Before I launch into any ungrateful whining and complaining, it needs to be stressed that this was a great season both for the Georgia Bulldogs and for the SEC as a whole. Georgia bounced back from an 0-2 start and ended the debate over Mark Richt's job security by reeling off 10 straight wins and claiming the East Division title. The Southeastern Conference had nine teams invited to bowl games and, for the sixth year in a row, got two teams into BCS bowls. The SEC is also guaranteed to claim its sixth consecutive national title, as both teams in this year's BCS National Championship Game hail from the Southeastern Conference.
Those are all great achievements, but I sense some creeping complacency, some resting on laurels on the part of the SEC. You may not know what I'm talking about, but you'll see it in evidence on Monday. January is supposed to be when the big-time bowls begin, but when SEC fans flip on the TV on Jan. 2, they'll see no fewer than three teams -- Georgia being one of them -- stuck in bowls that pit the SEC against a lower-tier conference.
None of this is meant to disrespect the Big Ten's heritage -- it was one of the first college football conferences ever formed -- nor what the league has accomplished in its 115 years. Back in the days before college football's top echelon split into I-A and I-AA divisions, the Big Ten won its share of national championships. Even today, it occasionally manages to get a team into the BCS -- over the past four or five years, it's placed as many teams into BCS bowls as the rest of the "non-AQ" conferences combined.
But when a Big Ten team plays a squad from the SEC, that's when we see how big a gap remains between the Big Ten and the elite conferences. This past Jan. 1, three bowls pitted Big Ten teams against the SEC, and the Big Ten teams lost by an aggregate score of 138-45. One of them was the team Georgia will face in the Outback Bowl on Monday -- Michigan State, who lost 49-7 to an Alabama team that finished fourth in its division (and got doubled up on by Georgia in a January bowl two years prior). If you'd taken away the bowl-season pageantry and just looked at the scores, you'd have thought it was the first or second week of the regular season, when SEC teams typically schedule their paid-for tune-ups against easy competition.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive probably doesn't have a problem with this, since his teams earn big paychecks for the conference no matter whom they end up playing. Some SEC fans may not care about this either, as long as their teams get to toss another layup into their wins column at the end of the season.
But this kind of complacency is what leads teams and conferences to get fat and happy -- and hand over superiority to the competition. Georgia fans, just as an example, may be excited to watch their team finish a turnaround season by feasting on an opponent from a lesser conference, but if that big victory allows them to think that Mark Richt's reclamation project is complete, or that potential issues with offensive-line depth or special teams are all worked out, then the 2012 season is going to come as a nasty surprise. Similarly, if the SEC as a whole just gets to continue beating up on lower-tier teams in bowls, it'll just be that much more embarrassing should an SEC finally fall in a national-championship matchup against an opponent from, say, the Big XII or Pac-12.
So what's the solution? Some SEC fans may not like it, but it's time for Mike Slive to sack up and re-negotiate the league's bowl bids to pit his teams against more substantial competition. No more pointless freebies against the Michigan States and Ohio States of the world; if we keep playing those teams, that's just going to add to the growing chorus of criticism that SEC teams are scared to play games against challenging non-conference opponents. And yes, Georgia fans, if that means losing a game against Western Michigan or Central Michigan or whoever to play a real opponent such as Oklahoma State or Oregon, then as big a sacrifice as that might be, it's one we shouldn't shy away from accepting.
Yes, the SEC is at the pinnacle of college football right now. But that doesn't mean the other leagues aren't doing everything they can to gain on us. Even the Big Ten has ripped a page from the SEC's book and implemented a conference championship game; with the heightened level of competition and increased TV exposure such a game brings, it may not be long before the Big Ten joins the ranks of the elite BCS-level conferences. Should that happen, the SEC needs to be prepared. Giving up some of those cushy bowl matchups might be a bitter pill now, but it'll pay off for the conference -- and for Georgia -- in the long run.