For the 10th time in 15 years, the Southeastern Conference is home of the best football team in the country (UCF not withstanding this year) as the Alabama Crimson Tide defeated the Georgia Bulldogs 26-23 in overtime on Monday night in the championship game of the College Football Playoff. The matchup was set as Georgia outlasted Oklahoma and Heisman trophy winner Baker Mayfield in one semifinal and Alabama got revenge against Clemson in the other. After a less than stellar showing early in the bowl season, the SEC was still guaranteed another national champion… to the ire of many folks around college football.
The question is: Why? Why do people outside of the south hate the SEC so much?
The SEC has been the trendsetter amongst college athletic conferences for years. The SEC was the first conference to expand when the old SWC folded. It was the first conference to split into two divisions and have a conference title game. The SEC has been setting the tone for other conferences to catch up. And when it comes to college football, it’s the SEC and everybody else.
For some reason, few people remember how the bowl system used to be. Conferences were locked into their particular bowl arrangement, the Rose Bowl’s Pac-10 vs. Big 10 arrangement being the most famous, and top teams rarely played. The champion was chosen purely on a vote of the coaches or the media (AP) poll. There were split champions and because of the confusion lots of teams have claimed titles retroactively (Kentucky joining into the fun as well). Looking at the history of the polls, which up until 1968 the AP champ was crowned before bowl games and sometimes before the regular season, you can see why a better system had to be created. Enter the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).
With the BCS, there would be a formula used to choose the two best college football teams and have them decided on the field who the champ was. The top two teams would play in a title game with other Big 5 power conference teams, and occasional mid-major team, playing in the other big New Year’s Day bowl games. Was the BCS, in operation from 1998 – 2013, perfect? Of course not. It was a system that, however imperfect was a step in the right direction, a better way to crown a national champion. During the BCS’ time, the SEC had the most wins (17), the most total championships (9) and the school with the most BCS titles, Alabama with 3. This success occurred despite the Big10 having more total BCS bowl appearances (28), with Ohio State leading all schools in appearances (10) and wins (6). In 2011 when Alabama met LSU for the BCS title, the powers that be decided two schools from one conference shouldn’t meet so the system was revamped. Enter the College Football Playoff.
The college football playoff was designed so there wouldn’t be two teams from one conference playing for the national championship. The top 4 teams would be ranked and play in national semifinals, the winners advancing to the title game. But this year, with Ohio State being the Big10 champ with two losses and USC being the Pac-12 champ with the same, the table was set for 1-loss Alabama to become the fourth seed. When Georgia and Alabama one their respective semifinal matchups, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey could do the dance of joy knowing that the SEC would once again earn another national football title.
Why is it that the SEC only bands together around football? Recently, two SEC teams met for the women’s hoops title (South Carolina and Mississippi State) and SEC teams routinely meet in the college world series, frequently playing each other for the title. I think it’s more cultural than anything. The southern US is the one area that is routinely used for fodder in jokes on the national stage. I think it has something to do with the fact that even within their home states there’s a bit of a disconnect between fan bases of the SEC and different conferences. Louisville fans tend to look down their nose at Kentucky fans, the same as Georgia Tech and Georgia, Clemson and South Carolina, Miami (FL)/Florida State and Florida). The biggest reason, I think, is that it seems to upset so many fans and media personalities with the “SEC!” chant starts.
When it comes to college football, the SEC has been and continues to be a force. I have no doubt that there will be changes made to the playoff system to prevent another Alabama vs. Georgia type matchup. Keep in mind that if either of favored Oklahoma or Clemson wins, we’re not having this level of hand-wringing. Even though Alabama (5 titles in 9 years) is the dominant force, the titles under the BCS and playoff have been spread among five different SEC schools: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU and Tennessee.
If other conferences want to change the narrative in college football, the solution is easy: consistently beat the SEC in the top bowl games. I’ve often said that the SEC might not be the best top-to-bottom football conference, but it’s clear that the SEC’s best beats everybody else’s best. If you don’t want to hear “SEC!” then simply beat the SEC. As we’ve seen over the last nearly two decades that is much easier said than done.