An AL.com column came across my timeline Thursday morning, positing this question:
What happens to the "SEC is weak" narrative if the conference wins the games it's supposed to win this bowl season? https://t.co/T8OvFgJSU1
— AL.com sports (@aldotcomSports) December 17, 2015
Bowl season is the last hope for the SEC to salvage its reputation as the best conference in college football — deserved or not. Since there are no quantifiable metrics to definitively determine which is the best conference, the more zealous supporters of the SEC have no shortage of apparatuses on which to perform their mental gymnastics.
For example, Alabama could win the College Football Playoff, and you can expect the more boisterous pro-SEC honks to once more declare SEC king — even if the rest of the league goes 0-for in the postseason.
In fairness to the SEC, the opposite is true. A sterling bowl record will go mostly ignored by those suffering from SEC fatigue, should Alabama falter in its semifinal matchup with Michigan State.
In other words, it doesn’t really matter which conference is declared the best. This season will end with any of the Power Five having at least some argument in its favor, but equally compelling arguments against it. That’s because there no longer is any “best” conference.
Measured only by its top teams, the Big Ten had easily the strongest case in the regular season, carrying over from the end of the 2014 campaign.
Three Big Ten teams finished ranked No. 7 or better (Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State), with two more at 13 and 14 (Northwestern and Michigan). A sixth, Wisconsin, sits at 9-3 and just outside the Top 25.
If judging by rankings, the Big Ten was indisputably king. Ditto if your measurement of choice is marquee wins. Take a look at the best nonconference wins of each, Power Five conference:
• Clemson over Notre Dame
• Florida State over Florida
• Northwestern over Stanford
• Michigan State over Oregon
• Michigan over BYU
• Iowa over Pitt
• Oklahoma over Tennessee
• Texas Tech over Arkansas
• Stanford over Notre Dame
• Utah over Michigan
• UCLA over BYU
• South Carolina over North Carolina
• Alabama over Wisconsin
• Missouri over BYU (Editor’s note: added in the interest of fairness)
Again, it’s tough to argue against the Big Ten — it’s also difficult to argue in favor of the SEC. Beyond South Carolina’s confounding-in-retrospect defeat of North Carolina Week 1, and Alabama’s trouncing of Wisconsin, the quality of nonconference wins is marginal.
Texas A&M over Arizona State? Auburn over Louisville? Mississippi State over Louisiana Tech? Missouri over UConn? If Jacksonville State wins the FCS championship, Auburn’s near-miss against the Gamecocks in September might be considered one of the better nonconference victories out of the SEC.
The SEC’s high-profile losses — Toledo-Arkansas, Texas Tech-Arkansas, Oklahoma-Tennessee, Memphis-Ole Miss — say a lot more about the conference.
So if the SEC isn’t best, who is? I laid out the case for the Big Ten above, but where the Big Ten’s case falters is in its lower tiers. If Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State are on the top floor, and Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin share the next level down, you have to take an empty elevator shaft down to the third floor to reach Nebraska, Penn State, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota. Further down the line, Maryland, Purdue and Rutgers were largely dreadful.
The Big is sending 9-of-14 teams to bowl games, but only eight reached true bowl eligibility. Conversely, the SEC is sending 10, all of which reached at least six wins. The Pac-12 is also sending 10 teams to bowl games, a whopping 83.3 percent of the conference, all of which received invites the traditional way.
The most difficult to accurately gauge is the Big 12, which was light on quality, nonconference games, in part due to its nine-game schedule, but more so because two of its top teams played weak slates. Baylor and Oklahoma State both finished ranked in the Top 20, but neither played a Power Five opponent outside the Big 12.
And what of the ACC? If Clemson wins the national championship with an unblemished record, which would give the Tigers a remarkable five wins over the Top 10, does that then trump all?
The argument is futile. I’m reminded of something Stanford head coach David Shaw said last month, in reference to the furor the College Football Playoff causes.
He said that oftentimes lost among the din of declaring “the best” singular team is that the game collectively is being played at its best level ever. To that end, the SEC no longer having a stranglehold on distinction as the best conference isn’t a result of regression so much as the sport is improving across all corners of the nation.
That narrative may not be as provocative, but it’s reality.