Danny Kanell talks SEC with Saturday Down South
SDS: We’ll talk big-picture SEC stuff, but first, I’m curious: what has this week been like for you? I don’t know if it was intentional from you or not to become the one-man check and balance for the SEC, but you’ve become a go-to guy for those arguments. What is all that attention like?
Kanell: Well I thought your first question was going to be why do you hate the SEC? That’s what I get from a lot of people on Twitter or if I meet them in person. I can assure you I have nothing but the upmost respect for the SEC and I love the product they put on the field every week. I don’t know how, really, I got pegged in this position because I don’t have a problem if the SEC has a national champion or if they have teams in the Top 10 and they’re represented there. But I do think that some of the conversation that surrounds the SEC gets way too heavily skewed toward — I don’t want to say favoritism, but the perception and the reputation of the SEC benefits them tremendously in the big picture. When people ask me who’s the best conference, coming into the season I said it was the SEC and the Pac-12 was right on their heels. Now, I’m not going to deny the SEC is the strongest conference out there. My biggest argument is that the gap is smaller than most people think.
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SDS: When you do get into these college football arguments, whether it’s with Paul Finebaum or others, do you get the sense that there’s a serious blowback from anyone that dares to say something that might be perceived as against the SEC?
Kanell: Finebaum’s Finebaum. You have to take him at a grain of salt. We have what I would call a love/hate relationship. I think we play well off each other and we disagree on almost everything. But I would say one thing that’s been confirmed to me through Twitter or comments in person, you’re not going to find more passionate fans than (SEC fans). I think that’s why there’s been so much attention to some of my comments because they don’t like it when their conference isn’t talked about with the utmost respect. I don’t think I’m being disrespectful. I think I bring a lot of facts to the table that support my beliefs. But that doesn’t really matter. People just want to think the SEC is king and that’s it. They have the right to that. I try to be reasoned. I have Mississippi State at No. 1 in the country over Florida State right now. And I have no problem saying that. I’ll give them credit where it’s due. Do you mean at work has there been blowback, or what were you asking about?
SDS: You have a unique perspective given that you’ve been involved in so many conversations about this both in the media and with fans. In the feedback that you’ve gotten from these conversations, do you feel like there’s an illogical negative response if you say anything that’s perceived as being against the SEC?
Kanell: Oh, yeah. All you have to do is listen to me debate with Finebaum or listen to me debate with SVP and Russillo. Anything I’ll say — sometimes it’s joking and sometimes it’s serious — they’ll just say, ‘Oh, you hate the SEC.’ That’s the defense mechanism for them. They’ll try to do it to get a rise out of me. And every time I try to explain to them that I do not hate the SEC. I’m really trying to be the voice for the other conferences in the country. A lot of that comes from my experiences traveling and sitting down with coaches from the Pac-12 and the Big 12 and the ACC and across the country, and hearing their frustration. They say, ‘Look, we have just as much talent. We have just as much ability. We have just as good quality teams as they do.’ They’re even more vocal about it than I am. But I feel like I’m a mouthpiece for them to try to make their case. That there are other teams that deserve consideration when you’re talking about looking at the Top 10 teams in the country or the Top 25. There’s so much parity in college football that there’s not a lot of separation, period. There isn’t an elite team. You might be able to make the case for Mississippi State, but you could’ve made a case for Auburn and you could’ve made a case for Oklahoma. There are probably 15 good teams in the country, but no one’s elite. A lot of those teams, five of those, come from the SEC. But a lot of them come from the Big 12. A few of them come from the Pac-12. And there’s one of them from the ACC. There’s one, maybe two from the Big Ten depending on how you view Ohio State.
SDS: This week the big talking point has been the fact that the SEC has four teams in the Top 5 of the AP poll. One of Finebaum’s arguments is that there are voters all across the country, therefore it can’t be biased. How do you argue that the AP poll is biased toward the SEC?
Kanell: I think the AP poll favors the SEC because of where they start. That’s my biggest issue with it. When you start with eight teams in the preseason poll before you’ve played a game, and you miss on those teams, your wins and losses are going to look better. The perfect example, what sets it all off, is Texas A&M beating South Carolina. South Carolina started the season at No. 9 and Texas A&M beats them convincingly, and they vault up to the Top 10. They absolutely skyrocket through the polls, and then they continue to stay up there. It comes full circle, because South Carolina didn’t drop as far in the Top 25 as they would’ve because Texas A&M started the season ranked. So you kind of have this cycle that goes forward and it affects voters’ impressions of the teams that are there. When Mississippi State goes through three teams and they say, ‘Alright, we’ve beaten three Top 10 teams,’ they really haven’t. Dan Mullen, to his credit, he should say that. But when they beat Texas A&M and claim them as a Top 10 and LSU as a Top 10, that’s really not accurate.
SDS: You talk about the number of SEC teams that are in the preseason Top 25. In your mind, where does that originate?
Kanell: The reason it starts that way is because the SEC, to their credit, they have a reputation as the strongest conference. When you’re filling out your Top 25, a lot of times it’s laziness. I mean, it is hard to do. I do it myself. When you’re looking at teams, it’s hard to pick 25 teams because of the turnover in college football. It’s not the NFL. You don’t know if Kenny Hill is going to be good or bad. You don’t know if South Carolina is going to be better or worse without Jadeveon Clowney. Which is crazy. I don’t know how you can say that. But our buddy Finebaum did. He thought they’d be better without Jadeveon Clowney. I didn’t think that. So when you’re looking at teams, you’re naturally going to be inclined to give it to teams that have had historic success advantages over a team from the Big 12 like TCU. Nobody had them pegged to do much this year because they’re TCU. They haven’t done anything historically. They haven’t had any great years. So you don’t put them in there. You fill in a spot with South Carolina because they’ve had three straight years of 11-win seasons, which is great, but that means nothing to this season. And that’s why I get frustrated. I wish we didn’t start Top 25 rankings until Week 6. I think we would have a much more accurate picture and you wouldn’t have preconceived notions about who beat who because of a number next to their name.
SDS: I think I’ve heard you say it’s better to evaluate the top teams by which teams they’ve beaten rather than by evaluating the losses. Obviously any ranking is going to be subjective to a degree. Each voter has their own ideas about what to prioritize. What is the best criteria to use to evaluate the best teams?
Kanell: I think in the preseason it’s impossible. That’s why I don’t think there should be one. I understand it pays our bills. I get that we’re in business, all of us who are in the media, because it gives us something to talk about. But it truly is impossible to even get remotely close to the Top 25 accurately. There’s just too much turnover in college football. You don’t know if a freshman quarterback is going to be the next Johnny Manziel or is he going to be the next Jeff Driskel. You don’t know until they take the field. There were conversations about Alabama this year: they’re going to win it all because they have Jacob Coker. Has that panned out at all? No. That’s what we thought coming into the season. I just think it’s impossible to put any number next to any team. Look at Florida State, the defending national champions. I haven’t had them No. 1 any week of the season because they haven’t looked like the best team in the country. When you get into the season, I think it’s a combination. You have to watch. I don’t think a lot of the AP voters watch every team in the country. They can’t. They’re covering certain games and they can’t watch every game.
SDS: Is your biggest contention with the SEC right now in terms of rankings, not that Alabama and Auburn aren’t the fourth- and fifth-best teams in the country, but that there’s a disproportionate amount of people arguing for them and not as many people making a case for teams that in your mind are just as deserving?
Kanell: You can go through the one-loss teams and if you take away who they lost to and go for quality wins, who beat a really good opponent? Alabama’s a pretty good example. Who have they beaten that’s really good? They beat West Virginia. I give them that now. I didn’t give it to them when they beat them. I didn’t think West Virginia was good, but I actually think that’s a good win now. But when they beat Florida, at the time we made a really big deal out of it. Florida’s horrendous. They should’ve won probably by more. And then you go with the shellacking they gave Texas A&M. That’s impressive, but I don’t even think that’s a good win any more considering Texas A&M is imploding right before our eyes. How many signature wins do you have? There are maybe 12 of the one-loss teams — Baylor doesn’t have a signature win. That TCU win I don’t think was a good one. You can go Georgia. You can go Michigan State. You can go Notre Dame. Some of the teams don’t play that strong of a schedule when you break it down.
SDS: How do you think conference championships, strength of schedule and other factors should and will play into the playoff committee’s decisions?
Kanell: I wish we would go to eight teams. That would be my perfect world. An eight-team playoff. You have the five power conference champions and you’re rewarding teams for championships. And you have three wild cards. You could have two teams from the SEC. You could have two teams from the Pac-12. Or the Big 12. That’s my biggest beef with the SEC: instead of trying to back your way into the playoff when there are only four teams, and you’re asking for a team that’s not a conference champion to get in, let’s open it up. Let’s go to eight so everybody’s guaranteed a spot that’s a conference champion, and then go with those three wild cards. That’s one of the biggest reasons why I get out there and try to make the case for the teams across the country. Because when you get on the field and you play, the best team — the team with the best recruiting class, the team with the most NFL talent — they don’t always win. As evidenced last year in the BCS. The SEC goes 0-for-2 in the BCS. The team with the best players on the field doesn’t always win, or else why would you play the game?
Kanell: What will happen with the committee? That’s the million-dollar question right now because nobody really knows. We did a mock selection process and we sat in there and went through with Jeff Long, the chairman of the committee, the exact evaluation process and the voting process. We got to pepper him with questions and we tried to ask him, ‘Hey, if you’re a conference champion, does it matter?’ He said, ‘It’s up to each individual committee member.’ I was playing the role of Oliver Luck. His name plate was in front of me. To me, it could be that I have to see a conference champion in there. Like that’s priority one. The person sitting right next to me, if it’s Condoleezza Rice, she could have her thought process be, ‘I could care less if they’re conference champions. I could have three teams from the same conference.’ It’s a truly subjective exercise and we won’t know until they come out what the majority opinion was in that room.
SDS: Sitting in that chair and thinking about it, do you think any of them will have the public perception in mind, or do you think it will be easy for committee members to ignore all that stuff?
Kanell: In our mock selection, Ryen Russillo asked Jeff Long that very question. We were doing 2008. He said, ‘Would the committee be OK if there were two teams from the SEC and two teams from the Pac-12? What if you have two conferences with two representatives and you’re completely shutting out the three other power conferences?’ Jeff Long’s response was, ‘We don’t care. We want the four best teams regardless of conference. Regardless of how many are from that conference.’ That’s what he says. That’s a very politically correct answer. I have the belief that it’s going to be really tough to pick. I think there are going to be as many as six, eight teams that can make a really good case that they deserve a spot in the final four spots. This is my personal belief. I don’t know this for anything. But if there are a lot of similar teams with similar resumes, I think they’ll fall back on conference champions. That will be the easy fallback mechanism for them. If there’s a couple one-loss teams, they’re really breaking it down and they’re looking at Kansas State as a Big 12 champion with one loss, and they’re looking at an Ole Miss or Mississippi State with one loss, I think the default mechanism would be, ‘Alright, Kansas State won the Big 12.’ Regardless of whether you thought the conference was having an up year or a down year. If it was a strong or weak conference. That’s just my opinion. I don’t know that for a fact. That would be an easy way out for them to come out and explain their final decision.
SDS: In your mind, what is the biggest misperception or misperceptions about the SEC in 2014?
Kanell: The biggest misperception is that they’re unbeatable. That’s been proven last year. When you go 0-2 in the BCS — (Alabama) can use the excuse (it) didn’t want to be there. But you know what? Oklahoma was talking a ton of smack. If you can’t get fired up for a game when their coach is attacking your conference, I don’t know what more you would want. And then Florida State knocked off Auburn. I think that’s a lot of the reason why the SEC is extremely sensitive right now is because they want that title back. They should. My biggest problem, and I’ll say it again: I think the SEC is the best conference. I just don’t think they’re that much better than everybody else.
SDS: At this point, who do you think are the five or six teams that will be in the mix for the four playoff spots at the end of the season?
Kanell: From what we’re watching right now, I would say Florida State goes undefeated. Their remaining schedule is extremely weak. I think you look at Oregon. I think they win the Pac-12 with one loss. I think you look at the Big 12, which is probably the toughest one to pick right now, and I think Kansas State or TCU are the two teams that are in the driver’s seat right now. Those will probably be your conference champions. I think Michigan State is the biggest threat in the Big Ten. And then because of Notre Dame’s performance last week, you’ve got to consider them in the mix. If they run the table, they’re absolutely in the conversation. For all these teams that we’re talking about in the SEC West, four out of the top five, nobody is talking about Georgia, and I think Georgia has an excellent chance to win the SEC. One, they have a very easy road to get there. They have Auburn at home. That’s their toughest remaining game. They still have Florida, but they’re not that good. So they have a pretty easy ride to get to the SEC title game. And if you compare Georgia’s performance against Arkansas with everybody else’s that has played them so far in the SEC West, they were the most impressive. They have been impressive without Todd Gurley, and if they get Gurley back, they’re going to be a really solid team. Nobody’s talking about them, and I think they could really shake things up. What do you do if Georgia wins the SEC then with all those good teams in the SEC West? It’ll be fun. I think it’ll be a mess, but I think that’s great for college football. I can’t wait to see what the committee will ultimately decide.