In 2015, the SEC finished the season on a superb note thanks mostly to a record-setting bowl season. The conference won 9 bowl games, the most of any league, and wound up with a quartet of 10-win teams (Ole Miss, Georgia, Florida and national champion Alabama).
As we’ve written elsewhere, 2016 ain’t been so rosy for the SEC. Only one of its teams can finish the season with double-digit victories (‘Bama), and a collective 6-9 record against other Power 5 conferences further sullies an otherwise sterling reputation.
Before we get too deep into these waters, let’s make a few things clear: Everything in college football is cyclical. Alabama is not draining the league of coaching or recruiting talent; the LSU-, Georgia- and Auburn-caliber programs have what they need to succeed: talent, coaches and money. There’s reason to believe that 2017 will be much better for the SEC overall.
In the meantime, what does the conference have going for itself, besides Crimson Tide world domination? Is there anything its teams can do between now and early January that can help alleviate the stink of a sad year on the field?
Well, matching the bowl success of last season would be asking a lot, and it certainly won’t rewrite the shortcomings of 2016. But coming close is a start for the 12 SEC postseason qualifiers.
On Selection Sunday, the league office provided a couple of neat little nuggets. First, the SEC became the first to send 10-plus teams to a bowl for four consecutive years. Second and more interesting is this one:
The SEC sent 12 teams to the postseason for the 2nd time in the last three seasons. No other league has ever sent that many in a single year
— Chuck Dunlap (@SEC_Chuck) December 4, 2016
The Big Ten sent 10 teams. The ACC had 11 bowl-eligible squads. The Big 12 and Pac-12 each had six.
Of course, the SEC had the help of Mississippi State’s high APR scores, which got the Bulldogs into a bowl at 5-7. The SEC also has an advantage when it comes to bowl tie-ins, with the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Cotton Bowl and up to nine other bowl games all in play for its teams.
Auburn is the only team representing the conference in the New Year’s Six this season, and yet somehow the SEC still managed to squeeze 10 other teams into a bowl.
Some, like Bleacher Report’s Barrett Sallee, see bowl season as “a celebration” or “a dessert.” But with 12 bowl teams in the mix, I’d argue the SEC needs a strong December to justify having that many teams make the postseason at all. Fans care, even if the players sometimes don’t.
Four of those SEC bowl matchups especially stand out as far as perception and prestige are concerned:
1. Peach Bowl (Alabama vs. Washington)
Duh. Imagine what would happen if, somehow, Alabama lost a de facto home game to a one-loss Pac-12 team that almost lost its Playoff spot to a pair of two-loss Big Ten squads in Penn State and Michigan. That’s pretty much a worst-case scenario for SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.
People like chiding the conference because the Crimson Tide are keeping it afloat at the national level. So they absolutely must take care of business in the College Football Playoff.
2. Music City Bowl (Tennessee vs. Nebraska)
This is one of only two SEC-Big Ten bowl matchups. The other — Florida vs. Iowa — promises to be so unpalatable that few casual fans actually may watch it. Tennessee-Nebraska should be much more entertaining. It pits the preseason SEC East favorite against one of the Big Ten’s surprise contenders.
At surface level, this game should go in Tennessee’s favor. The Vols are playing in nearby Nashville, and they have the more talented roster. Nebraska benefited from a super-soft schedule; Wyoming might have been the Cornhuskers’ best nonconference win, and they lost to the three best teams on their schedule — two of which were blowouts (Ohio State, Iowa).
Yet we know better. Nothing makes sense about this 2016 Tennessee team.
3. Sugar Bowl (Auburn vs. Oklahoma)
The SEC has more to gain than lose in this one. Auburn should arrive in New Orleans as the slight underdog against a Big 12 championship team that had not one, but two Heisman Trophy finalists in Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook.
The Tigers could lose, and it wouldn’t surprise many people. Their defense, though formidable, might not hold up for four quarters against Mayfield and the Sooners’ high-powered skill position players. But if they pull off an upset, it would be a nice validation for Gus Malzahn, who returns a potent corps of talent in 2017.
4. Citrus Bowl (LSU vs. Louisville)
This game would’ve been higher were it not for Kentucky’s Rivalry Week upset. But Lamar Jackson is the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, and one could argue that LSU was the SEC’s best team behind Alabama.
Louisville will be a nice litmus test not only for kinda-new coach Ed Orgeron but also the conference at large. The SEC’s reputation is primarily built around strong defense. Shutting down Jackson, especially when Houston already did so in Week 12, would provide the league a nice boost.
As far as the other games go, I wouldn’t expect to see much of a swing one way or the other, unless Mississippi State loses to Miami (Ohio).
Provided Alabama at least makes the national championship game, one of Tennessee/Auburn/LSU wins its bowl game and five of the other eight SEC bowl teams win their games, that’s a 7-6 bowl record, including the Playoff title game. In reality, the ceiling is much higher than that.
And, after the kind of season SEC fans had to witness in 2016, anything positive would be a nice way to start the new year.