Has the SEC been the nation's best conference in 2018? SEC coaches weigh in
We’re in Week 12, which means it’s a fair question to ask. There’s enough data to at least have an opinion on the subject. And in my opinion, it’s best to throw it out there before bowl season, which most people wrongly use to form their conclusions about conferences.
Has the SEC been the best conference this year?
Take a look at the Playoff rankings, which have 3 SEC teams in the top 7 while no other conference has multiple teams ranked that high, and some would put that argument to bed. Others, however, would argue that there’s SEC bias … even though the completely neutral selection committee and the Associated Press voters both have the SEC with a nation’s best 6 ranked teams.
That’s probably because the SEC went 6-3 against Power 5 teams in nonconference play, including a pair of neutral-site wins against top-10 teams. But that’s not something you’ll hear folks in the “SEC bias” crowd reference when they tweet screen shots of the SEC slate during Cupcake Week.
Speaking of biased people weighing in on that subject, I proposed that question to a half dozen SEC coaches. To the surprise of nobody, I didn’t get a “well actually, I think the Pac-12 has been the best.”
Man, I really wish someone had said that. It would have been fun to hear the justification for that. Oh well. Maybe 2019 will be the year I get an answer like that. But I digress.
Instead, let’s focus on the matter at hand. That is, why do SEC coaches feel that the SEC has been the best in 2018?
Asking this question to a variety of types of SEC coaches was interesting. The conference’s elder statesman, Nick Saban, was obviously going to have a different perspective than a first-year coach like Chad Morris or Joe Moorhead.
As for Saban, I assumed that he’d give some sort of politically correct answer because he’s not one for comparison questions. Fortunately, I was wrong about that.
“I’ve always felt (the SEC was the best conference) and the reason for that is the top to bottom. It’s not just the top teams, it’s how many good teams are in the league every year,” Saban said. “Mississippi State’s a good team, LSU’s a good team, Texas A&M’s a good team, Auburn’s a good team. So just in our division, you have 4-5 good teams. And we haven’t played the teams in the East, but as I see teams over there, there’s several really good teams over there. Georgia’s a really good team. There’s a lot of really good teams.
“If you just go through the conference and say, ‘OK, how many really good teams are there in every conference?’ That’s where you figure it out.”
All of the teams Saban mentioned, of course, were teams with winning records that are on Alabama’s regular-season schedule (and also ranked within the last couple weeks). Well, with the exception of Georgia. Surely Saban has at least done some early prep for Georgia, which he’ll face in the SEC Championship in a couple weeks.
Ironically enough, it was Smart who delivered the politically correct answer I was expecting from Saban.
“Ah, shoot. I’m not the expert at that. I’d love to give you a great headline or a great comment, but I have no qualms saying top to bottom, our conference is one of the toughest in the country,” Smart said. “But to say this year, I probably don’t get to see enough football outside of ours. I think you could poll a lot of other teams and ask them if they want to come in this conference, and you’d find out that way.”
Ed Orgeron, who is leading the top-ranked 2-loss team in the country in the Playoff poll, had a much more definitive response.
“There’s no question it is (the best conference),” Orgeron said with a chuckle. “First of all, there’s great talent. Every week, you face first-rounders on the defensive lines and offensive lines, and there’s guys with skill and speed. It’s like playing in the NFL. This is by far the best league, in my opinion. I’ve been in other leagues, and they’ve been great, but week in and week out, it’s a challenge. I think the crowds and the passion for football in the Southeastern Conference when you go on the road, it’s just always a challenge.
“That’s what makes the SEC, in my opinion, the best.”
It was interesting also hearing what first-year SEC coaches had to say about Orgeron’s point.
Before Jimbo Fisher’s final season at Florida State at ACC Media Days in 2017, he declared the ACC was the nation’s top conference. At his first SEC Media Days this year, I asked him about that quote and if he had any second thoughts on that. He basically said he thought the SEC was what elevated the ACC to get to the level it was at, but it was still a non-answer.
On Wednesday, Fisher gave an Orgeron-like answer to the question “has the SEC been the nation’s best conference in 2018?”
“I would say so,” Fisher said. “I would say so top to bottom when you talk about the competitiveness of every game, the environment, I don’t think you can understand how each environment and atmosphere across this league is extremely hard to play in. I think home-field advantages are huge in what you do with that.
“It means so much more … when you put the home-field advantages and what the importance of football is to the SEC, the quality of game and the way they design it and make it as a conference to help you be successful, and the things they provide you and your school, there’s no doubt.”
Texas A&M is one of 9 SEC teams that earned at least one AP Top 25 ranking this season. That’s actually tied with the ACC and Pac-12 for the most. The problem is that the ACC and Pac-12 have as many ranked teams combined as the SEC in the Playoff poll. Actually, the SEC West has as many ranked teams (3) as the ACC and Pac-12.
One of those West teams is Mississippi State, which is the top-ranked 4-loss team (4-loss Northwestern is one spot behind the Bulldogs). The Bulldogs’ first-year coach, Joe Moorhead, shared his thoughts on whether the SEC has been No. 1 in 2018.
“That’s hard for me to gauge because I really don’t get an opportunity to watch much football outside of our conference, but I think it would be a difficult thing to debate when you look at the competition within our conference on a weekly basis,” Moorhead said. “Obviously you’ve got Alabama at the top and a bunch of other teams that are slugging it out. There’s a tremendous amount of parity. The rankings bear that out.”
Among the coaches who answered this question on Wednesday, the only coach without at least some time in the polls this year was Morris, whose Arkansas squad is still searching for its first SEC win. Morris came from the AAC, but he spent 4 seasons as the offensive coordinator at Clemson, where he saw the aforementioned rise of the ACC.
But again, this discussion is 2018-specific. Morris stuck to that.
“Just being in this conference and watching games outside of our conference whatever chance I get, I definitely feel this conference is even better than it’s been. I think it’s been a little bit better than it’s been in years past,” Morris said. “You can look at the way things are and some of the statistics, and I think without a doubt, this is the best conference.”
So should there be any doubt?
Of course there will be as SEC teams load up on cupcakes while other Power 5 conferences continue to dig into the meat of their schedules. There’s nothing the SEC can accomplish this week to show it’s the nation’s best.
On the other hand, there might not be anything that can happen the rest of the way that would show the SEC wasn’t the nation’s best conference in 2018.