The Myth of SEC Football

First of all, no one is dumb enough to argue that the SEC (Southeastern Conference) doesn't play damned good football. Undeniably, they've had some great teams and great players down there. Alas, the problem lies in how to assess them.

With college teams being voted upon -- rather than engaging in a March Madness-style tournament like college basketball, or playing against "equal" competition, as they do in the NFL -- there's no way we can ever know how great (or not so great) a team is.

In order to win a so-called "national championship," you have to be voted into the championship game. That's the only way you can win, by being invited to play in it. And up until a year ago, the voters made sure an SEC team was almost always invited.

What gives the SEC such an advantage in the polls is that they have this built-in "winning" mechanism. It works like this: When a low-ranked SEC team beats a high-ranked SEC team, instead of concluding that the conference is having an "off" year, the voters lose all perspective and succumb to the myth, gushing at how "powerful," from top to bottom, the SEC is.

In any other conference, the exact opposite happens. For example, if a low-ranked Big 10 school beats a high-ranked Big 10 team, the voters sadly conclude that the Big 10 conference is overrated. Illinois beating Ohio St. is something to be ashamed of. Kentucky beating Alabama is something to be proud of. Why? It's the SEC.

The same applies to the PAC-12. In fact, it applies especially to the PAC-12, because this is the West Coast, it's Hollywood, it's beaches, surfing, car culture, drugs, and bearded professors. West Coast football is, by definition, soft and effeminate, whereas Dixie football is, by definition, "country boy football," the real deal.

In 2007, a heavily favored USC team lost by one point (24-23) to Stanford at the LA Coliseum. Some football pundits actually referred to it as the "greatest upset in college football history."

Of course, it goes without saying that had this occurred in the SEC, they would marveled at how incredibly strong the conference was, from top to bottom. But that ain't going to happen in the PAC-12

Mind you, not only was Stanford a conference school, it was (and is) a big-time college program, with people like Jim Plunkett and John Elway having played there, and people like Bill Walsh having coached there. Indeed, the coach of the team that beat USC was Jim Harbaugh, soon to be a successful NFL coach.

So what happened last year, when college football finally went to something vaguely resembling a "playoff" configuration (where you could be voted into the playoffs, but not the championship game)?

What happened was that the SEC never made it. Alabama got beaten by an underdog Ohio State team, advertised to be way slower, stodgier and less athletic than the vaunted SEC. Instead, OSU beat Alabama decisively, and did it with speed and athleticism.

Again, no one is saying the SEC isn't impressive. They've produced some great players (e.g., the remarkable Manning brothers, two future Hall of Famers) and memorable teams. Had Ole Miss or Mississippi State been savvy enough to sign Bret Favre (who chose Southern Mississippi), they would have had yet another HOF'er.

But not only has the SEC profited from its reputation, it has also protected itself by playing some of the weakest opponents ever to appear on the schedule of a big-time college team, which, given that beating lousy teams allows them to climb in the polls, shows how smart they are. Say what you will, but the SEC deserves credit for knowing how to exploit the system.

If the NFL had a vote instead of a playoff system, the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5, 2nd in the AFC North) would never have been chosen to play Seattle in Super Bowl XL. They would have been reduced to spectators. But look at what Pittsburgh accomplished. They roundly kicked everyone's butt. Yes! Go, Steelers!