Saturday, September 02, 2006

Culumn: Conference Strength Based on Perception, Not Reality

*January 6, 2008 Editorial note: This column was published locally in August of 2006. I stand by the overarching opinion within: that the Southeastern Conference, to that point in the decade, had been wildly overrated. Perhaps it served as inspiration; in the two seasons that have followed, SEC teams have dominated their non-conference opponents and the SEC has clearly been the strongest league, without question. So, after six seasons of being wrong, SEC-homers and the national media are finally correct. It's no longer a self-designation, but now an earned claim which reality supports. However, if your four weak sisters revert back to losing regularly against bad non-conference opponents, and your five powerhouses merely break even against their quality non-conference opponents, you are right back to Big Ten status.

Conference Strength Based on Perception, Not Reality

The most widespread misconception in college sports today is the thought process of fans and pundits alike that the Southeastern Conference is the most dominant conference in college football. This must be based purely on perception, or the fact that the SEC has the largest stadiums and the most rabid fans, because it simply can’t be based on what has taken place on the field of play.

Before blood vessels begin bursting, and for the sake of clarity, this view does not suggest that the SEC is not a great football conference, nor does it suggest that the SEC is not among the very best every season – it’s hard to imagine the SEC ever becoming a weak, or even average, conference. What it does suggest is that SEC fans and pundits tend to overrate themselves as wildly as talk radio hosts tend to exaggerate.

It’s certainly true here in the South, but it might exist with Big Ten and Big XII fans as well: the fail-safe dogma which allows one to claim superiority even when losing games against non-conference BCS teams. Take, for example, the four early-season SEC/Pac-10 match ups this season, all four of which are SEC home games and in three of which SEC teams are favorites; if the prognosticators are correct and the SEC wins three of the four, we all know that will prove the SEC’s superiority over the Pac-10. But what if the reverse happens and the West Coast teams win three of the four; will any SEC fan really suggest that the Pac-10 is the stronger league? I don’t think so, and that’s a no-lose situation. If such a doctrine didn’t exist, wouldn’t the Pac-10 already be compared closely to the SEC, having won seven of the 10 head-to-head games this decade (all three SEC wins courtesy of LSU, and two were virtual miracles)?

Of course, what’s being bemoaned in this argument is also what makes college football the greatest of all North American sports – the passion and loyalty of its fandom, which extends beyond the campus and into geographic regions. It is this passion and loyalty which creates hyperbolic statements such as “so and so team couldn’t compete in the SEC where they would have to play Auburn, Georgia, Florida, and LSU every week,” rather than the reasoned argument that Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky also play in the SEC. And no matter what SEC fans think, none of those recently-poor SEC teams would have competed in any other major conference either, just look at the non-conference opponents the latter group of teams has lost to over the last two seasons: Wyoming (twice), Louisville (twice), Indiana, Ohio U., Memphis, Maine, UAB, Houston, Middle Tennessee State, Navy and Rutgers.

When Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami bolted the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference it clearly left the Big East as the weakest major conference, but it also made some in SEC country speculate that the ACC would become “close” to the strength of the SEC. The ACC, prior to its expansion, was “close” to the SEC, as was the Big East before its near dismantling. Those leagues just had fewer teams and some fans couldn’t grasp the fact that four Big East teams ranked in the final Top 25 was the same as six from the SEC, in terms of intra-conference strength – plus, all eight Big East teams and all nine ACC teams had to play one another. The fact is that since the major conferences began realigning en masse in the 1990s, there hasn’t been much of a power disparity in the lot. And there still isn’t, with the new exception of the current Big East – and time will tell if the new teams there can be competitive nationally.

Since the 2000 season, or this decade if you prefer, the SEC has a winning head-to-head record against only one of the other five Bowl Championship Series conferences. It is tied with three others, and its overall record against all current BCS schools in other leagues is dead even at 58-58. That smells like parity, not dominance. Of course, that doesn’t single out any one of the past six seasons, but instead measures each of them in a combined fashion. The following numbers reflect current conference membership, not actual membership (for example, Boston College’s 2001 win over Georgia counts for the ACC, their current league, not the Big East, their former league):

Wins/losses in head-to-head games since 2000:
SEC 13 Big Ten 9
SEC 9 Big XII 9
SEC 9 Big East 9 (South Florida 0-4 alone)
SEC 24 ACC 24 (Georgia is 9-2 alone)
SEC 3 Pac Ten 7 (all three wins belong to LSU)

While the head-to-head records prove that no one conference can claim to be too much stronger than the others in recent history, the collective bowl records largely agree, but might make a better argument as to where they stack up in recent strength. The following numbers reflect both current and actual conference membership (In the ACC’s current membership total, the four bowl games of VT, Miami and BC as Big East teams playing ACC teams were counted as neither a win nor a loss):

Conference bowl records since 2000 season:
ACC 28-15 (current: includes all bowls since 2000 of all current members)
ACC 22-16 (actual: includes only bowls as members of ACC)
SEC: 23-20
Pac-10: 17-15
Big East 16-13 (actual: includes only bowls as members of Big East)
Big East 9-16 (current: includes all bowls since 2000 of all current members)
Big XII 23-23
Big Ten 18-22

Not to single out the SEC alone, here are the remaining conference vs. conference results from 2000-2005, reflecting current conference membership only:

Big Ten 13 Big East 3
Big Ten 13 ACC 9
Big Ten 13 Big XII 14
Big Ten 16 Pac-10 21
Big Ten 9 SEC 13

Big XII 16 Pac-10 13
Big XII 14 Big Ten 13
Big XII 6 Big East 3
Big XII 9 SEC 9
Big XII 7 ACC 12

Pac-10 7 SEC 3
Pac-10 21 Big Ten 16
Pac-10 13 Big XII 16
Pac-10 2 Big East 2
Pac-10 5 ACC 6

ACC 24 SEC 24
ACC 12 Big XII 7
ACC 6 Pac-10 5
ACC 9 Big Ten 13
ACC 67 Big East 28

Big East 9 SEC 9
Big East 2 Pac-10 2
Big East 3 Big XII 6
Big East 3 Big Ten 13
Big East 28 ACC 67