SEC bowl success eases sting from regular season, affirms conference's strength
On one long holiday weekend, the SEC went from disappointing and overrated to dominating and under appreciated.
Such is the national perception after a five-day stretch in which the SEC posted an 8-2 bowl record with Alabama moving to the brink of fourth national championship under Nick Saban.
The bowl results beg the question: Was 2015 actually a down year for the SEC, or does the bowl season provide evidence that the SEC was as dominant as ever?
That’s a tough one to answer.
Non-conference losses by solid SEC teams such as Arkansas and Ole Miss put dents in the SEC’s image. Rivalry week losses to non-conference foes by Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina stung. South Carolina’s loss to The Citadel and narrow escapes by Florida and Georgia to small, in-state programs were embarrassing.
But the bowl season eased much of the pain and stopped the criticism from other parts of the country.
In bowl showcases, the SEC’s top teams destroyed the competition.
Alabama rolled past Big Ten champion Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl. SEC West runner-up Ole Miss dominated No. 16 Oklahoma State, the Big 12 runner-up, winning 48-20.
The SEC’s second tier dominated as well.
No. 23 Tennessee overpowered No. 13 Northwestern of the Big Ten. No. 20 LSU manhandled Texas Tech of the Big 12. Mississippi State destroyed N.C. State of the ACC. Arkansas knocked off Kansas State from the Big 12. Georgia beat Penn State of the Big Ten. Auburn smashed past Memphis, a former Top 25 team from the AAC.
The only two SEC losses came from reeling conference programs.
Texas A&M, which lost five of its final eight games (the only victories were over South Carolina, Western Carolina and Vanderbilt) and saw its two talented young quarterbacks transfer before the Music City Bowl, hung tough against Louisville of the ACC with No. 3 quarterback Jake Hubenak.
No. 19 Florida, which scored only 69 points (24 against South Carolina) on offense in regulation time of its final six games, remained punchless in a 41-7 drubbing by No. 14 Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. The Gators finished with three straight losses.
So the SEC was 3-0 against the Big 12; 3-1 against the Big Ten, 1-0 against the AAC; and 1-1 against the ACC with a rubber match set for the national title game.
What did we learn from the SEC bowl season?
This much is clear: Tennessee and Arkansas were better than their records. The Vols suffered four tight losses — two to Playoff-bound Alabama and Oklahoma and two other nail biters to Florida (with Will Grier) and Arkansas. After three straight early season losses, the Razorbacks tied for third at 5-3 in the SEC West with victories over Tennessee, Ole Miss and LSU.
Ole Miss was one of the nation’s best teams when it was at full-strength and motivated. LSU was an outstanding team when QB Brandon Harris played well and coach Les Miles wasn’t besieged with calls for his ouster. The Tigers fell victim to a three-game gauntlet against Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss, playing the Crimson Tide and the Rebels on the road.
Mississippi State was consistent, winning the games it should have won behind Dak Prescott’s leadership and two outstanding receivers, De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross. Georgia won 10 games without solid quarterback play. But with no impact victories and ugly losses to Alabama, Tennessee and Florida, Georgia fired coach Mark Richt.
Auburn showed it wasn’t as bad as a 6-6 record may have indicated. With improvement at quarterback and the healthy return of DE Carl Lawson, the Tigers should be better next season.
Florida and Texas A&M have major problems to address.
The Gators have to rebuild their offense with upgrades at quarterback, running back and receiver and solid replacements and added depth on the offensive line. Receiver Antonio Callaway is the Gators’ only returning playmaker.
The Aggies must address their stability issues at quarterback and their ineffectiveness against top SEC West teams. Coach Kevin Sumlin has underachieved with a wealth of individual talent.
Let’s finish with a realistic assessment of bowl season. Matchups make a difference. This season, the SEC had several favorable matchups as indicated by conference teams going off as favorites in eight bowl games. The two SEC underdogs lost.
In two of the biggest bowl matchups, Ole Miss faced an Oklahoma State team that had lost its last two games, wiping out the Cowboys’ national title hopes, and Tennessee whipped a Northwestern team that was overwhelmed by a combined 78-10 to Michigan and Iowa and didn’t play Ohio State or Michigan State.
Just as last year’s bowl failures by SEC West teams didn’t prove the division was overrated, the conference’s 8-2 record in this bowl season isn’t complete vindication for some non-conference hiccups.
But it makes a strong case that the SEC remains the nation’s strongest conference. With an Alabama victory over Clemson, bragging rights will be easy to justify.