Top-25 teams win bowl games while the Big Ten had 3 and the Pac-12 had just 1.
From that standpoint, the SEC’s best was still better than any other conference’s best, even with the 1-3 mark against the Big 12.
But there’s something else to consider with all of this. Entering the 2018 season, the SEC won 9 of the previous 12 national championships. All but 1 of those title games featured at least 1 SEC team. And because of Auburn, Florida and LSU winning titles earlier in that stretch, the “SEC is only Alabama” argument didn’t really carry much weight.
Dig a little closer, though, and you’ll see why that argument is fading. In the past 6 years, the SEC won just 2 of those titles (both were Alabama). The ACC now has 3 titles in this 6-year stretch, and by 2 different teams. And while the SEC has had 3 different teams play in national championships in that time, it still doesn’t exactly scream “get on our level.”
Winning 7 consecutive national titles from 2006-12 is now a thing of the past. Sure, it was impressive and we might not ever see another conference replicate it, but the SEC just hasn’t been the same dominant in-season force in the past 6 years (the recruiting and draft numbers still speak for themselves).
I realize the argument against that is simple. That is, the SEC has had more Playoff teams than anyone and it’s the only conference in the decade to have an intra-conference national championship, which it accomplished twice. That still matters in the SEC’s brand of being the power conference.
It’s not like Alabama losing suddenly devalued the rest of the SEC. The SEC finished with 4 teams ranked in the top 7 (only 1 conference had that many teams ranked in the entire Top 25). ESPN ranked 5 SEC teams in the top 10 of its Way-Too-Early 2019 Rankings (the Big 12 had 2 and was the only other conference with multiple top-10 teams).
What I do think is that we’ve moved past this age of banking on the SEC to be the best conference, year in, year out. Maybe it took Clemson drubbing Alabama to put that in perspective. This really should be a year-to-year evaluation considering that stat about 2 national titles in the past 6 years.
Would it have made a loud statement for the SEC had Alabama wiped the floor with Clemson? Absolutely. Everybody would have assumed the Tigers’ 14-0 record was a product of a down year for the ACC and that the Crimson Tide came in battle-tested because of how good the SEC was.
That didn’t happen. Instead, 2018 was capped with the SEC getting mocked after its strongest member was humbled in historic fashion. We’ll have to wait another year to hear the chants.
Whether they’re done in jest or not.