The SEC has long been the industry leader in quality of play in college football and the size of the corresponding ego tied to the consistently impressive results. The SEC won seven straight national titles from 2006 to 2012, building a veneer of invincibility and arrogance that has made the league a juggernaut and a target. It just means more to them, and they’re happy to tell you all about it.
The aura of inevitable SEC supremacy failed a high-profile test on Sunday when No. 4 Notre Dame boxed out No. 5 Texas A&M for the final spot in the College Football Playoff. According to committee chair Gary Barta, the committee valued Notre Dame’s additional win over a ranked team – then-No. 19 North Carolina in Chapel Hill – as the key to the Irish’s resume.
Let that marinate in the slow cookers from Auburn to Baton Rouge to Knoxville for a few moments. The College Football Playoff committee valued a victory over a ranked North Carolina team more than A&M’s seven-game SEC winning streak because only one of those teams was ranked. (A&M’s win over No. 4 Florida and Notre Dame’s over top-ranked and undermanned Clemson essentially canceled each other out.)
Basically, the entire drama of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee’s decision could be distilled to a simple debate. Does Notre Dame having two wins over ranked opponents matter more than six straight wins over unranked SEC brands — Mississippi State, Arkansas, South Carolina, LSU, Auburn and Tennessee?
The selection committee made a clear decision that it does, which could be remembered as a pivot point in the endless conference rhetorical debate. Hoarding wins in the SEC, the committee declared on Sunday, means less than it used to.
Someone get Finebaum the smelling salts, as Sunday marked a day where winning in Chapel Hill matters more than winning at Auburn.
This is not an opinion that will go over well in SEC country. One coach who spent time in the SEC and ACC laid it out this way for Yahoo Sports.
“The overall level of talent is way higher [in the SEC],” he said. “It’s not that the top teams can’t play in it [Ohio State, Clemson], it’s just that the quality of play is so much greater than the middle to bottom of the Big Ten/ACC. I honestly believe there are five teams in the SEC that would be undefeated with Ohio State’s schedule. Can you think of five teams between the two leagues that would be 7-2 with an all-SEC schedule?”
The lack of comparative data points between the power leagues was always going to shroud this playoff selection process (as was inequity of the number of games played). What’s perhaps the most surprising and unappreciated part of what developed Sunday was the decision-makers in the CFP not just resorting back to the attitude that was essentially a default for much of the past 15 years. When in doubt, the SEC wins out in the war of perception.
But Sunday marked an indictment of the SEC’s depth in the eyes of the sport’s most important decision-makers. They felt like Notre Dame sashaying through its shotgun ACC schedule meant just as much, if not more.
This must have been particularly galling to Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, who feasted off ACC lemmings for eight seasons at Florida State and struggled until this season to find his footing in his third year at Texas A&M.
When Fisher found his footing and figured out a way to author a one-loss season, it didn’t matter to those who matter. “Seven straight SEC wins,” Fisher said Saturday in his familiar uptempo speaking style. “Some schools didn’t even play seven games.”
The arguments against Ohio State finishing with just six games was ignored by the committee the same way it mocked undefeated Cincinnati’s resume. And the argument against Fisher’s seven-game argument disappeared the moment No. 4 Notre Dame flashed on the screen.
How did we get to a place where the SEC was looked at like everyone else? (No. 1 Alabama, notwithstanding, of course.)
There’s a distinct pivot point when the notion of supreme SEC dominance begins to waver. It happened in, of all places, the Sugar Bowl during the first College Football Playoff semifinals following the 2014 season. Ezekiel Elliott ran 85 yards through Alabama’s defense in the fourth quarter of No. 4 Ohio State’s upset of No. 1 Alabama in the first College Football Playoff.
The SEC’s seven-year national championship streak ended the year when Fisher’s Florida State team edged Auburn in the final BCS title game after the 2013 season. But Elliott’s run – which lives on in T-shirts in Columbus – provided that frozen moment that showed the rest of the college football world had caught up to the SEC and, in some cases, ran past it.
The College Football Playoff selection committee on Sunday boiled down that very same notion of supreme SEC superiority. And it was a blow to the league’s reputation that Texas A&M ended up on the wrong side of the most punitive gap in all of sports — being ranked No. 5 instead of No. 4.
The aura of the SEC will still reverberate with No. 1 Alabama, who is heavily favored to run away with the playoff. But the collective ego of the SEC took a mighty blow on Sunday, as a team moonlighting in the ACC managed to out-reputation a program that authored a fine season in the SEC.
The S-E-C chant still may ring out after this year’s national title game, but the league’s assumption of reputational infallibility took a blow on Sunday. That’s not going to marinate well in College Station, where they found out the cruelest way possible that SEC dominance means less than it used to.
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