ESPN analyst Danny Kanell: 'I don't hate the SEC'
Danny Kanell drove home to his wife Tuesday night after a 12-hour day at the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn., having spent the last 48 hours sparring with the likes of Paul Finebaum and Ryen Russillo on air.
Some of ESPN’s most prominent college football minds have turned the former Florida State quarterback into a sort of caricature as the network’s SEC villain.
After fielding a question from an all-SEC website in his first free moment of the day, the clock approaching 9 p.m. ET, Kanell let out the verbal equivalent of a sigh.
“I thought your first question was going to be why do you hate the SEC?” Kanell told Saturday Down South. “I don’t know how, really, I got pegged in this position … 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’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.”
RELATED: Q&A with ESPN’s Danny Kanell
On Tuesday evening, Finebaum followed up a SportsCenter debate with Kanell the night before by saying that “people like Danny Kanell make us (the media) look like cartoon characters.” Russillo and Scott Van Pelt took a dismissive tone on their radio show Tuesday afternoon as well, falling just short of labeling Kanell a hater. (At one point Russillo interrupted Kanell sarcastically: “You do this all the time. I don’t care about the Vanderbilt argument. Vanderbilt sucks. You win.”)
“Finebaum’s Finebaum. You have to take him at a grain of salt,” Kanell said. “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 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.
“The biggest misperception is that they’re unbeatable. That’s been proven last year (when the SEC went 0-2 in BCS games). 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.”
Kanell is a passionate self-appointed spokesman who claims SEC bias. He’s opinionated and blunt, especially on Twitter. But during a nearly 30-minute phone conversation, Kanell came across as the more reasoned, logical analyst, while some of his most avid opponents rely on ad hominems and low blows. He’s a doomed idealist, but he’s not a hater.
Kanell believes Mississippi State is the No. 1 team in the country ahead of Florida State, the team for which he played, and dropped the defending national champion Seminoles out of the top spot early in the season, well before the Associated Press Top 25 followed suit.
Through years of conversations with power conference programs outside the footprint of the Southeastern United States, Kanell feels one-loss teams like Oregon, Michigan State, Notre Dame and Kansas State don’t get enough respect in the national media and among fans. Someone, he says, needs to argue on their behalf to combat the throngs of passionate SEC backers and the influence that has on AP poll voters who can’t watch every game each week.
“Anything I’ll say — sometimes it’s joking and sometimes it’s serious — (Finebaum or Russillo) 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,” Kanell said. “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.
“There’s so much parity in college football that there’s not a lot of separation, period. There isn’t an elite team.”
In Kanell’s mind, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn and Georgia are five of the 15 best teams in the country this season. But he contends that right now it’s impossible to know whether, say, the Tigers are any better than a one-loss Notre Dame.
His contention is that the SEC’s great reputation clouds the preseason Top 25, which skews the perception for the rest of the season. He gave the example of Texas A&M’s win over then-No. 9 South Carolina. We now think the Gamecocks aren’t very good, but the win vaulted the Aggies into the Top 10, and, courtesy of a loss to “Top 10” A&M, South Carolina didn’t fall as far in the rankings as they might have otherwise.
All because some in the media felt South Carolina could be even better this year without Jadeveon Clowney and Conner Shaw, mostly because Steve Spurrier led the program to three consecutive 11-win seasons, while no one expected TCU to flirt with the Top 10 due to its recent history and lack of football tradition.
Kanell also pointed out the rhetoric about Jacob Coker being prepared to lead Alabama to a national championship this season and characterized preseason prognostications of A&M QB Kenny Hill as an educated guess at best.
Kanell argues that polls are meaningless other than to generate discussion and interest until about Week 6 of the season, and waiting to release a Top 25 until then would eliminate hard-to-shed preseason misevaluations.
“When Mississippi State goes through three teams and they say, ‘Alright, we’ve beaten three Top 10 teams,’ they really haven’t,” Kanell said. “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.”
He’s also a proponent of an eight-team playoff that would allow every power conference champion a spot as well as three wild cards. If those three wild cards are SEC teams, so be it, but he’d rather see the argument settled on the field than based on recruiting rankings and NFL talent, which he admitted usually favors the SEC.
After participating in a mock selection committee with College Football Playoff committee chairman Jeff Long, Kanell said it will be up to each individual committee member to determine which criteria to prioritize when evaluating teams. But Kanell feels that if the committee is forced to choose between several one-loss teams, they’ll default to the ones that won conference championships as a sort of crutch.
What the committee ultimately values when differentiating these teams “is the million-dollar question,” he said.
Kanell also believes 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,” Kanell said.
“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?”
Kanell predicted Florida State will finish the season undefeated, Oregon will be a one-loss Pac-12 champion, and that Kansas State, TCU and Notre Dame all are strong playoff contenders, with the SEC West champion and Georgia also a clear part of the discussion.
“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,” he said.