By MIKE HERNDON
There are certain things that most Southerners hold to be self-evident. Tea should be sweet. Chicken should be fried. The Andy Griffith Show should always be on the air somewhere. And the SEC is the best football conference in the nation.
Most years, we got little argument. Eight national titles in the last 10 years and all that.
But in a time when “fake news” and horse-crap conspiracy theories rule the internet and facts are dismissed as heresy, that which once seemed self-evident has come into question.
And not without good reason. The SEC’s crown began slipping over the last couple of years. Florida State and Ohio State broke the conference’s stranglehold on the national title. The bottom of the conference sank deeper, eroding the theory of top-to-bottom superiority.
This year, there’s no longer any sense in denying it. The SEC this year is Alabama and everybody else. It is not the best conference in the nation anymore — not this year, anyway. It’s now sort of — cover your ears, fellow Southerners — mediocre.
Aside from the top-ranked, undefeated Crimson Tide, no SEC team has won more than eight games and only one, Florida, has lost fewer than four. Barring a minor miracle in Atlanta this weekend, Alabama will hand the Gators that fourth loss in Saturday’s SEC championship game.
Actually, after a final weekend in which Georgia lost to Georgia Tech, South Carolina was blown out by Clemson, Ole Miss and Arkansas were upset and Tennessee — preseason favorite to win the SEC East — lost to Vanderbilt, “mediocre” might be a rather diplomatic assessment. Take Alabama out of the mix and it has the look of a full-on dumpster fire.
Weaknesses abound. Georgia can’t block anybody. Ole Miss can’t stop anybody. Florida can’t score. Tennessee’s Vols may be “Champions of Life” but they aren’t even champions of their own state — once considered a given.
So what happened? How did we get from seven straight crystal footballs to regular-season losses to Middle Tennessee, Southern Miss and South Alabama?
A few theories:
— Some of the conference’s traditional contenders are in transition. Georgia finally tired of Mark Richt’s good-but-not-good-enough consistency and brought in Kirby Smart, and suffered through the growing pains. Steve Spurrier finally threw his visor down for the last time and South Carolina is hoping Will Muschamp learned enough from his previous offensively-challenged failure at Florida to help the Gamecocks bounce back from rock bottom quickly. And LSU decided it’d had enough of Les Miles after a midseason loss to Auburn and has, after being rebuffed by Jimbo Fisher and toyed with by Tom Herman, handed the reins to Ed Orgeron.
— An inordinate number of the conference’s quarterbacks have been lost to injury. Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight, Florida’s Luke Del Rio and Kentucky’s Drew Barker are all out for the year and Auburn’s Sean White has been sidelined the last two weeks. Backup quarterbacks typically do not prolific offenses make.
But of course, Florida wasn’t scoring bunches of points before Del Rio got hurt, either. Ole Miss lost to Arkansas, LSU and Auburn with Kelly behind center. Tennessee had Josh Dobbs — once thought by some to be a potential Heisman contender — for the entire year and yet lost to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. So there’s that.
— Some programs that had been buoyed by a few uncommonly strong recruiting years have regressed to the mean. Looking at you, Ole Miss and South Carolina. Schools that aren’t regular national contenders aren’t going to get a Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil or Jadeveon Clowney every year.
— Everyone else is catching up. This is the one that SEC fans don’t want to hear. But Big Ten, ACC and Pac 12 programs have brought in coaches like Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher, Jim Harbaugh, Jim Mora and Chris Petersen for the express purpose of closing that gap and winning championships. They have made inroads into the SEC’s fertile recruiting grounds — which, if we’re honest, is the rock upon which the SEC’s dominance, real or perceived, is built. Innovators (and instigators) like Harbaugh are working summer camps in Alabama and Georgia and bringing recruits back home with them.
Some will say we should wait until after the bowl games to pass final judgment. The SEC looked to be down last year and still went 9-2 in bowl games and the playoffs, with Alabama winning another national crown.
But only two of those 11 games meant anything — the two College Football Playoff games won by Alabama en route to the championship. While many look to bowl games as an opportunity to see the best of each conference pitted against each other, they are really a poor indicator of true conference strength.
Why? Because motivation plays such a big role in many of their outcomes. Schools that just miss out on the playoffs often have little interest in preparing for a consolation prize. Others take the experience more as reward than business trip. Players who have been battling through injuries may not see the point of risking it in games that essentially don’t mean anything.
What does all this say about the one SEC team that should have something to play for in January? Do we really know how good Alabama actually is with the rest of the conference falling all over itself? Have we been fooled by blowouts of Tennessee and Texas A&M, which seemed to confirm the Crimson Tide’s dominance a month ago but now don’t seem quite as definitive?
If our eyes tell us that the rest of the conference really isn’t all that good, they also tell us that Alabama — and particularly its defense — helped make them look that way. The Tide made USC look like a middling high school team, too, and although the Trojans have become a different team after switching quarterbacks, that’s still a feat worth noting.
Part of the reason the SEC looks so bad is because Alabama looks so good in comparison. Does that mean the Crimson Tide is better than the best of the Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12? We’ll soon find out.
That’s why we have a playoff.
Categories: College football