SEC faces toughest task yet

Wade Askew

A year ago I half-jokingly wrote that the SEC champion deserves an automatic berth into the BCS National Championship game every year. This time, I mean it.

In a year defined by parity, the overlooked story to date has been the absolute screw job, for lack of a better term, that SEC national title contenders have been subjected to.

The idea that SEC teams are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to a national championship appearance is nothing new. Plenty have bemoaned the fact that SEC teams run through an unparalleled gauntlet throughout the regular season, not to mention the added challenge of the conference championship game played in Atlanta each year. It’s just that this phenomenon is truer this year than ever before.

Take No. 3 LSU for just one example. In the past three weeks, the Bayou Bengals have beaten No. 23 Auburn, No. 9 Florida and fell in triple overtime to No. 14 Kentucky in the Bluegrass State. In the first four weeks of the season, LSU also beat No. 15 South Carolina and trounced No. 8 Virginia Tech 48-7, now 6-1 after feasting on six teams with no representation in the current top 25.

So, by my count, LSU has beaten the same number of teams currently in the top 25 (four) as the rest of the top 10, excluding fellow SEC member Florida, combined. Not only that, but not a single undefeated team – No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 Boston College, No. 7 Arizona State, No. 12 Kansas or No. 16 Hawaii – has beaten a team currently in the top 25. Not one.

I promise I’m not making this stuff up.

But aside from the quantitative stats that illustrate just how much tougher a road SEC schools like LSU face, just watching football on any given Saturday reveals a massive gap between the SEC and any other conference in America.

We could go back and forth all day about the “who-beat-who” transitive victory game, but we all know how valuable that is. We also could look at single games between conferences and make grand conclusions from those, but that system is also very flawed.

For example, once upon a time, No. 18 California’s opening-week victory over Tennessee, during which the Bears put up 45 points, was supposed to signal to the country that the SEC’s defenses aren’t really all that impressive, its offenses are just overrated. Then Florida one-upped Cal two weeks later by scoring 59 on the Vols, and just last week No. 22 Alabama torched the Vols for 41 points and 363 yards through the air.

So the best way to measure a conference’s quality is really just to watch football, something I do quite a bit – probably too much, to be honest. And after watching a disgusting amount of football all year, nobody can tell me that SEC teams would not roll in any other conference.

Watching Florida and Kentucky duke it out last week, followed by Illinois’ loss against Michigan and a grand finale of LSU eking out a win over Auburn, only underscored what I have witnessed all year: SEC teams are simply on a different level from everybody else.

Skill players are more skilled. Linemen are stronger and more physical. Hits hurt from the stands. And yes, everybody is faster in the South. Defensive ends move like linebackers, who run like safeties, who sprint like cornerbacks (and hit like linebackers).

Some might say that I’m just another SEC supremacist in writing all of this. I may be a Georgia-bred homer, but I also call ’em like I see ’em. I’m not blinded enough by my own biases to see past reality.

And that reality right now is that the SEC is on a different plane than the rest of college football. The parity sweeping across the nation is also affecting the SEC, as Kentucky is suddenly a power and every team in the SEC East currently is tied with two conference losses except for Vanderbilt, who, by the way, isn’t looking too shabby anymore after its upset win last weekend at South Carolina. (The Commodores would win eight games in the Big Ten. Guaranteed. But I digress.)

So with a conference full of two-loss teams – LSU is the only team in the SEC with just one loss – 2007 truly is the year of parity even in the SEC, and it could cost the conference a representative in the national championship game, even though I have not seen a single team more impressive than LSU, Florida or Kentucky. And that includes Ohio State, which I watched in person as the Bucks embarrassed Northwestern 58-7.

Which leads me to throw out that outlandish statement once again: Whichever team emerges from December’s SEC championship game victorious deserves a bid in the national title game, no questions asked. Last year Florida made me look smarter than I really am by dismantling Ohio State in the title game, proving that a one-loss team from the SEC was head-and-shoulders above a Buckeye squad that waltzed through what was essentially a two-game schedule.

This year, a three-loss team from the SEC would do the same.

Deputy sports editor Wade Askew is a Medill sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]