I am a Southerner, but I'm the first to admit that our region is not perfect. Our love for frying everything and sticking huge chunks of fatty meat in our vegetables has a certain impact. We fought a war to preserve the right to take slaves into Western territories, er, um, for states rights ... to have slaves and take them anywhere. Our politics remain deformed in all sorts of meaningful ways. We are not exactly noted for dominating the top spots in educational rankings. You can insult us for all of these reasons and a host of others, but dammit, Chuck Thompson, you will not tell us that our college football teams are not the best. I demand satisfaction, but since pistols at dawn has become passe, I will settle for a Fisking.
In his seminal work, The Burden of Southern History, historian C. Vann Woodward wrote: "The South has had its full share of illusions, fantasies, and pretensions, and it has continued to cling to some of them with an astonishing tenacity that defies explanation."
OK, so the author of a book suggesting that the rest of the country would be better off without the South is going to start off his piece on SEC football by citing a renowned historian who grew up in Arkansas and graduated from Emory University. Gotcha.
Few enduring southern delusions do more to illustrate Woodward's point than the region's storied devotion to college football and the myth of the superiority of the SEC, the twelve teams collectively regarded in the South -- and much of the rest of the country -- as whales to krill, The Beatles to Herman's Hermits, jackhammer sex with Mila Kunis to dry humping your junior prom date standing up in her parents' garage.
And on the cover of said book, Thompson mocks the South with the always tasteful naked lady silhouette found on many a mudflap ... and then he is going to make a joke about jackhammer sex with Mila Kunis. Are we trying to be high-minded or not, Mr. Thompson?
Claims to SEC superiority are based on a simple set of arguments, foremost of which is that of the 14 national championships awarded since the 1998 advent of the BCS system, eight have gone to teams from the SEC, including, remarkably, the last six in a row.
Yet SEC dominance is a very recent phenomenon.
I guess that Bear Bryant's coaching tenure was recent. Ditto for that of Robert Neyland.
Since the inception of the BCS, the SEC has been crowned national champion 57.14 percent of the time. That's a stunning turnaround when compared with an undisputed national title rate of 10.42 percent over the half-century prior.
So what's behind such a radical shift in fortune, such a statistical improbability?
Well, Mr. Thompson, I can think of two reasons. The first is that SEC teams got better once the South rid itself of Jim Crow (or, if you want to make a legitimate criticism of the region, the federal government rid the South of Jim Crow) and their teams desegregated. The second is that SEC teams benefit from the chance to win titles on the field as opposed to having to rely on a popularity contest that they often lose because of people like you. When SEC teams had to win a popularity contest, then you would have results like two-time defending national champion Alabama going 11-0 in 1966 and still finishing behind a 9-0-1 Notre Dame team that famously played for a tie in East Lansing. Or Auburn going 11-1 in 1983 and being beaten out for the national title by a Miami team with the same record against a demonstrably inferior schedule, with Miami's main credential being a one-point win against Nebraska on their home field. With a BCS structure that pits the top two teams against one another instead of letting the top teams play in different bowl games, SEC teams have done better at winning national titles.
It certainly isn't on-field performance. Judging by inter-conference records -- that is to say actual games as opposed to media guesswork and bestowed rankings -- the SEC plays other BCS conferences about equally. Witness the record since the start of the BCS era in 1998:
SEC vs. PAC-12 regular season: 10-12
SEC vs. PAC-12 bowl games: 1-0
SEC vs. Big 12 regular season: 6-10
SEC vs. Big 12 bowl games: 21-8
SEC vs. ACC regular season: 42-36
SEC vs. ACC bowl games: 16-9
SEC vs. Big 10 regular season: 7-4
SEC vs. Big 10 bowl games: 19-19
SEC vs. Big East regular season: 16-15
SEC vs. Big East bowl game: 3-8
The record is clear. In head-to-head match-ups against other major conferences, the SEC has either a combined losing record or one that's generally only a little better than even.
Head-to-head match-ups can be subject to all sorts of vagaries, such as a phenomenon of lower-tier SEC teams playing upper tier teams from other conferences. It also has sample size issues. Let's use a measuring stick that: (1) considers the entire sample size as opposed to a small sliver; (2) uses scoring margin, just like the big boys in Las Vegas would; and (3) is truly unbiased and views teams based simply on scores, without any subjective sense as to who is better. I give you the Simple Ranking System-based pages at College Football Reference and Jeff Sagarin's ratings. Here are the average conference ranks from 1998 to 2011 according to SRS:
SEC - 2.36
Big XII - 3
Pac Ten - 3
Big Ten - 3.78
ACC - 4.14
Big East - 4.71
And according to Sagarin:
SEC - 2.36
Big XII - 3
Pac Ten - 3
ACC - 3.78
Big Ten - 4.07
Big East - 4.78
So yes, it is true that the SEC's on-field performance has been better than that of other conferences.
To SEC apologists who claim that the SEC's overall winning records in bowl games is evidence of success in "games that matter" against "quality opponents," I offer the counter-argument that because bowl game pairings are more easily manipulated than regular-season games, and because SEC teams frequently play in bowls near home stadiums, they often result in more favorable match-ups for SEC teams.
This tilt renders postseason play a less valid measure of strength than the more random sampling of results produced by regular season games.
So let me guess this straight, Chuck, you are basing your argument on a "random sampling of results" as opposed to using the entire sample as Sagarin and SRS would? Are you actually trying to argue in favor of your own position? Are you Jubal Early in disguise? And as a Pac Ten graduate, you might want to consider that the argument that you just made also negates the Pac Ten's big claim to fame, which is that it has a great record in the Rose Bowl. (By the way, reading Thompson's bio makes me interested in buying his guides to World War II battle sites, so I suppose that everyone wins from this exercise.)
In 2012, for instance, the SEC was able to even its BCS bowl record against the Big Ten at 19-19 when the Florida Gators beat Ohio State in the none-too-partisan Gator Bowl. The game was played in Jacksonville. No bowl games are played in Ohio.
Have you been to Ohio in December and January? Or ever?
So, if the SEC plays other conferences about even, why do SEC teams keep winning national championships?
That answer, of course, is the BCS and its corporate underwriters, who have created a reliable business model for determining national champions that is in all respects a self-fulfilling prophecy designed to protect its primary investment.
We've moved from C. Vann Woodward to C. Wright Mills.
The BCS business plan works like this: preseason rankings typically include two, three, or four SEC teams among the nation's top ten, more than from any other conference. From the outset, this bias for SEC teams builds into the system a near insurmountable advantage.
Start the season with two of the top four teams being from the SEC, as was the case in 2010 with Alabama and Florida, and in 2011 with Alabama and LSU, and the conference is virtually guaranteed to be represented in the title game -- and this is an important point -- even if neither of those two schools end up winning the conference.
To be the best, so goes to the old sports adage, you've got to beat the best. But since only SEC teams are consistently declared the best, only SEC teams get the chance to prove themselves against "the best."
It's a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Does the SEC get favorable rankings because it's so good? Or is the SEC so good because it gets favorable rankings? I argue for the latter.
First of all, the computer rankings are not subject to this sort of bias and they reach the same result as the human polls, which is a conclusion that the SEC is generally (but not always) better than other conferences. Second, if the human polls gave the SEC an unfair advantage by overrating their teams and giving them a leg up in getting to the title game, then we would expect SEC teams to struggle in that game. Instead, SEC teams are a perfect 7-0 in the BCS Championship Game (leaving aside the all-SEC Alabama-LSU rematch last January).
In 2010, for example, the Auburn Tigers began the season with a consensus ranking of #23, behind SEC rivals Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Georgia. The only way a team regarded so lightly early in the season can possibly climb into the national championship game -- which Auburn did that year -- is to beat a slew of highly ranked opponents, which Auburn also did that year. Because polls are arranged from the outset so that SEC teams will face the most highly ranked opponents over the course of a season, only teams from the SEC are time and again able to manage this feat.
Did anyone dispute that 13-0 Auburn deserved one of the two spots in the BCS Championship Game? No? Then what's your point? And regarding the earlier point about SEC teams benefiting from playing bowl games at home, Auburn beat Oregon in a Pac-Ten state for the national title. Finally, the only teams other than Auburn to win a national title in the BCS era when starting the season outside of the AP top ten were Oklahoma in 2000 (preseason #19) and Ohio State in 2002 (preseason #13). So Auburn was in fact the only SEC team to "manage this feat" and it is not something that has happened "time and again." I guess these are the rigorous research skills and commitment to precise language that one learns as the features editor of Maxim.
Consider again that the BCS was created by then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, also known as the "godfather of the BCS," a man who "attached plastic explosives to college football" and blew it up, according to an ESPN web post. ESPN, of course, is the commercial entity that dominates the college football landscape, and which has a near incalculable economic interest in promoting the nationwide perception of the SEC's elite status.
Actually, you can calculate that interest.
In 2008, ESPN and the SEC signed that a 15-year, $2.25 billion agreement allowing the network to televise the conference's games. In addition, ESPN owns the rights to televise all BCS games, including the national championship game.
In 2011-2012, ESPN and its partner ABC broadcast thirty-three of the thirty-five college bowl games. Which is to say that for all intents and purposes ESPN, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, the most successful spinner of dreams and fables in world history, owns college football as a commercial entity.
Because ESPN essentially owns college football, the SEC agenda it pushes invariably sets the tone followed by other media. In February 2011, more than half a year before the start of the football season, ESPN placed three southern teams in its top-five ranking for 2011 and published an Internet story beneath the headline, "SEC teams dominate early look at 2011." The story referred to the rankings as though they were the result of some organic process.
A more honest headline would have been: "We've invested $2.25 billion in the SEC and we've decided to tell you, yet again, that SEC teams will dominate college football. Surprised?"
This is such a bad argument that I don't know where to begin in addressing it. First of all, this alleged SEC conspiracy apparently started in August 2008, by which time the SEC had already won four of its eight BCS championships, more than any other conference. Second, you know which other major conferences have contracts with the SEC? All of them. In fact, the SEC is the only major conference that does not have its first tier games on ABC/ESPN. If ESPN were using nefarious means to bolster the SEC, then it would be acting in no small part in the interests of CBS. Third, Thompson does not offer any explanation as to how ESPN manipulates the BCS process to favor SEC teams, as the BCS rankings are composed of the Harris Poll (retired former college football figures), the Coaches Poll (self-explanatory), and the neutered computer rankings. None of these three components are affiliated with ESPN. Even a slack-jawed Southerner like C. Vann Woodward would not approve of your lack of evidence, Mr. Thompson.
This is also why in June, as soon as SEC presidents and athletic directors announced their support of a four-team playoff -- so long as that four-team playoff might include the theoretical possibility that all four teams would come from the SEC, rather than from an equal dispersal of conference champions -- ESPN's flagship opinion show Pardon the Interruption instantly sanctified the decree by stating, "I'm in agreement this time with the SEC" (co-host Michael Wilbon) and, "I'm in agreement, too ... because as you know it's all about the Benjamins." (Fill-in co-host Jackie MacMullan.)
Yes, because when I'm thinking of the vast media conspiracy in favor of the SEC, my mind immediately turns to a Northwestern grad who works for a newspaper in Washington DC and a New Hampshire grad who made her name writing about the NBA for a newspaper in Boston.
And it's funny for a Pac Ten grad to mention the idea of a playoff in light of the fact that the SEC has been pushing for one for longer than any other conference. We only have a playoff now because the SEC and its allies overcame the opposition of the Rose Bowl Entente. If the SEC's dominance in winning national titles were based on media manipulation as opposed to having better teams on the field, then why would the SEC be pushing for an outcome that would place greater emphasis on results on the field and less on the results of polls?
Here's how the self-fulfilling BCS prophecy breaks down in the SEC's favor over the course of a season.
The preseason top twenty-five is stocked with the usual high-profile teams from across the country -- teams, not coincidentally, already scheduled for heavy broadcast exposure. Thanks to its gaudy TV contracts, many of these ranked teams come from the SEC.
Once the season is underway, if a highly ranked SEC team beats another highly ranked SEC team, the winner rises higher in the polls than it might normally, based on the fact that it's just beaten a "top-tier" team from the country's "elite" conference. By the same coin, the losing SEC team in this scenario doesn't drop as far as it might otherwise, since, after all, it has lost to a presumably powerful "top-tier" team from the country's "elite" conference.
When "good" SEC teams suffer losses in league play, this allegedly proves how tough the SEC is from top to bottom. If an SEC leader wins all of its league games, this allegedly proves how great that team is, given that it somehow managed to go undefeated against a monster SEC schedule -- ignored is the fact that SEC teams have pulled off this putative miracle for the last four straight seasons.
For God's sake, it's tougher to go undefeated in the Colonial Athletic Association than it is in the SEC.
If the same things happen in other conferences, however, the collective football media reverse the logic, claiming that if, say, a Mountain West Conference league leader loses to a lower-ranked Mountain West team, this merely proves how bad that losing team is, not how good the Mountain West is. In the same way, if a league leader goes undefeated in the Mountain West, the feat is said to merely demonstrate how weak the conference is, not accepted as proof of the strength of the unbeaten team.
Though its teams are rarely given the opportunity, the Mountain West, not the SEC, has the highest winning percentage of any conference in BCS bowl games (.750), even though its teams travel further to play in BCS games than just about any others and with fewer supporting fans.
The double standard also allows non-conference victories rolled up by "champions" such as the 2009 Alabama Crimson Tide against the likes of Florida International, North Texas, and Tennessee-Chattanooga to be regarded as evidence of gridiron distinction by those inside the solipsistic cocoon of the self-congratulatory SEC echo chamber.
To hearken back to my time as a high school debater, group every argument by Mr. Thompson and note that the Sagarin and SRS evidence refutes it all. If SEC teams benefited from being in some sort of subjective echo chamber, then the computer rankings would not reflect that the conference is the best. Likewise, if SEC teams were making the title game based on circular reasoning, then they wouldn't be 7-0 in that game with four of the seven wins by double digits.
As though empirical evidence is akin to fossil records and climate change data, it's as if no one in the evangelical South is capable of copping to the evidence at hand.
Res ipse loquitur.
In the 2010-11 bowl season, for instance, the SEC posted a .500 record (5-5), same as the then Pac-10 and MAC, slightly worse than the Big East (4-2), and slightly better than the ACC (4-5). Those results moved the wonks at statistical aggregator SportsRatings to report, "In the end, no conference really dominated the bowl season, with most leagues overperforming [Big Ten] or underperforming [SEC] only marginally against expectations."
I thought that we decided that the bowls are not a good measuring stick? And by the way, both Sagarin and SRS had the SEC as the second-best conference in 2010, trailing only the Pac Ten. The SEC champion played the Pac Ten champion for the national title in Glendale and the SEC champion won. That seems fair enough to me.
Despite this underwhelming performance, however, the 2011 preseason table was set up once again to facilitate an SEC title run based on an utterly manufactured and bogus perception of strength.
This is why the all-SEC title game was more trouble than it was worth. I'd have a much better counter to this argument if LSU would have whipped Oklahoma State.
The chicanery is only getting worse. The most bald-faced example of poll rigging occurred in 2011 when the Pac-12's then number-three-ranked Oregon Ducks lost a September game in Dallas to then number-four-ranked LSU by a score of 40-27. Following the defeat, the Ducks dropped 10 spaces in the polls, to number 13.
With the demotion, Oregon's championship hopes were essentially obliterated from the first week of the season.
Fine. This is the way it goes in a college football's "every game counts" season.
When the SEC's then #2 Alabama Crimson Tide lost at home to #1 LSU in November, however, it dropped only one space in the polls, to number three.
Yes, this disparity must be the result of an unfounded preference for SEC teams. It can't have anything to do with the fact that Oregon lost in its opening game of the season and had no resume upon which to fall back, whereas Alabama lost in early November after it had blown out two months' worth of opponents and the Tide had established itself as one of the two best teams in the country. Also conveniently omitted from Thompson's narrative is the fact that Oregon was firmly in the discussion for a spot in the national title game (they were ranked #4 in the November 13 poll) until they lost a home game to USC.
I was in the stadium for that 2011 alleged "game of the century" between LSU and Alabama, traveling to Tuscaloosa and paying out the ass for a scalped ticket because I was eager to see how mighty legends of the SEC take care of business at home.
It turned out to be a tough night for Alabama fans. The home team eked out only two field goals while converting on just three of eleven third-down opportunities and passing for a Pee Wee football-style 91 yards on nine total completions.
While LSU fans celebrated their 9-6 win in The Houndstooth Sports Bar after the game, I watched as pundits on ESPN went right to work setting up expectations of an LSU-Alabama title game rematch, virtually ignoring the Tide's dismal performance. The original "E" in ESPN stood for "entertainment," after all. Sports have always been a secondary concern.
Within two weeks, just-beaten Alabama had been scooted back up to number two behind top-ranked LSU, and yet another SEC team (Arkansas) had been quickly installed at number three, thus ensuring that no matter what happened next, the SEC would be guaranteed a national title. The system of propaganda reached its torrid, circle-jerk climax with the 2012 BCS title game between LSU and Alabama.
Right, so when two SEC teams play a 9-6 game, that's Pee Wee football, but when Pac Ten teams play a 53-30 game, that's evidence of superiority that the vast SEC-wing conspiracy chooses to ignore.
For the record, I do agree with the argument that the end of the 2011 was a circle jerk for the SEC. Of course, the primary advocate for the all-SEC title game was Gary Danielson, whose embarrassing shilling for Alabama during the second half of the SEC Championship Game is far better evidence of slavish media support for the SEC than anything coming out of Bristol. Danielson's rant is far better evidence of the phenomenon that Mr. Thompson tries to describe. CBS is tied to the SEC, so its primary color guy acts as a second-rate Goebbels for the league. ESPN has contracts with all of the major conferences, so it has little or no economic incentive to hype the SEC beyond what it deserves. Sadly, Mr. Thompson is not going to get very far making CBS his bogeyman.
Computer programmers have a term for formulas that rely on flawed or biased original data: GIGO. Garbage in, garbage out. Relying as it does on a garbage premise from the get-go, the entire BCS formula is incapable of producing anything other than garbage results. This will become even more true, not less so, with the additional variables introduced by a four-team playoff.
This argument becomes quite inconvenient for Mr. Thompson when one looks at rankings that computer programmers find to be reputable.
My overall argument here is not that the SEC sucks. Clearly, it does not.
My argument is simply that if you look at results on the field -- not guesswork from writers, network suits, and BCS computers -- teams from the major conferences, and some schools from smaller conferences, are actually a lot more evenly matched than most fans believe.
Despite being approximately equal to other conferences in most quantifiable categories, the SEC and other southern schools are unfairly presented with championship opportunities and favors on what is far from a level playing field.
The SEC is better than other conferences at media manipulation and pretending that fiction is fact and fact is fiction. But as a top-to-bottom conference it is not better at football. The numbers bear that out.