When Alabama, Florida, LSU and Auburn combined to win the BCS championship every year from 2006-2012, there were two familiar kind of refrains from the rest of the country (who, admittedly, typically supported sides that were losers to the SEC in all of those championship games). The first thing you would hear would be along the lines that the best in the SEC could just about play with the worst in the NFL. That statement, obviously false in every way, was typically all but followed by a long "PAWWWWL".
But the other thing (originated from those on the short end of the stick) that you might have heard was that you should relax because conference power is almost always "cyclical". Eventually the rest of the country, and the rest of college football, would come around and beat the Soviet-Hockey-Level-Power that was the SEC from 2006-2012. Florida State struck the first blow in the final year of the BCS, beating Auburn for the 2013 championship. And we all know what Ohio State did last year, beating Alabama en route to its own Championship, this one of the College Football Playoff garden variety.
The SEC hasn't played for a national championship since Jan. 6, 2014, and it hasn't won a championship since Jan. 7, 2013. The most recent College Football Playoff rankings are rubbish at this point, but projections before tonight's current rankings are revealed have the Top 10 breaking down as such:
- ACC: 3 teams (No. 1 Clemson, No. 8 North Carolina, No. 10 Florida State)
- Big Ten: 3 teams (No. 4 Iowa, No. 5 Michigan State, No. 6 Ohio State)
- Pac-12: 1 team (No. 7 Stanford)
- Big XII: 1 Team (No. 3 Oklahoma)
- Independent: 1 Team (No. 9 Notre Dame)
- SEC: (No. 2 Alabama)
No, there aren't any typos in that list. No longer are we subject to pundits, be they the most under-bridge-dwelling-duck-head-shirt-wearing tolls or not, letting us know how bad every other conference is by slotting four teams from the same division in the playoff. (Love you, Skip.)
The SEC teams from 2006-2012 couldn't beat a a pro team, and probably couldn't stay within three or four scores of one. That was a false narrative that rational fans knew to steer clear of. But the desperate fan latched onto the second statement about cyclical power like it was a fumble in a conference championship game. Buckeye fans in particular loved this narrative because it sang a song of hope in a time of despair.
And if you think that's a bit of a maudlin way of thinking about college football, you're not remembering things from 2012 too clearly. One of the most recent Games of the Century was that regular season's battle between LSU and Alabama, which ended in a 9-6 OT win for the Bayou Bengals. 9-6! A score that required an extra period of play to get to 15 total points. A game in which former CBS flag-waving Tim Brando forced the opinion on viewers that it was an exciting game, even if we all knew the difference.
The good thing about the current model for how a national champion is crowned in college football is that the final result is the product of three games played on the field, and not on computers to see who is most deserving of the title of "best". And, in fairness, you can probably find 50 different metrics ranking college football teams and conferences on 50 different sites. Here's two, for example:
- Ohio State
- Florida State
- Ole Miss
- Notre Dame
- Western Kentucky.
This is only team rankings; let's look at RealTimeRPI to see just how powerful the conferences actually are, by their own metrics:
- Big Ten
- Big XII
- Mountain West
- Sun Belt
Conference power has been and always will be prone to variance because of course it will be. This is how college football has been since the dawn of time. Before the SEC's heyday, it was Texas (2005) and USC (2003, 04). Before that, it was Ohio State (2002) and The U (2001), Oklahoma (2000) and Florida State (1999). Michigan (1997) won an AP championship, for those who can remember the late 90s clearly. Nebraska (1994, 1995) ran the show for a few years. The U (1987, 89, 91) was the college football school of the late 80s. And if you keep going back, you get titles from Oklahoma (1974, 75), Nebraska (1970, 71), The Buckeyes (1968) and, of course, mighty Bear Bryant and Alabama (1961, 64, and 65).
The power has always flowed from one area of the country to another and back again, and it probably always will, but the SEC's reign was just a little longer than most, and occurred in a time when a 24-hour news cycle extended to college sports. There wasn't a Skip Bayless, or Paul Finebaum or Tim Brando or Clay Travis with an inhuman amount of constant reach then like there is today. And it's important to know that the SEC's reign at the top wasn't mythical or undeserved: it almost certainly was earned on the field in a grueling slog to a championship game in Atlanta, and a BCS Championship Game after that. And the SEC teams kept winning. It took an almost universally disliked (outside of Tallahassee and #FSUTwitter) team like Florida State to finally take Ric Flair's words of wisdom to heart. But after that happened, the rest of the dominoes continued to fall.
Earlier this week, in a tweet that was, shockingly, deleted after the fact, Ohio State's Michael Thomas did a little fact-checking on a team ranked ahead of his Buckeyes. Thomas isn't 100% correct in his assertion, but in a lot of ways was correct about the direction in which college football is currently trending. The benefit of the doubt that used to extend to so many teams, most of them in the SEC, is all but gone, and the people making the selections about who is the best are looking more toward what happens on the field, not what happened in the past. This is how it should be.
The state of college football is better now that there are more than a handful of teams (and more than one conference) playing at such a high level. Here's hoping this current era of college football lasts longer than a few years.