SEC Football: Standards To Stand On? Not Many

The Bowl Championship Series offers the classic case of how college football comparisons are unavoidably limited by a lack of objectively binding standards. But the conference comparisons that feed into BCS arguments (you know that Pac-10/Big XII/SEC/ACC comparisons are on the horizon, right?) are just as much of an indicator of the paucity of legitimate measuring sticks in this sport and its ever-complex discussions.

With the SEC or any other conference, there's rarely a clear or defining answer to the eternal question: just how good is this league?

Upon writing last week about my doubts of the conference's strength, a number of readers noted how the SEC has quality depth that other conferences can't match. Know what? That point was fundamentally correct. The "big six" in this conference clearly dwarf the top six teams in other leagues, with the ACC and Big Ten being second and third, respectively.

But we go back to the overall question of how good the SEC (or any other league) really is. There's no "football analysis handbook" that says the definitive standard is the top six in each conference. Some would say the top three, the quality of your league's heavyweights, is the gold standard. Using this measurement of quality, the Pac-10 --- while perhaps not superior --- would certainly fare a lot better (USC, Arizona State and Cal make a good triumvirate) than it would under the "quality depth/top six" criterion of conference strength analysis.

Others, however, would use the "top to bottom" rationale, suggesting that your weakest link is just as much a measure of conference-wide strength and national legitimacy as your strongest squad. If you go by this standard, the Big XII, with very few great teams and a ton of mediocre ones, would seem better --- not because it has much quality (it doesn't) but because it's mediocrity is so evenly distributed at the bottom. In other words, it has teams unlike recent Mississippi State, Kentucky and Vanderbilt ballclubs who have really stunk (with Vandy somewhat breaking the mold this season, but Arkansas and Ole Miss slipping into an even deeper ditch).

And when you're not ranking the top three, top six, or top-to-bottom totality of a conference, you might find other measurements by which to evaluate a conference's quality. Some mention bowl games, which do feature some pretty high-profile confrontations that you always wonder about during the course of a season, but which are also governed by the amount of passion a team invests in the contest. If an overachieving third-place Big Ten team takes down an underachieving or disappointed second-place SEC team in the Capital One Bowl, for example, is that really a reflection of absolute quality and legitimate conference strength, or was it just a by-product of emotions?

Another instrument of conference evaluation is regular season non-conference matchups. From years of exposure to college football fan e-mails from across the country, Pac-10 fans seem to be most regularly armed with this package of numerical alignments to support their argument that the Left Coast plays the best football in America. But that approach --- while not entirely irrelevant to this larger discussion --- conveniently omits the irregularities of non-conference matchups. If second-place Pac-10 teams are dusting off lower-tier or middle-tier SEC schools, that's no authentic measure of superiority. But that's what often lies underneath the surface. Think of Oregon beating Mississippi State a couple of times in recent years as a perfect example.

The best argument SEC fans have --- but which is still pockmarked with questions and uncertainties --- is that SEC teams play more ranked opponents, a testament to this conference's quality depth. Georgia, Tennessee, the Gators, LSU, Bama and Auburn can regularly be found in a top 25 poll near you. Other conferences can't match that; however, the high-profile wins by Southern California over Auburn in 2002 and 2003 gave Pac-10 fans understandable ammunition when claiming the importance of non-conference results. That importance is overstated, but somewhat real... as long as you can find matchups between roughly equivalent teams that truly serve as battlegrounds where conferences can determine a genuine pecking order.

So is the SEC as week as it seemed to be a weak ago? Certainly not --- point conceded. But it's still very much up for debate as to how good this (or any other) league really is. Standards that create objective, universally binding frameworks of college football analysis are virtually nonexistent. It's sad and frustrating, but undeniably true. The BCS title game --- given the equal emotional investment and excitement levels of both of the participating teams --- is one of the few objective tests. Unfortunately, an SEC team always seems to get screwed out of playing in such a game (Bama could be that team this year), so unless we get a playoff, we're going to continue to wallow in the land of subjectivity. That's just the way it is for SEC fans, and the fans of any other conference in the country.

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