You will be shocked to learn this, but life is complicated. Imagine that.In the wake of Clemson’s emphatic victory over Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, a lot of people are crowing about the SEC’s failure to win a national title.
By Matt Zemek
People in other parts of the country are reveling in the fact that the SEC has failed to win four of the last six national titles, Alabama in 2015 and 2017 providing the two wins. A lot of casual college football fans will immediately think that the SEC is in a bad place or that the conference has lost its fastball, or both… but it’s not that simple if you study this sport and care about an accurate portrayal of the landscape.
It is certainly true that as long as the SEC wins the national title, it has had a good year. Being able to add to its immense totals and tout another No. 1 team makes everyone in league offices very happy. The value of a national championship is not modest; it is a huge deal. Therefore, the idea that this loss to Clemson means little for Bama or the league is ridiculous on its face. In the ways which matter most, this season failed to meet core expectations. However, a few competing realities create a much more layered picture which any college football analyst has to confront and, ultimately, accept.
Columnists who hate the SEC — there are plenty of them — will always dislike SEC Cupcake Saturday on the third Saturday of November. Heck, I dislike that, too. However, if you want to air a legitimate gripe about the SEC, you also have to acknowledge what it achieved in 2018… at least, if you are interested in being fair and objective.
The SEC put four teams in New Year’s Six bowls and won three of those four NY6 games, Georgia in the Sugar being the only exception. No other Power Five conference produced more than two NY6 bowl teams. Kentucky beat Penn State in the Citrus Bowl and Florida thrashed Michigan in the Peach Bowl, giving the SEC clear and substantial supremacy over the Big Ten. Alabama over Oklahoma in the Orange offset Texas over Georgia in the Sugar. With West Virginia and Iowa State losing to Syracuse and Washington State in bowl games, the Big 12 has no claim to being better — or even as good as — the SEC at the end of this season.
The Pac-12 and ACC were both terrible this year. Both conferences produced only one New Year’s Six bowl team. The Pac-12 champion, Washington, got crushed in the first two and a half quarters of the Rose Bowl before a late rally cosmetically made that game seem somewhat close. As for the ACC, 9-3 North Carolina State became 9-4 after getting dump-trucked by Texas A&M in a much-anticipated Gator Bowl game which turned into a dud.
We live in a world where the ACC gets to do what the SEC used to do quite a lot: Claim ownership of a national championship. Yet, the 2018 ACC very clearly was a horrible conference — not as bad as the Pac-12, but far below expected standards. Clemson might be every bit as good as Alabama as a program over the past four years, but the Tigers did not reflect well on the ACC this past season. Clemson was a great team which transcended its conference. Alabama has done that in the SEC in recent years.
Winning the national championship means a lot, but that doesn’t automatically mean a conference was particularly strong in a given season. It means that the best team in a conference was superior to its elite competitors.
Ask yourself this question: How many elite teams did each conference have in 2018?
The Pac-12 had none. The ACC had Clemson. The Big Ten had Ohio State. No one would view Michigan as an elite team after its losses to Ohio State and Florida. The Big 12 had Oklahoma, with four-loss Texas being fortunate to get a Sugar Bowl opportunity against Georgia, which it then maximized.
The SEC had Bama… and Georgia, the first team left out of the playoff… and LSU, which decisively outplayed UCF in the Fiesta Bowl… and Florida, the thrasher of Michigan… and even Kentucky won 10 games, something which had happened on just two previous occasions in human history.
Quality, depth, and significant postseason wins — the SEC had more of these than any other conference this past season. It wasn’t a close call.
Clemson and the ACC have every right to enjoy their national title.
They don’t have the right to say the ACC was the best conference in college football this past season. Only one answer is allowable or acceptable, and it’s the league headquartered in Birmingham.