Monday, January 5, 2015

Requiem for SEC's 'Decade of Dominance'

After the SEC's disastrous bowl season, college football's cognoscenti are all rushing to write the obituary of the conference's dominance. In fact, make that two disastrous bowl seasons.

The SEC is the only conference not to win a BCS/CFP bowl in the last two years, going 0-5. The much-acclaimed SEC West went 2-5 this bowl season, with only bottom dwellers Texas A&M and Arkansas winning their bowl games.

But could it be that this "SEC Dominance" is more myth than reality?

Sure, the SEC did win seven consecutive BCS titles. It even managed to stage the only BCS championship game featuring teams from the same conference. But did the SEC really "dominate" as much as it (and its media acolytes) say it did?

The BCS was very much an SEC creation, designed by former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer and refined by retiring SEC commissioner Mike Slive. It helped to raise the profile of an also-ran regional league devoid of major media markets into the premier conference in college football.

The SEC was assisted ably in this venture by ESPN, which now co-owns and operates the nascent SEC Network. ESPN has come to dominate college football - it owns the CFP broadcasting rights for its 12-year duration as well as all but one of the 38 bowl games this season. That the SEC's rise coincided with ESPN's growing monopoly on the sport was hardly an accident.

The key to the SEC's ascendancy was the relentless shaping of media perception. It began with Florida's 2006 campaign to dislodge Michigan for a spot in the BCS title game and has continued ever since. It crescendoed with the absurd 2011 title game featuring two SEC teams as Alabama became the first non-independent team to claim a national championship without winning its conference since 1936.

The strength of the SEC essentially became a self-perpetuating myth. Every year, SEC teams would crowd the top of the polls. When an SEC team lost to another, it didn't hurt the losing team much but it really buoyed the winning team. That was never more evident than earlier this season when Texas A&M vaulted into the top 10 after beating preseason top 10 South Carolina - both teams, as it turned out, struggled to be even bowl eligible.

A key ingredient in driving the SEC dominance narrative is its clever scheduling. It plays only eight conference games and almost always lards up the non-conference schedule with cupcakes. It also rarely ventures out of its footprint for any high-profile OOC games.

How much of an advantage does the SEC gain from scheduling? Enormously.

Not only does the SEC avoid seven additional losses by not playing a ninth conference game, it dramatically improves its teams' chances to stay up in the polls (on the top end) or gain bowl eligibility (on the bottom end). Compare the SEC's 2014 scheduling to that of the Pac-12, which plays nine conference games plus a title game - you can see how the SEC has rigged the system perfectly:

* Only three SEC teams (Georgia, Alabama and Missouri, the latter two with the help of being in the SEC title game), played 10 Power 5 opponents before the bowls. Ten Pac-12 teams played at least 10 games against Power 5 teams, the exceptions being Oregon State and Colorado.

* Power 5 teams constituted just 73 percent of all SEC regular-season opponents, as compared to 83 percent for the Pac-12.

* Add teams from the Mountain West and American, the two quality Group of 5 conferences to the scheduling mix and the contrast is even more stark. SEC teams played 78 percent of their games against Power 5 plus MWC and AAC teams; 92 percent of Pac-12 games were against Power 5 plus MWC and AAC opponents.

* All 14 SEC teams played one FCS opponents each, including six that did so in November, which worked out to be not much more than glorified scrimmages. Only eight Pac-12 teams faced FCS teams, and none after September. USC and UCLA (along with Notre Dame) are the only schools that have never played an FCS opponent in history.

The SEC played the scheduling and associated poll advantages to the hilt, resulting in basically guaranteed berths in the title game in the latter eight years of the BCS' 16-year run. The BCS standings were revamped in 2004 and from that point on, opinion polls accounted for two-thirds of the formula. With those standings in place, no team that finished either first or second in the two human polls ever not played in the BCS title game.

We'll never know if the 2007-08 USC teams, 2011 Oklahoma State, 2012 Oregon and 2013 Michigan State should've been the rightful champions. They never got to play in the BCS title games despite having the same number of losses as the SEC teams that got in. SEC teams won seven BCS titles in a row (including one all-SEC affair) but you can't win it unless you're in it.

The BCS went away after last season and just in the nick of time. Had it still been in place, Alabama would've faced Florida State in the title game and the Crimson Tide likely would've swiped their fourth title in six years. Oregon and Ohio State, two teams that would've played in a consolation Rose Bowl under BCS rules, instead will get to compete and see who's the legitimate national champion after getting a reprieve from the four-team playoff.

That the SEC will be missing from the inaugural title game in the Playoff era is actually a very good thing for college football. It helps to slowly unravel a myth and finally moves the sport into truly settling its champion on the field.

The toughest conference in college football, at least in 2014, isn't the SEC. We now know that for a fact.


David Jones said...

One minor correction, Georgia also played 10 Power 5 teams pre-bowl (Clemson, Georgia Tech + 8 conference games). In fact, Georgia and Tennessee (who has taken on Oklahoma and Oregon lately) are probably the two most aggressive schedulers in the SEC, but I'm disappointed the Dawgs are regressing to the rest of the SEC next year with only GT coming from a Power 5 conference.

But your larger point is still relevant, except I'm not sure whether it matters when you play an FCS opponent.

I think the SEC will have to eventually move to a 9 game conference schedule.

The Guru said...

David- You are correct. I had UGA at 10 but somehow neglected it when I wrote the piece. I'll make the fix.

My point about FCS opponents is this. It's much easier to get to 6, 7, or however many wins when you play only 11 legitimate (sometimes fewer) opponents.

Demosthenes said...

We won't have a legitimate champion this year, either. Not as long as TCU had no shot.