Bowl season gives SEC opportunity to restore its reputation
The upcoming bowl games provide the Southeastern Conference a chance at redemption.
A league that prides itself as the nation's strongest has only one team - No. 1 Alabama - ranked higher than 17th in the Top 25 . The SEC went just 6-8 in nonconference games against other Power Five teams during the regular season, including a 3-6 mark against the Atlantic Coast Conference.
With 12 of its 14 members playing in bowl games, this is a chance for the SEC to restore its reputation.
''We are the SEC, and obviously we have a higher benchmark than other conferences out there,'' Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. ''People expect certain things out of the SEC.''
Although the bowl season starts Dec. 17, SEC teams won't get involved until Dec. 26, when Mississippi State faces Miami (Ohio) in the St. Petersburg Bowl and Vanderbilt meets North Carolina State in the Independence Bowl .
The SEC would love to see this year's bowls turn out as well for the league as last year's postseason.
One year ago, the SEC encountered similar criticism after only one of its members - Alabama, again - was ranked in the top 15 at the end of the regular season. Before 2015, the last time the SEC had only one top-15 team was in the final poll of the 2000 season.
The SEC bounced back last year by going 9-2 in bowl games, including Alabama's victory over Clemson in the College Football Playoff championship game. The SEC set an NCAA record for bowl victories in a season.
''I think bowl games are a big indicator of conference strength,'' Tennessee defensive end LaTroy Lewis said. ''Last year everybody scrutinized the SEC, and we had great success in the bowl games.''
The SEC isn't the only conferences have much at stake this postseason.
The Big 12 has an opportunity to prove its worth in lesser bowl games after getting left out of the playoff for the second time in three years. The Big Ten wants to solidify a banner year as it enters the postseason with four teams ranked eighth or higher. The ACC heads into bowl season with its highest nonconference winning percentage (.750) since 1990.
But there's particular pressure on the SEC due to its status as the nation's premier conference for the last decade. SEC teams have won eight of the last 10 national championships.
''I would remind and caution everyone that you're judging us against the standard which we set, and we set that standard over 10 years - actually probably 12 years - in a continuing manner,'' SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said last week when he was asked about the league's relative struggles this season. ''We've got one year that we'll talk about and we'll analyze, but our expectations for excellence don't change at all.''
Even in what's considered a disappointing season, the SEC still has gone 42-12 in nonconference games and owns the highest nonconference winning percentage (.778) of any league. The SEC hadn't lost as many as 12 nonconference games in a season since going 31-15 in nonconference play in 2003, and it hasn't finished a season with nonconference winning percentage below .800 since 2008.
Another stellar bowl performance could quiet the SEC's critics, but the league faces a tougher road in this year's postseason.
SEC teams were favored in nine of their 11 bowl games last year, including the playoff championship game. The favorite won each of the 11 postseason games involving SEC teams.
The SEC is dealing with tougher matchups this time. SEC teams are favored in six of their 12 bowl games and are underdogs in five other bowls. The Georgia-TCU Liberty Bowl is rated as a toss-up.
SEC coaches have defended the conference by citing the depth that has allowed the league to have 12 bowl representatives, though that includes two 6-6 teams (South Carolina and Vanderbilt) and one 5-7 squad (Mississippi State). Tennessee coach Butch Jones noted the ''week-to-week grind'' of playing in this league and said ''if you're not at your best, you're going to get beat.''
''It's still the most competitive, toughest football conference in the country,'' Jones said.
The bowl season offers the SEC one last chance to back up that statement.
AP freelance writer Chip Cirillo in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report
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