Something remarkable happened this past weekend. If you told someone from about seven years ago or more that it would happen, they'd never believe you.
Reigning national champion, undefeated, and preseason No. 1 Florida State, now No. 2 in the polls, played a primetime game with a monster rating against undefeated and No. 5 Notre Dame. FSU won the game, but it still was not enough to pass up the No. 1 team, which was unranked to begin the year, doesn't have as many quality wins as FSU does, and didn't even play on Saturday. The Seminoles barely gained any ground in the AP this week versus last week, and they actually lost ground in the Coaches' Poll.
To top it all off, the team with the stranglehold on the No. 1 spot is Mississippi State. Mississippi freakin' State. Florida State—one of the bluest of blue bloods with a national title from just last year—beats top-five Notre Dame—the bluest blood out there—and can't make any real progress on passing up the guys from Starkville.
That, my friends, is why all of those S-E-C chants have been worth it.
While it's true that MSU beat its top-ten foe Auburn by more than FSU beat Notre Dame by, the win over No. 20/21 Clemson that the Seminoles have is better than any of the Bulldogs' other victories. Texas A&M? Lost three straight including a 59-0 drubbing at the hands of Alabama. LSU? The Wisconsin win is of questionable value now, especially since the Tigers needed Melvin Gordon out of the game to make any headway. Beyond that, they weren't competitive with Auburn and needed late game heroics to beat a dead coach walking. By the conventional reckoning that has guided the polls for as long as I can remember, it makes no sense that Florida State should be comfortably behind Mississippi State right now.
The reason the Bulldogs still hold firm is because the conventional reckoning has changed. For as big of brands that FSU and Notre Dame and any other single program out there might have, the brand of the SEC trumps them all.
Plenty of folks both outside and within the conference have rolled their eyes at all the basking in reflected glory that goes on. Why should Vanderbilt cheer when Florida wins two national titles in three years? Why should Ole Miss pull for Alabama or Auburn in the national title game? Because there was a promise that even for the conference's underclass, when the wheel of fate turns and actually puts your team up at the top for once, you'll get to take advantage of it too.
It's all been largely theoretical, of course, as the teams near the top lately have all been traditional powers: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, etc. The promise was there though. Keep pumping the party line, ye have-nots, and the SEC's benefit of the doubt—which helped Florida pass Michigan in 2006, which helped a little with LSU jumping from No. 7 to No. 2 in 2007, which insulated Florida from USC and Texas in 2008, which gave us an Alabama-LSU rematch in 2011, which helped prevent any discussion about Alabama and Oregon in 2012—would work in your favor too.
Now we know that promise is true. If Mississippi State—a program that had never topped the polls before this year, has one conference championship to its name, and has had two consensus All-Americans ever—can easily hold off No. 2 Florida State after it just beat No. 5 Notre Dame without even playing, then the mission is accomplished. The SEC's reputation is the most powerful thing in the game now. I can't think of any clearer proof than this.
You can always argue that polls don't matter thanks to the playoff, and that is true. However, look at this rogue's gallery. Do you see anyone who isn't likely to follow the sport's conventional wisdom? Any innovative thought leaders who will break with traditional insights about the game? Especially when the data they'll be getting is largely useless? Please. There will be few, if any, differences between the selection committee's rankings and the traditional polls. The order of teams within the top four does matter, too. For Mississippi State, it's the difference between playing the No. 4 team a short jaunt away in the Sugar Bowl and playing the No. 3 team in California. It's huge, especially considering the most likely No. 3 team right now is the West Coast's own Oregon.
If the SEC posturing bothers you, well, I can't really say anything to dissuade you. It gets on my nerves sometimes too. I can now say unequivocally that it serves a real purpose, though, so don't expect it to end any time soon.