The Southeastern Conference and Commissioner Roy Kramer see themselves as the kings of the bowl season, and with the exception of Notre Dame, the SEC tries to stand apart from the rest of the country more than anyone. With so much power, however, why does the SEC continually finagle the bowl system?
The SEC says it doesn't have specific tie-ins for conference finishers, allowing for some movement among selections. But the fact is the SEC predetermines who is going where even before the season starts. They just pray that these teams win close to enough games to fill these spots, and recently, this hasn't been too difficult. The only way around this is for something unforeseen to happen, i.e. LSU winning the Championship game.
Look at it this way, SEC must satisfy its different groups of teams, the 'Giants', 'Holtzes', 'Underachievers', 'Mississippis' and the 'Others'.
The giants, Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida must be accommodated accordingly, because they represent the old and the new dominance. These three schools have special exemption status when it comes to bowl selection. No one cares that Florida lost to Auburn and Tennessee, nine wins guarantees a BCS bid for the Gators in almost any year. If not for Phil Fulmer, the Vols would play in a BCS game each year, but nine wins gets them the Citrus, and eight gets them the Cotton (which we'll get into later). Then there's Alabama. Of course because they've won countless SEC titles, the Crimson Tide have earned the right to go to a bowl?
Six wins gets them in, more wins is just gravy for the SEC. They'll find a good spot for them.
Next on the list is the Lou Holtz group. When Holtz took over, the Gamecocks were guaranteed a quality bowl if they just won six games. Eight is more than they could have ever imagined. Bowl officials can talk all they want about South Carolina bringing fans to the game, but if the Gamecocks were 8-3 with Brad Scott as head coach, they would not be playing Ohio State in the same bowl two years in a row. As long as Holtz is coaching, they will continue to get better bowls than they deserve or be matched against big name teams simply because of Holtz's name.
Third, are the underachievers, Auburn, Georgia, and LSU. These schools seem to have permanent invitations to the Peach Bowl, it just depends on which one finishes 7-4, and which one maybe sneaks into the 8-3, 9-2 range. The frustrating thing for Georgia fans, however, is that Auburn and LSU have both played for an SEC championship in the past two years, and the Dogs can't even jump into the Citrus Bowl, (see above). Auburn surprised everyone last year, and LSU finally turned things around this year to earn quality bowls. However, the Outback hasn't hesitated to take a 7-4 team as they've done the past three years, so why change this year and allow Auburn into that game? (See Holtz rule above.)
Next there is the 'Thank goodness for Mississippi' group. Say what you will, but until the entire state of Mississippi is viewed differently around the country, those schools will have to win the West to be considered for a descent bowl. They will be relegated to the Music City and Independence usually. Yes, Ole Miss got snubbed, or whatever you want to call it, but they didn't beat anyone, except Alabama, and that win is thrown out. (See a pattern developing?)
And finally there is Arkansas, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. While two of these are never serious bowl contenders, the Razorbacks continue to use their location to secure the Cotton Bowl bid. Two of the past three years they have played in that once extremely prestigious bowl. Why? Because they used to be in the SWC and there's "history" for them in Dallas? They have to win 10 to be considered for somewhere else.
This year was extremely frustrating for Georgia fans, but the team is now perceived as underachievers, despite a successful (not great) season this year. The Cotton took an 8-3 Tennessee team last year that wasn't ranked in the top 20, but an 8-3 Georgia team with quality wins over the infallible Vols and Razorbacks can't get into the Cotton or Outback? Three reasons - Giants, Holtz, and location.
In an unbiased league, the following the following games would be taking place this year because of what they did and not who they are:
Sugar - LSU; Orange - Tennessee; Citrus - Florida; Cotton - South Carolina; Outback - Georgia; Auburn - Peach; Independence - Ole Miss; Music City - Arkansas; Humanitarian - Alabama (anyone over Clemson, right?)
Bucky Ware can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.