Avinash Kunnath: There's a lot of debate for who the second best conference is in college football. But I kind of want to talk about why the best conference in football methodology always bothers me.
There's no doubt that the SEC has been the best conference for awhile. But now that Florida State has won a national championship, no one is going out of their way to bump the ACC up to that same level. That's because it's perceived that the Seminoles ran up and down a conference of underachievers, while Auburn had to battle the big, bad and mighty SEC. So even though the ACC holds the crown, the SEC is still considered a stronger conference and will be considered the best of the bunch going forward
The best of the SEC is probably better than everyone else, but should a conference be rewarded for having more top teams when their bottom is just as bad as anyone else's bottom (Tennessee has gotten rolled by Oregon twice)? Should a one-loss SEC team be viewed with greater weight than a one-loss team from another conference when we move into a playoff system?
I'm very concerned that this plus-one will allow an SEC at-large (based on supposed strength of the SEC) to bump out a deserving big conference champion (because they lost one game and losing one game in supposed inferior conference is a bigger strike than not winning your conference altogether). Do you think this will happen, and what would the reaction be like if it does happen?
Brandon Larrabee: First of all, I actually think that the middle of the SEC has gotten better over the last few years. If you go back to 2006-09, when things were pretty much being run by Alabama, LSU and Florida, there was often a gigantic gulf between those teams and the rest of the league. Aside from the loss to Ole Miss, no SEC team other than Alabama got within 24 points of Florida in 2008. Of the Gators' seven regular-season conference wins that year, five were by at least 30 points.
Contrast that to this year, when Missouri and South Carolina fought to decide which team with double-digit wins would go to the SEC Championship Game, and Georgia was only out of the race because of injuries. Vanderbilt improved, Auburn got past very good (if flawed) LSU, Alabama and Texas A&M teams -- and Ole Miss wasn't a pushover. I think the depth is better than it was during most of the SEC championship streak, which for a time was really the "Alabama and LSU and Florida (with a dash of Auburn)" streak.
I do think the scenario you lay out would be interesting. Of course, we don't know what would happen, because we haven't seen a playoff committee's thinking yet -- certainly, a one-loss UCF probably doesn't deserve the same consideration as a one-loss Alabama (not that the Sugar Bowl helped that case). On the other hand, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Pac-12 -- which, much like the SEC, has shed its "Southern Cal (or Oregon) and the nine dwarfs" image. And I think the conference championship label will carry some weight with the committee.
Having said all that, if a one-loss SEC team beat out another conference's champ, most SEC fans would nod our heads in approval. The reaction from the rest of the country would be -- not that. But I guess I would turn the question around: Shouldn't we be looking for the teams that have performed the best against the best schedule? In other words, is your concern that a more deserving Pac-12 (or B1G, or Big 12, or ACC) team might be left out in favor of a lesser SEC team, or do you think there's some intrinsic value to being a conference champ that should be rewarded?
Avinash Kunnath: Here is the issue. SEC schedules are not prohibitively the toughest schedules in the country. You may argue that the conference schedule is tougher (and it'd be hard to refute that), but they only play eight games (compared to nine in the Pac-12 or the Big 12). While SEC West teams have to play A&M, Alabama,Auburn and LSU, they also draw Arkansas and Mississippi State. SEC East teams get Kentucky and Tennessee and (probably a one-time thing, but still) Florida. Case in point: Alabama's strength of schedule wasn't very good before the Iron Bowl, and there was about a midseason stretch that offered them zero challenges.
And then there's the non-conference schedule. It isn't as bad as some people say, but it's pretty weak and does somewhat negate the toughness of the conference schedule. Only three SEC teams (Georgia, South Carolina, Ole Miss) finished in the top ten in Sagarin strength of schedule. The other seven spots were filled by Pac-12 teams. Why was the Pac-12 so high? Tough non-conference games by almost every squad.
The SEC has seen improvement in its middle, but so has the Pac-12. Eight teams won six or more games last year, and that's all while dealing with the toughest non-conference slate in college football. If you were the SEC, the biggest dent in your armor is the constant scheduling of the Troys and the Charleston Southerns of the world. Would you consider toughening up the non-conference slate and start a policy of one big non-con opponent a year to really lay down the gauntlet?