Now that Clemson played Lucy to Alabama’s Charlie Brown in a gnaw-your-fingernails national championship game, the SEC must confront a reality as hard as the Tigers’ “pick play” knockout punch.
The conference can’t hide behind a giant Crimson Tide curtain in the months before toe meets leather to begin the 2017 football season.
So many conference teams are flawed, and Alabama’s loss guarantees the SEC’s reputation won’t be inflated.
Oh, the warts will be in full view. Here’s a little tough love for It Just Means More Land: Dabo Swinney was right in saying the ACC, not the SEC, stood as the nation’s best conference when the sun set on the most recent campaign. In recent months, King SEC ran for the moat as the ACC and Big Ten stormed the castle and fought over the sport’s throne.
It’s time for the SEC to get realistic and work toward reclaiming its crown.
“I watched all the Big Ten film and all that stuff,” Swinney told reporters in Tampa on Tuesday, fresh off his victory lap. The ACC, he said, “is the best conference in college football. It’s the deepest, it’s the most competitive. You look at the head-to-head records against the SEC. … You don’t want to play a team from this conference. You just don’t. I don’t care. Name one. That’s why we’re ready.”
SEC, without success
The numbers are numbing. The ACC closed 10-4 against SEC teams this season. Big Ten schools might have belly-flopped during the bowls, but the fact it had four of the top eight teams in the final College Football Playoff rankings before postseason play can’t be ignored.
The SEC? After Alabama clocked in at No. 1, Auburn was a speck on the horizon at No. 14. Beyond that, you had to use a telescope to see Florida at No. 17.
Bless Greg Sankey’s heart. Before the Tide’s roll stopped, the SEC commissioner tried to address a smelly situation with verbal potpourri when speaking to reporters in Tampa.
“Things change pretty quickly in football,” Sankey said via SEC Country’s Mike Griffith. “The ball can bounce different ways, and you have to recognize that.
“I know our other programs are strong, and we’ve seen improvement.”
Ah, but that so-called strength didn’t meet SEC standards. Comparing the league now to the conference at its peak is like placing a Tonka truck next to something you see at Monster Jam.
Sure, conference acolytes can point out that all but two SEC programs made bowl games this time around. (Sorry, Ole Miss and Missouri, the dunce cap must stay on until August.)
But real muscle comes from depth, and the SEC was as deep as an inflatable kiddie pool.
Florida and Tennessee? Talented but flawed.
Georgia and Kentucky? Super inconsistent.
South Carolina and Vanderbilt? Happy to reach six wins.
Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M? Drowned in Alabama’s wake.
Arkansas and Mississippi State? Just thankful they weren’t Ole Miss and Missouri.
Ole Miss and Missouri? Again, no funny business with that dunce cap.
Times change. This isn’t five years ago, when the BCS Championship Game featuring LSU and Alabama became an SEC smoochfest. Competitors caught up, thanks to rises by Clemson, Ohio State, Michigan and others. The conference must avoid complacency to prevent a further slide down the mountain.
After all, living off the past is a great way to lose relevance in the present. Just ask the Texas Conference, er, Big 12.
SEC, with encouragement
If you squint hard enough, there are reasons to be optimistic in an SEC revival. Georgia could be on the rise with a skilled young quarterback in Jacob Eason. If Florida can figure out its offensive puzzle, the Gators defense shows it can chomp foes.
Auburn’s outlook for next season is promising, even after offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee took his talents to the opposite of South Beach, a charming little place called Storrs, Conn. Perhaps Texas A&M somehow, finally, will figure out that the season extends beyond October.
The offseason mission for everyone in the SEC should be clear: Improvement can’t happen fast enough. Greater depth is the only way for the SEC to scratch its way back to college football’s summit.
Motivation should be obvious. Bragging rights are like blow torches: They’re great if you own them and they’re pointed at someone else. But if you’re on the receiving end of those bad boys, the heat is on.
The SEC has work to do to keep from being burned again.