It no longer hosts the reigning national champion, but a strong argument could be made that the SEC has never been stronger. Seven SEC teams rank in the top 14 of the latest AP Poll, including five SEC West squads in the top 10. Even Arkansas and Kentucky, both of which went winless in the conference last year, look vastly improved, with the former routing Texas Tech in Lubbock on Saturday. So just how good really is the SEC and how many teams will it deserve in the inaugural College Football Playoff? SI.com's Andy Staples, Brian Hamtilon and Zac Ellis discuss the conference's apparent dominance.
Zac Ellis: Last January Florida State snapped the SEC's streak of seven straight national championships with a win against Auburn. Now only a few months later, the SEC is back to looking as dominant as ever. A number of the conference's teams seem to have a fighting chance to land in the first College Football Playoff. Andy, can we safely say the SEC is the country's best conference this season? Or is it too early to take such broad strokes?
Andy Staples: It's definitely too early to declare any league the best this season because there is so much season left to play. Every Power 5 conference -- yes, even the Big Ten, but just barely -- still appears capable of producing the national champion. That's a big part of how we measure conference strength, and it should be.
But another part of it is depth. It's too early to say any league is the best top-to-bottom, but it does feel safe to say that the SEC is thicker at the top than every other league. Any team from this list could make the playoff and it wouldn't shock anyone: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M. Missouri also deserves to be on this list, but there are still people who haven't been paying attention who would be shocked if Missouri made the playoff. If you're counting, that's seven teams. Half the league. Find another league in which half the teams appear to have a realistic shot at making the playoff. The ACC has Florida State and maybe Clemson. The Big 12 has Baylor, Oklahoma and maybe Oklahoma State. The Big Ten has Michigan State. The Pac-12 has Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA. The Bruins barely make the list. USC might have if not for how thoroughly the Trojans got dominated on the ground by a mid-tier ACC team last week.
Advanced stats guru Bill Connelly put out a piece Monday in which the (still admittedly early) numbers show the SEC West might be as good or better than the poll voters believe. We'll see if that bears out, but with Ole Miss and Mississippi State as talented as they've been in years and Arkansas seemingly improving, that may be correct. So does that mean Randy Staples' fever dream will come true and four SEC teams will populate the playoff? Of course not. All these teams must play one another. Losses must be incurred. Other leagues will have teams that play strong schedules and finish with great records. At most, the SEC will only get three teams in the playoff.
Kidding. It probably maxes out at two, if that.
Brian, you live in Big Ten country. How are the folks up there handling all this SEC?
Brian Hamilton: I believe all Big Ten fans have shuttered their windows to the outside world and locked themselves in panic rooms, resigned to subsist on frozen corn dogs, Jaeger and "Roseanne" reruns until mid-January.
This is the best part about the College Football Playoff, so far: For years, every week was discussed in relation to how it affected the potential participants in the national title race. This year? Every week is being discussed in relation to how it affects the potential participants in the national title race. And there is no diminished sense of urgency with any of these teams. Michigan State lost a game to a very good team in early September. In the BCS era, we would have penalized the Spartans accordingly but noted that they could work their way back into the championship picture by November. That is precisely the context in which Sparty's season is being considered now. The relative strength or futility of the Big Ten plays almost the exact same role it would have a year ago. It either keeps a team's title hopes afloat, or more accurately this year it drags that team down like a cinder block chained to the team's ankles.
Choosing the best teams or the best conference is a subjective process made with some objective criteria. With that in mind, the SEC deserves to lay claim to being the dominant conference in the country yet again...so far. Which would make for the really interesting part, the part with all the explosions and spittle and blood-pressure spikes: If two SEC teams make the first playoff, the outcry from everywhere else will be furious. Valid or not, that blowback will come. In which case I suspect the idea about turning this thing into an eight-team playoff finds itself fast-tracked.
I know there are contracts. I know the four-team setup is supposed to placate us for a while. But I don't imagine college fans and college administrators sitting on their hands when they're staring at the gaping expanse of nothingness where all their money and prestige was supposed to be. If the SEC remains the big football bully in the room and earns two playoff spots, I imagine the decision-makers will say "If we can't beat 'em, add a few more lines to the bracket so we can at least save some face while we go about not beating 'em." Maybe not in the next two or three years, but faster than anyone would have imagined.
What do you guys think? If the SEC is dominant (again), and everyone insists one year is too small a sample size (it is, but still), what in the world can these teams and leagues do to catch up?
Ellis: It always seemed to me that the playoff's expansion was inevitable simply because, for now, there are five power conference. Do the math: Five conferences vying for four spots means someone is going to be left at the alter. Now throw two SEC teams into the mix during the playoff's first season? Yikes. You can see why leagues outside of the South wouldn't be happy with that scenario.
Obviously the easiest way to catch up to the SEC is to beat the SEC. But that's of course easier said than done. The status quo won't change anytime soon, at least based on recruiting. Just take a look at Rivals.com's team recruiting rankings for the class of 2014. Seven of the top 10 signing classes are from the SEC. Three more SEC teams snuck into the rest of the top 25. You can never guarantee how a recruiting class will turn out, but it's difficult to argue that the future of the league isn't as bright as its present.
I live in Atlanta, so call me an SEC homer if you'd like, but I won't curse college football if two SEC teams make it into the playoff. All I care about is the best four teams getting in. As Andy pointed out, seven current SEC teams look like possible playoff programs in the early goings of this season. If those teams still look more impressive in December than, say, a one-loss Big Ten champ and a one-loss Big 12 champ, what's the big deal? The committee should be more concerned with picking the best four programs than hurting the feelings of Jim Delany or Bob Bowlsby. Of course, who knows what will ultimately matter to those 13 individuals.
Brian, am I making sense here, or has the SEC haze of the ATL made me a bit loopy?
Hamilton: Loopy? No one thinks that about you, Zac, as far as you know.
I'm beginning to think some SEC dominance is the best thing for Year 1 of the college football playoff, or at least the ideal test case for the new system. Because, yes, it's supposed to be about selecting the four best teams no matter where they're from. If SEC teams grind each other into dust during conference play, will the committee recognize that it's good-on-good crime? Or will it over-value winning a weaker conference in the name of spreading the playoff bids around geographically? I'll be glad if that dynamic emerges right away because it will shine a white-hot light on the committee's thinking moving forward.
The SEC: Doing college football favors since 1933. That's on Mike Slive's business card, right Andy?
Staples: I like to think that Slive uses those old-fashioned calling cards -- the ones that include only the person's name. For instance, when the other commissioners receive the checks for their league's portion of the playoff TV rights fee, the check comes with a bone-white card bearing only the words MIKE SLIVE. It was Slive, after all, who proposed this incredibly lucrative system in 2008. Noted college football visionaries Jim Delany, Tom Hansen, Dan Beebe and Mike Tranghese blocked him. OK, Delany actually is a visionary in terms of turning a conference into a money-printing machine. He probably doesn't belong on that list, but he did vote against the plan. The only commissioner who cast his lot with Slive and the playoff was the ACC's John Swofford, who is in fact a ninja. Only one league other than the SEC has had a team win a national title since. Coincidence? I think not.
I think the committee will consider the good-on-good factor when evaluating the SEC -- as well as the Pac-12 -- and this will be written off by people in the other leagues as a buy-in to some sort of narrative pushed by the media. (Hey guys, remember that meeting back in June when everyone who covers college football got together and decided to push the SEC? It was awesome, wasn't it? The open bar was a nice touch, but I hope they order more coconut shrimp next year.) In reality, the committee will be buying in because the narrative is mostly true. This will get more lines added to the bracket sooner. Remember, the real push for this system didn't come until after the Alabama-LSU BCS title game was set. The next day, the Big 12 decided to flip its support to the four-team setup.
The reason the playoff didn't start at eight is that common sense dictates the first two rounds of such a playoff would be played on campus. This would cut the bowls out of the equation completely. The current leadership in the sport has been bribed so thoroughly by the bowls through the decades that there was no way the bowls were getting shoved to the side. Thanks to the explosion in athletics revenues and salaries, the next generation of leaders can afford its own cruises and golf weekends. The graft won't produce the kind of loyalty it once did. Besides, this last round of changes set the table for the next step. The conferences basically stripped the bowls of all their power because conference leaders finally realized they control the teams, which is all the television networks care about. ESPN wouldn't mind if a bowl game was played at a high school stadium as long as it kept the subscriber fees flowing.
So for those of us who wouldn't mind seeing an eight-team playoff with quarterfinals and semifinals played on campus, dominance by one or two leagues only helps the cause. This is especially true when one of the leagues (the SEC) doesn't particularly care how the postseason is arranged. Slive knows his conference's teams will compete for the title in any system. Delany is the one who needs to figure out a different way, which is why necessity may once again trump the Big Ten's resistance to a larger playoff.