In case you haven't seen this yet: Mississippi State-Kentucky is the SEC game of the week this Saturday on CBS. That's the first time that's happened since CBS began televising SEC games in 1996. When the No. 1 team and a divisional leader goes on the road against a tricky opponent, and there's only one Top 25 match-up on the weekend, it's as good a time as ever for a first.
@TeamSpeedKills I wouldn't get used to it. I don't think this will be the norm.— zach ragan (@ZachAFT) October 20, 2014
But I wonder if, in some sense, this is the new normal. Not in the sense that Mississippi State and Kentucky will become an annual staple of CBS's college football schedule (there are some other reasons for that), but in the sense that the SEC is going to become an even more fiercely competitive league -- one in which teams like Mississippi State can compete for divisional titles on a more regular basis, and one in which division races look radically different from year to year. Call it parity if you're an SEC fan or mediocrity if you dislike the conference, but the old days when three or four teams dominated the SEC seems to be crumbling.
That would not be an entirely new development, but could be called a recent one. In four of the first five years of the SEC Championship Game, the match-up was Alabama vs. Florida. In the other, it was Florida vs. Arkansas. Either the Gators or the Volunteers represented the SEC East in the game for the first ten seasons of its existence, and the two were in 15 of the first 18 title games. The West had a bit more parity, but Alabama, Auburn and LSU still represented the division in 11 of the first 14 SEC Championship Games, and it was Alabama or Auburn in seven of the first nine.
In all, Florida appeared in seven of the first 11 title games; Alabama appeared in five. In the last 11 SEC Championship Games -- we've had 22, so 11 is half -- no team has appeared more than four times. Only four times in the first 11 years was the match-up in the SEC Championship Game completely different from the previous year's (i.e., the SEC East and the SEC West winners were both different); that's happened eight times in the last 11 years.
Even more astoundingly: If you look at the first nine SEC Championship Games, both division winners were new just 22.2 percent of the time. If you look at the last 13, it's 69.2 percent of the time. Something has changed.
Part of this -- something we always seem to come back to in the SEC -- is recruiting. Recruiting services have only produced team rankings since 2002, but even then, we can see a change. According to Rivals, the bottom half of the SEC averaged a team ranking of 46.2 in 2002; in 2014, that number had jumped to 28.7. The difference between the average top-half team of the SEC in the recruiting rankings and the average bottom-half team fell from 37.2 places to 23.3 places.
The differences are less pronounced in the Scout rankings, but still there: the bottom six teams in the SEC in 2002 averaged a ranking of 39.3, while the bottom seven in 2014 (remember, expansion) averaged 31.0. The difference fell slightly, from 26.8 places to to 24.9.
That's not the most sophisticated measurement in the world, perhaps, but it does seem to indicate that the talent gap between the top schools and the bottom schools in the SEC is narrowing. Recruiting isn't the only thing that determines whether a team wins or loses in college football, but it's one of the fundamental building blocks of a quality program.
There are other factors at play, too. What were once smaller or less successful schools have stepped up to hire head coaches who are either established names or coordinators or midmajor coaches who have proven to be solid: Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, Dan Mullen at Mississippi State, and even Mark Stoops at Kentucky (by early returns) seem to fall into that category. Many of the spectacular misfires (Derek Dooley at Tennessee, Will Muschamp at Florida, Gene Chizik for the most part at Auburn) have been at the conference's more traditional power schools.
It doesn't take much to change how many wins a division champion might have and really scramble the picture. Let's use a fictitious team's odds of going undefeated under the following scenarios based on the odds of winning each game. Note how small changes in the odds on a few of the games can alter things.
|% Chance of win|
Suddenly,with a few teams getting just a little bit better, even a team that's no worse than 50-50 odds to win each of its games sees a pretty dramatic drop in its chance to go undefeated. (And if you want to know at why it's so hard to go undefeated in college football, there's your answer.) Lower the number conference wins need to win the division by one or two, and you make it easier for other teams to get into the mix.
That's what's happening now. It's why there hasn't been a repeat SEC champion since 1997-98, and there's at least a decent chance -- I said a decent chance, Auburn fans -- that the streak will remain intact.
It's getting harder for the traditional powers to win the SEC, at least with the regularity that they once did. It's getting easier for the less traditional powers to pick off a division title here or there. This Saturday's Mississippi State-Kentucky game grabbing the coveted time slot isn't really the beginning of that trend; it's just one of the more obvious symptoms of it. And it's almost certain to not be the last time CBS picks up a game it would have never aired a decade ago.