How Often Do the Best Teams Meet in the SEC Championship Game?

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 3: Bennie Logan #93 of the LSU Tigers celebrates after the SEC Championship Game against the Georgia Bulldogs at the Georgia Dome on December 3, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Our friends at Tomahawk Nation did a fascinating piece today about whether the best team has won the ACC since the league began holding a conference championship game in 2005. The conclusion is that no, quite often the best teams in the league not only don't win the thing, but they don't always even make the conference title game.

I decided to run the same kind of analysis on the SEC, though with more of a focus on who goes to Atlanta rather than who wins there. The SEC Championship Game has not been favorable to underdogs, as upsets happen there only rarely. Given the streak of six national titles in a row, it's hard to argue that the wrong SEC team has been winning in Atlanta lately.

For judging which are the best teams, I will use the Football Outsiders F/+ metric just as TN did. The time span will begin in 2005 as that's as far back as the F/+ metric goes at present.

SEC 2005
Team Rating Natl Rank
LSU (loser) 21.7% 7
Alabama 20.7% 8
Auburn 19.6% 9
Georgia (winner) 19.3% 11

The 2005 game was one of the few that actually did have an upset. It didn't end up mattering in the national title picture though as LSU would still have had a loss if it won the game. The correct two teams did play in Atlanta, though, as LSU and Georgia were the best two teams in the two divisions.

SEC 2006
Team Rating Natl Rank
Florida (winner) 29.1% 1
LSU 27.9% 2
Arkansas (loser) 18.6% 12

Here, we see that the best two teams in each division did not play in the title game, as LSU rated well above Arkansas. This was a situation where division rotation bit the Tigers, as LSU played (and lost to) the eventual national champs in the regular season whereas Arkansas did not.

SEC 2007
Team Rating Natl Rank
LSU (winner) 24.1% 3
Florida 23.9% 4
Georgia 16.7% 10
Auburn 14.3% 15
Tennessee (loser) 12.8% 19

I'm not 100% sure why the numbers like Florida so much, but it's no secret that '07 Tennessee was one of the weaker teams to make it to Atlanta in recent years. "Weaker" is a relative term, of course, as it still rated in the top 20 in the country. Divisional rotation played a role here too, as UT missed both LSU and Auburn out of the West, while UGA played AU and Florida played them both. Had Georgia not faceplanted 35-17 in Knoxville that year, the East representative would have been a bit more worthy. Then again, that loss arguably was the wake up call that turned those Bulldogs into a great team.

SEC 2008
Team Rating Natl Rank
Florida (winner) 35.4% 1
Alabama (loser) 20.0% 7

Not much to say here. The correct teams made it into the game, and the game had the correct outcome.

SEC 2009
Team Rating Natl Rank
Alabama (winner) 33.9% 1
Florida (loser) 32.8% 2

Not much to say here. The correct teams made it into the game, and the game had the correct outcome. It's worth noting, though, that these were the best two teams in the country that year. Had Texas not been undefeated, we would have had another rematch debate on top of 2006 and 2011.

SEC 2010
Team Rating Natl Rank
Auburn (winner) 29.2% 2
Alabama 29.0% 3
Arkansas 21.2% 10
LSU 18.8% 13
South Carolina (loser) 18.2% 14

This season was the year the bottom fell out of the SEC East. The best team from that division was the representative, but it was the fifth-best team in the conference that year. No wonder this ended up being the worst blowout in the game's history.

SEC 2011
Team Rating Natl Rank
Alabama 35.8% 1
LSU (Winner) 34.1% 2
Arkansas 15.0% 14
Georgia (Loser) 14.9% 15
South Carolina 11.1% 21

The best team didn't represent the West in the title game this time, but if I remember correctly, the season turned out all right for them anyway. But seriously, it's worth noting that LSU was well ahead of Bama heading into the conference title game (and BCS title game too). That shows just how big a swing came from that awful, awful night in January for LSU.

I put South Carolina on there because Steve Spurrier has proposed a change where the division champ is decided by division record only. It's not hard to figure out why, as his Gamecocks would have gone to Atlanta last year if that rule was in place. Georgia was the better team though, so the system as it is worked.


Among the 14 SEC Championship Game participants, only three were not the best team in their division according to the end of the year F/+ ratings. As I just mentioned, one of those was '11 LSU, who was well ahead of Alabama in F/+ before and after the conference title game. The best team in the conference made it to Atlanta every year except for 2011, which was a special case indeed.

The SEC has a reputation for being a league where anyone can beat anyone else. That is true insofar as teams can rise and fall from one year to the next. Within a particular year though, upsets are rare and the end result is usually what you would expect. That combination—the ability of many teams to compete across different years with few upsets inside a given year—is why the SEC's reputation of being the toughest league sticks even in the years when it might not be the No. 1 best league.

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