The Southeastern Conference has been so dominant in college football for so long that we keep assuming its supremacy season after season, even when the facts clearly show otherwise. The TV talking heads keep perpetuating this myth, and those of us who view it objectively keep shaking our heads, or screaming at the screen.
That is not to say the SEC did not earn its reputation as the best in college football. It also does not mean that the SEC is no longer among the top football conferences, or that it might not carry the national championship banner for the 10th time in the past 14 seasons. It did, it is and it might.
The fact is, though, that over the past three seasons the ACC – and perhaps the Big Ten and Pac-12 – was probably as strong top to bottom as the SEC.
Let’s first look at the current season first.
There is little doubting that Alabama is the finest team in the land. The Crimson Tide of the SEC, with a conference title game victory over Florida on Saturday, will enter the College Football Playoffs as the lone undefeated team and ranked No. 1 in every poll. A fifth national title in the past eight seasons for Nick Saban’s troops is more probable than possible.
Yet since when has the national championship team equated to being the nation’s best conference? If SEC followers want to claim that their league was tops in national-championship winning seasons of 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015, then they must concede that the Pac-12 Conference (Southern California national champs) was best in 2004, the Big 12 (Texas) in 2005, the ACC (Florida State) in 2013 and the Big Ten (Ohio State) in 2014.
It is a feeble argument, one we will dismiss from the outset.
So, let’s examine this season more closely. The current College Football Playoff rankings of the top 25 teams include five teams each from the SEC, ACC and Pac-12 as well as four teams from the Big 12.
After Alabama atop the rankings, you must search all the way to No. 14 Auburn and No. 15 Florida to find the next SEC clubs. Additionally, LSU is No. 21 and Tennessee is No. 22. By comparison, the ACC has Clemson at No. 3, Florida State at No. 12, Louisville at No. 13, Virginia Tech at No. 23 and Pittsburgh at No. 25.
We could argue all day and night about which of the two conferences is stronger based on those rankings. Regardless, the rankings do prove that the SEC is not superior to the ACC in any way. Heck, you could make a case that the Big Ten is better with Ohio State at No. 2, Michigan at No. 5, Wisconsin at No. 6, Penn State at No. 7; or the Pac-12 with Washington at No. 4, Colorado at No. 8, Southern California at No. 11, Stanford at No. 18 and Utah at No. 20.
SEC boosters could further claim this has been a one-year blip where the league slipped some. One season is a blip, three seasons is a trend.
Over the past three seasons, the ACC has stood toe-to-toe with the SEC. The ACC has a cumulative 14-12 record against the SEC since 2014. Again, that does not prove the ACC has been stronger than the SEC, but it certainly dispels any superiority claims, especially when you consider that the SEC was 25-14 against the ACC the previous five seasons.
I do not have any numbers to prove my point about why the ACC has crept up on the SEC, but my guess is that most ACC programs are finally benefiting from dedicating more dollars to the game in the form of facilities. It took some time for the ACC to recognize that it needed better-than-adequate facilities (indoor field, football-only buildings, etc.) to compete with the other Power 5 conferences.
While the ACC has clearly gained, the SEC also has slipped, and that primarily can be attributed to a rabidly declining East Division. Since the SEC expanded to 14 teams for the 2012 season, the East Division records in head-to-head competition against the West Division have been 7-7, 6-8, 4-10, 2-12 and 5-9.
Again, that is not a blip. That is a trend. The SEC East the past three seasons has been mediocre – at best. At one point during the 2016 season, one Internet site that ranks such things had the SEC East below a Mountain West Conference division. So when SEC supporters mention the strength of the league top to bottom, they clearly are only including the West Division.
In the end, what conference is stronger than another matters not at all. But the next time you hear a commentator on TV talk wildly about the strength of the SEC over all other conferences, feel free to scream at the screen.