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College Football Identity Crisis: The SEC West Faces the Stress Test

All seven SEC West teams belong in the Top 25 this preseason. This postseason? It’s totally possible that none will wind up in the top five. It’s the deepest, most cutthroat division in college football — and, suddenly, the one with the biggest chip on its shoulder.

Transience defines college sports, but an unusual amount of soul-searching seems to be taking place this preseason. So as we gear up for the 2015 season and the second installment of the College Football Playoff, we’ll take a closer look at some of the programs working to rediscover their roots, embrace change, and find a sense of self.

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One of the most satisfying aspects of the first year of the College Football Playoff was how quickly and thoroughly the new postseason order disavowed the old one. It was just so easy to imagine how the bottleneck at the top of the polls last winter would have unfolded under the BCS: The championship game would have pitted Alabama, survivor of the dog-eat-dog gantlet that is the SEC West, against Florida State, owner of a precarious 29-game winning streak that had been rescued from the jaws of apparent doom again and again and again. From there, the Crimson Tide would have inevitably gone on to massacre the defending champs in a grisly reprise of their 2012 championship rout over a similarly charmed pretender from Notre Dame, thereby restoring the crown to its rightful home in the SEC after Auburn had ceded it to Florida State and the ACC at the close of the 2013 season; another Bama title would have marked the league’s eighth national championship in nine years, establishing nearly a full decade of blah blah blah.

You know the rest. The playoff not only put our BCS-era assumptions to the test: It laid them to waste. Instead of the coronation that just about everyone had been conditioned to expect, the Tide walked headfirst into a semifinal ambush against Ohio State, an upset that seemed to advertise to the world that the emperor had no clothes. Perhaps he never had: After all, if the scaffolding supporting the narrative of Ess-Ee-See superiority was so fragile that it couldn’t withstand one additional contest against a playoff-caliber opponent, was it ever as sturdy as it appeared?

If anything, the 48 hours preceding Alabama’s flop revealed some of that instability: In its three other New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day bowl games, the SEC, and the mighty West Division in particular, was laid even lower. Ole Miss, which had handed Alabama its only regular-season loss and harbored legitimate playoff aspirations of its own well into November, looked like an overmatched patsy in the Peach Bowl, submitting to a 42-3 evisceration by TCU. Mississippi State, which earlier in the year had completed the most rapid ascent from unranked to no. 1 in AP poll history, was thrashed in the Orange Bowl, 49-34, by Georgia Tech. Auburn, a top-10 team for virtually the entire regular season, yielded 400 yards rushing to Wisconsin in a 34-31 loss in the Outback Bowl, the Tigers’ fourth defeat in their last five contests. Toss in LSU’s loss in the Music City Bowl to a nondescript, banged-up Notre Dame outfit that had limped in on a four-game losing streak, and the top five teams in the SEC West standings — teams that had combined to win 30 of 31 games against non-division opponents in the regular season1 and which at one point occupied four of the top six slots in the playoff selection committee’s weekly Top 25 — combined to go 0-5 in the postseason, including the qualifier for a trip to the national title game.


1.

Auburn lost to Georgia, 34-7, in November.

After spending the better part of a decade toiling in the shadow of their ostensible Southern overlords (or, in many cases, strenuously denying that the shadow actually existed), the rest of the country greeted the SEC’s demise with a spasm of collective schadenfreude that has yet to subside. For the first time in ages, national reporters showed up at the annual summer spectacle of SEC Media Days not to ogle the sport’s resident bully at the height of its swagger, but to chronicle how the bully is reacting to being run off its old corner. Any other year, Nick Saban complaining about NFL draft evaluations for underclassmen arriving just in time to poison Alabama’s “team chemistry” in the Sugar Bowl might have been shrugged off as the latest instance of Saban being a perfectionist autocrat; this year, it was interpreted as a lame excuse proffered by a sore loser. In 2011, Gus Malzahn’s recent suggestion that the SEC champ is at a disadvantage in the playoff after facing the week-in, week-out conference grind — an inversion of the more familiar claim that SEC teams reach the postseason battle-tested — might have passed unnoticed; this year, outsiders could only roll their eyes at the fine whine.

The irony of the backlash, coming as it does against the backdrop of the league’s newfound humility, is that Malzahn’s lament arguably makes more sense today than it would have a few years ago, when the conference was often more top-heavy than its acolytes preferred to acknowledge.2 Now, Malzahn and his West Division rivals are facing a reality in which it’s much harder to identify the kind of obvious national contender the division has boasted in the past, and even more difficult to single out the weak link: In the zero-sum game of the conference standings, all seven teams realistically belong in the Top 25, yet it’s quite possible that none is cut out to finish in the top five. It’s simultaneously the deepest, most cutthroat division in college football, and, suddenly, the one with the biggest chip on its shoulder.

Mississippi State has a Heisman Trophy front-runner in Dak Prescott, but just a 0.4 percent chance of winning the SEC, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

Mississippi State has a Heisman Trophy front-runner in Dak Prescott, but just a 0.4 percent chance of winning the SEC, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)


2.

Take 2008, for example, when four of the six teams in the West finished with losing conference records; or 2011, when kingpins Alabama and LSU won every conference game by double-digit margins except the first of two they played against each other.

The most obvious obstacle in navigating the murky, treacherous waters of the conference wars is that most of the evidence is confined to a series of self-contained loops — independents notwithstanding, all other teams play the vast majority of their games against conference opponents — and the results from outside that loop (e.g. bowl games) are limited by small sample size.3 For those of us (including yours truly) who have always tended to chafe against the presumption of SEC superiority, the notion that a handful of nonconference and/or postseason games could reveal any meaningful difference between one league and the next is frustrating, and the idea that the national champion shares any of the glow with the rest of its tribe is much worse. Every league has its upper crust, its middle class, and its doormats.


3.

For example, what are we supposed to make of the fact that, since the turn of the century, teams that take the field under the banner of the Big East or AAC have posted a winning head-to-head record against opponents from the SEC? What can we glean from the fact that SEC East teams, which finished 4-10 last year in head-to-head games against the West, won all five of their bowl games while their West rivals flailed at 2-5? Probably nothing, aside from the fact the East drew a much more favorable slate of postseason opponents.

Where the SEC has stood out over the years is in the fluidity of that line between the middle and the top: It’s less that it’s produced so many champions, more that it’s produced so many different champions. With the league’s unrivaled recruiting prowess and arms-race spending culture driving up totals for coaches’ salaries and facilities, the number of teams that can plausibly expect to challenge for a title in a given year is much higher than in any other conference. In the BCS/Playoff era (since 1998), five different SEC schools have played for (and won) a national championship,4 easily more than any other conference,5 and no team has managed to repeat as the SEC champ in consecutive seasons. Even in a down year, it’s difficult to mentally classify a perennial challenger like Auburn or Florida as “middle class,” especially if it takes half or more of the season for that pattern of mediocrity to emerge. As long as it’s scoring top-10 recruiting classes on an annual basis and making occasional forays into the top 10 in the actual polls, LSU will always look like LSU, with expectations to match, even when the returns on all of those blue-chip investments don’t quite hit.


4.

Weirdly, that group doesn’t include Georgia, which actually boasts the best overall winning percentage among SEC schools in the same span.

5.

The Big 12 comes next, with three (Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas), followed by the Big East (Miami and Virginia Tech) and Pac-12 (Oregon and USC). Of those schools, though, only Oregon has played for a national crown in the past five years.

But the critical development in 2014, the spark that sent the midseason hype into overdrive, was the early emergence of the West’s perennial doormats, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, even as the usual suspects at the top of the division showed no signs of ceding any ground. Three weeks into the season, LSU and Auburn had already survived scares from ranked nonconference opponents (Wisconsin and Kansas State, respectively), Texas A&M had dispatched a ranked South Carolina outfit with authority, and Alabama had logged convincing wins over West Virginia and Florida. So when the upstart Mississippi schools subsequently went 5-0 against that quartet to open the conference schedule, pollsters and pundits had no choice but to admit them into the upper crust, and very little incentive to expel them after their playoff campaigns began to lose momentum. The Bulldogs (6-2 in conference games) ultimately finished second in the division behind Alabama, with the Rebels (5-3) in third. Meanwhile, although Auburn (4-4) and LSU (4-4) were thrown off course after losing to Mississippi State early, both sets of Tigers also managed to beat Ole Miss down the stretch and hold on to their status as ranked teams heading into the bowl season.

Now, with the simultaneous breakthroughs by MSU and Ole Miss, all seven teams in the West have played in at least one major bowl game in the past five years, and all seven have scored at least one top-15 finish in the same span. Recruiting rankings and resources in the SEC being what they are, none of them have any reason to expect anything less in 2015.

“It’s not, ‘Hey, the SEC West hasn’t won the national championship the last two years.’ That’s not what defines the West,” says Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. “It’s the fact that the gap between first place and last place in the West is razor-thin. You have seven teams in the West that honestly — I know we do — believe they can win the conference, and it’s not just coach-talk when they say that.” Mullen gestured to a nearby TV that happened to be showing a replay of last year’s Alabama-Arkansas tilt in Fayetteville, a game Bama won 14-13 due in part to a blocked PAT. “Arkansas finished in last place last year,” he said. “But they lost to Alabama by one point and lost to us by seven, and we were the teams that finished first and second.”

Mullen may have been significantly underselling the division’s would-be whipping boy. Five of Arkansas’ six losses in 2014 came against teams ranked in the AP Top 10 at kickoff, with the sixth coming against no. 17 Missouri, which went on to finish 14th. The Razorbacks lost five games by a touchdown or less and led four of those games in the second half; when they finally got over the hump, they did so in eye-opening fashion, notching back-to-back shutouts against LSU (17-0) and Ole Miss (30-0) in late November and a near-shutout of Texas (31-7) in the Texas Bowl.

The conventional polls didn’t take much notice of the Razorbacks’ late surge, but advanced statisticians certainly did: Arkansas finished eighth nationally in Jeff Sagarin’s “Predictor” column, ninth in Football Outsiders’ F/+ ratings, 12th in SportsReference.com’s Simple Rating System, and 16th according to Kenneth Massey. That, again, from a team that finished in last place with a 2-6 conference record.

The West team that fared the worst according to advanced stats was Texas A&M (3-5 in conference, 8-5 overall), which hit the skids in October and hit rock bottom in a 59-0 humiliation at Alabama. But even the Aggies recovered in time to stun Auburn in November with a true freshman quarterback, Kyle Allen, making his first SEC start, and eventually joined the rest of the division in the Top 25 according to both Sagarin and Massey after dispatching West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl:

15.8.2-Conference Power Chart

The main reason the SEC West came out so far ahead of the pack in those numbers comes back to the fact it was the only division in 2014 that wasn’t dragged down by a surefire patsy that fattened up the records of every other team — no Colorado or Wake Forest, no Illinois or Purdue, no Kansas or Iowa State, no Vanderbilt or Kentucky. Outside of A&M’s no-show in Tuscaloosa, the average margin of victory in West-on-West matchups was 11.6 points, and 11 of 21 games were decided by a touchdown or less.

“Somebody told me, ‘Here’s the good news, coach: I picked you 20th in the country,’” said A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, referring to preseason polls for 2015. “Then he said, ‘but I picked you sixth in the division.’ I think we all signed up for that.”

That level of top-to-bottom parity has never been the case in the past, even in the years when the SEC West was feted as the deepest, most unforgiving conference in the nation. And therein lies the rub: If Alabama, Auburn, and LSU remain as loaded as Alabama, Auburn, and LSU always expect to be, and Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M are all trending up with improving talent bases in their own right, as nearly everyone assumes they are, how can any of the above be expected to emerge in December with its playoff résumé intact?

Ole Miss looked like a national championship favorite after upsetting Derrick Henry and the Crimson Tide last season, but wound up ending the season on a sour note in a 42-3 Peach Bowl loss to TCU.

Ole Miss looked like a national championship favorite after upsetting Derrick Henry and the Crimson Tide last season, but wound up ending the season on a sour note in a 42-3 Peach Bowl loss to TCU. (Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

The simplest answer is, maybe none of them will. Among other things, ESPN’s Football Power Index projects the likelihood of every FBS team to win its conference in 2015, and although the index is high on the SEC West in general — Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Arkansas all landed in the FPI’s preseason top 10 — it’s decidedly pessimistic about the prospects for any one of them in particular. Consider the chances for the projected front-runners in the other FBS leagues:

Best Odds of Winning FBS Conferences in 2015 (FPI):

  • Mountain West: Boise State (69.1 percent)
  • Big Ten: Ohio State (62.5 percent)
  • Sun Belt: Appalachian State (50.5 percent), Georgia Southern (42.7 percent), or Arkansas State (31.5 percent)
  • Big 12: Baylor (37.4 percent) or TCU (36.9 percent)
  • Pac-12: Oregon (35.6 percent)
  • Conference USA: Marshall (35.3 percent) or Louisiana Tech (29.5 percent)
  • American Athletic: Temple (30.5 percent) or Cincinnati (28.4 percent)
  • ACC: Clemson (26.2 percent)
  • SEC: Georgia (25.5 percent)
  • MAC: Western Michigan (22.7 percent)

There are no 1-in-3 shots in the SEC. Georgia is the de facto “favorite” mainly because, with Florida and South Carolina due for further regression, the Bulldogs have a much more direct path to winning the East, not necessarily because they’re the best bet to win if they actually make it to Atlanta for the conference title game. But you have to keep scrolling a good way farther to get to the most likely contenders to join them there, and the deck is stacked heavily against them all: LSU (14.4 percent), Alabama (12.9), Ole Miss (10.2), and Texas A&M (10.2) all come in below 15 percent, with Arkansas (5.6), Auburn (2.7), and Mississippi State (0.4) faring much worse. And given the red flags each of those teams has to resolve entering the season, it’s hard to argue that any of those numbers should be significantly higher.

Alabama, being Alabama, still boasts unrivaled depth at virtually every position, most notably on the defensive line; it’s also facing a total renovation of its passing game, saddling offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin with an unproven quarterback and a lot of unfamiliar receivers.

Arkansas may have been playing the best football in the conference at the end of last season, and it returns essentially all the core components of its ass-kicking ground game; on the other hand, incumbent quarterback Brandon Allen won’t scare anyone as a passer, and the most productive members of last year’s late-blooming defense were seniors.

Auburn, which has averaged a league-best 36.5 points per game over the past two years, expects no drop-off from its remodeled backfield; the Tigers are, however, banking on massive improvement from a remodeled defense after last year’s unit gave up at least 31 points in each of its last seven games.6


6.

Excluding a mid-November scrimmage against an FCS team, Samford, which scored just seven.

LSU has its usual allotment of blue-chip talent across the board, including arguably the most feared offensive player in the country, tailback Leonard Fournette; the Tigers are also in desperate need of more consistency behind center after a dismal 2014 showing from their young quarterbacks, and the departure of longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis for Texas A&M lends uncertainty to that side of the ball, as well.

Ole Miss is set to reap the fruits of its blockbuster 2013 recruiting class, the headliners of which are likely in their last go-round on campus before moving on to the NFL; but the Rebels also have no good idea what to expect from their new quarterback (whoever he turns out to be), and not much in the way of a reliable running game to fall back on.

Mississippi State has the conference’s only proven signal-caller in senior Dak Prescott, a first-team All-SEC pick in 2014; as always, though, the Bulldogs also have to bridge the widest talent gap across the board, and have tons of seniors to replace on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

Texas A&M, after a couple of highly touted, offensively oriented recruiting classes, might be able to deploy the most enviable collection of up-and-coming skill talent in the conference, if not the nation; but will Chavis’s defense give the Aggies a chance if the offense fails to average 40 points per game?

Faced with that litany of question marks, it’s hard to imagine anyone out of range of Paul Finebaum’s voice casting the eventual SEC West champ as the de facto national front-runner simply by virtue of survival; Ohio State has that title sewn up until further notice anyway, and last year’s playoff snubs, TCU and Baylor, are next in line as they barrel toward a November 27 clash that will presumably decide the Big 12. No, the more pressing question is whether survival is even realistic. “I do think our grind is a little tougher [than in other conferences],” says Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who saw his team’s 7-0 start unravel last November amid a mounting spate of injuries. “It’s just physically demanding. I don’t see anybody being able to get through it without a loss.” 

One loss, fine — unless the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and ACC all somehow produce undefeated champions in the same year, a one-loss SEC champ remains the safest playoff bet on the board. Six of the league’s nine national champions in the BCS era overcame at least one loss on the way, and Auburn and Alabama had a chance to add to that number the past two years. Two losses, though? Only LSU has pulled that off, in the bizarro season of 2007, and last year’s logjam of one-loss contenders only reinforced suspicions that any two-loss team, regardless of conference, is at the whim of circumstances beyond its control. This time last year, even broaching the possibility that the SEC’s best bets might wind up mutually fratriciding themselves out of the final four would have fallen somewhere between trolling and sacrilege. This year, the only place that still seems true is among the conference stakeholders themselves. 

“I think America knows, year-in, year-out, that we are the toughest league,” says LSU coach Les Miles. “It’s more likely in the right year that the SEC could get two in. I can’t imagine that a collective thought process will eliminate the SEC champion.”

Until now, it would have been hard to argue. And until it actually happens, the odds of the SEC being shut out of the final four altogether remain farfetched. But after the way last year ended, suddenly it’s not that difficult to imagine.