Does the SEC Kind of, Suck?
The reign of dominance from the SEC might be over.
Since Florida won it all in 2006, the SEC has housed 13 of the 17 national champions, including each of the sport’s last four. Alabama has been a constant in that time, with LSU, Florida, Auburn, and Georgia each enjoying their sporadic times in the sun over the last two decades. This elite play at the top – plus some generally good play in the middle – has elevated the SEC into the premier football conference in the nation, at least in perception and attention.
The perception and attention don’t appear any different in 2023. Three weeks into the season, there are four teams ranked in the AP Poll with a loss to their name: all four of them play in the SEC. In all, six of the league’s teams are included in the rankings.
Fans of college football over the last 20 years have grown accustomed to these sorts of things. Some bemoan the bias the SEC receives, insisting its status is overblown. Others have accepted their rightful SEC overloads. Right or wrong, the reality is that the conference’s teams have been given more leeway than most for a long time.
As Arkansas let slip of a 10-point home advantage to BYU on Saturday, it marked the seventh loss the SEC has experienced at the hands of another power conference in the 2023 campaign. It was the final nail securing a losing record for the league against power-five opponents this fall.
This marks the first time the SEC has lost more than it’s won in such contests in the earliest weeks of the season since 2017. The league was 7-4 versus other power-five outfits in 2022, including marquee wins like Florida over Utah, Georgia eviscerating Oregon, Texas A&M outlasting Miami, and Alabama outdoing Texas. In 2023, results of those rematches flipped, with the exception of Georgia, which is yet to meet a power team in the non-conference this season.
Early evidence indicates this is not a normal SEC.
Quarterback play across the league is down. Last year’s stable of quarterbacks included Anthony Richardson, Will Levis, Bryce Young, Hendon Hooker, and Stetson Bennett. Each were drafted in the first four rounds of April’s NFL Draft. The current crop has potential, with Jayden Daniels, Jaxson Dart, Brady Cook, and others off to positive starts. But when you compare the SEC passers in 2022 to 2023, it’s not hard to tell the difference.
That’s not the only area of the field that’s taken a step back. Some SEC secondaries have been torched by opposing quarterbacks to start the year, and no matter how good or bad your quarterback plays, he’s not the one responsible for stopping the other guy.
The steadiest hand not only in the SEC but the entire country, Alabama, looks its most vulnerable in 15 years. Its defeat to Texas was its biggest at Bryant-Denny Stadium under Nick Saban and ended a 21-game positive run in Tuscaloosa that stretched back to 2019. LSU illustrated its vincibility when Florida State ran it over in the second half. Tennessee seems to have taken a step back. Florida, Texas A&M, and Arkansas have all shown signs of falling short of expectations.
It’s not all bad. Missouri, Auburn, and Mississippi State each delivered key victories in the non-conference for the league, especially Mizzou’s upset of a ranked Kansas State last past weekend. Even if Florida and Tennessee aren’t at their peak potential as programs in 2023, they’re not bad teams. Kentucky is 3-0, and so is Ole Miss, who brought the conference a huge triumph over Tulane that is unattributed as a power-five win in name only. And lest we forget, Georgia retains occupancy of the throne.
The jury remains out on if these Dawgs are good enough to reach the same heights as the back-to-back national title teams before them. Even if they are and Georgia becomes the second-ever (or third-ever, depending on who you ask) program to complete the three-peat, it wouldn’t make the SEC any deeper.
All of this is okay. It’s good, actually. Not because it’s bad for the sport for the SEC to dominate, but it’s bad for the sport for any one league to dominate. A healthy sport is cyclical, with teams and conferences rotating reasonably from title contention to needing correction. The SEC can be the best most years, but college football is better when it isn’t the best every year.
From the conference’s perspective, there should be no concern that this is any more than an aberration. Beginning next season, two of the most storied programs in the sport will lift the league to 16 members, and its mega-deal with ESPN worth $3 billion over 10 years takes effect. With the direction college football is clearly heading, the SEC need not fret over its standing in the grand scheme. And if you think the South will stop pumping unspeakable amounts of money into its college football anytime soon, then you must hear about this new amazing timeshare opportunity in Toledo!
No conference appears as menacing as the Pac-12 right now, a fitting final hurrah for a historic league that will never be the same, if still operating, after this season. The ACC has had some marquee matchups go its way this September, primarily at the SEC’s expense. The Big Ten has had its highs and lows. The Big 12, well, at least Texas and Oklahoma are technically still theirs. On the whole, this has been one of the more wide-open introductions to a campaign than college football has had in some time.
So, the SEC kinda sucks right now, but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. It’ll be back to business as usual soon. The SEC champion will be in the playoff, and a second representative from the league is always possible if the losses elsewhere fall right – perception trumps reality in this sport.
That’s why nothing trumps the games themselves, which don’t care about rankings, playoff projections, or brand size. Even if this SEC kinda sucks, the path to unearthing its 2023 champion won’t.
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