What we Re-learned from the Bowls
By Jacob Shoor
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The SEC's run of dominance is not merely unprecedented; it is so far beyond anything any other conference has ever achieved, most people would think it is fiction.
Some things in life must be repeated because they are true, important and often ignored and/or widely misunderstood. So what should we all have learned from this college football post-season?
First, the SEC's run of national dominance is not merely unprecedented; it is so far beyond anything any other conference has ever achieved that it would not be believed as realistic enough for fiction. But it is not permanent. I do not see any major shift away from the South being easily the best region for college football, but we are going to see the ACC catch up to the SEC much more closely than it has been since the start of this century at about the same time we see a team from outside the South - most likely the Pac 12 - have a break through campaign and win a national championship.
Part of that slight shift will come when first rate SEC head coaches who are not at the biggest and baddest SEC programs realize that they can achieve more by leaving the SEC for the right situation. Dan Mullen is an example about whom I have written before. He is doing well, especially by the historic standards of Mississippi State. But he has hit the Bully Boys' ceiling. The only way he can do more at Mississippi State than he has already is if the SEC West sees its major powers with the largest fan bases hit the skids at the same time.
Dan Mullen replacing, say, Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech could lead the Hokies back to a National Championship Game appearance. Dan Mullen remaining in Starkville, with major coaching upgrades at Ole Miss and Auburn, and with Arkansas having wooed the best coach in the Big Ten over the previous half decade, may never again win more than three conference games. The disparity between the two situations is primarily because VT is the most successful program with the largest fan base in a medium sized state, while Mississippi State is the number two program in a small state and has the second-smallest football fan base in the SEC.
Second, the ACC is much better than many fans grasp. The ACC suffers terribly from proximity to the SEC. You could be the tenth-best baseball team in history, but if you play across town from the 1927 Yankees, your reputation will suffer considerably by that direct comparison. The ACC has no chance to fully equal the SEC in football quality unless the SEC sees several programs tumble at the same time. But the upgrades in coaches made recently by BC and NCSU, the maturation of Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher, the replacing of Maryland with Louisville, and the recruiting boost the ACC will receive from Notre Dame playing five league games annually should mean ACC football sees improved quality of play to the point that it is often the second-best conference in the country.
The third thing we should all know with even more certainty now is that Big Ten football is remarkably weak, as weak as it is boring and plodding. Commissioner Jim Delaney has spoken openly about the possibility of the Big Ten changing its bowl lineup, and only the most stupid fail to know that is about the Big Ten's desire to win a few games by avoiding the SEC. The Big Ten has added two football losers, Rutgers with its laughable history and Maryland with its teensy fan base (this year, 2-10 BC averaged more fans per game than Maryland) and barely middling football history, which signals that the Big Ten is more interested in new TV markets to force to take the Big Ten Network than it is in competing on the field. Arkansas, not even in the top tier of SEC football programs, took the Big Ten coach who just won a third consecutive conference crown. How long will Mark Dantonio be happy leading the distant number two program in Michigan while the Big Ten is exposed over and over again as inferior in every way but TV deals?
Fourth, it ought to be obvious that the four-team playoff is going to cause endless trouble and satisfy few. If you fail to understand why, try arranging a four-team playoff this year. Which two teams most deserved to be included along with Alabama and Notre Dame? Undefeated Ohio State, which probably was not as good as ND and thus not truly more deserving than even Florida State or Clemson, is on probation, but that does not make the job easier. Did Stanford earn one slot because of winning the Pac-12? Would the final slot go to Florida, the same one-loss team that was destroyed by two-loss Louisville in the Sugar Bowl? If the Gators belonged, wouldn't that mean that the Cards also belonged? Would SEC East champ Georgia or the Texas A&M Aggies, the only team to beat the Tide, have been more deserving than Florida or Stanford? Oregon handled Big 12 champ Kansas State with ease in the Fiesta Bowl. Would the Ducks have belonged in a four-team playoff?
An eight-team playoff is coming, the sooner the better. Because the now larger conferences play more league games than they used to play, thus lessening the number of important clashes between powers from different conferences and regions, thereby making it hard to gauge relative conference strengths, and thus the strengths of the best teams in each conference, the eight-team playoff is going to have to give automatic slots to the champions of the five major conferences. The three at-large slots will cause endless squabbling, but at least that would prevent a playoff with a pair of Big Ten teams and semi-independent Notre Dame because pollsters keep grossly overrating midwestern football.