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In Defense of Cheering for the SEC. Or Any College Football Conference

In the wake of the SEC's wipeout in the big-money bowl games, here's the case for backing your fellow league members when they play non-conference teams

Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

The SEC is not the first conference to go through a rough patch against other Power 5 teams this year. In fact, that honor belonged to the Big Ten. It might be hard to remember, but back in Week 2 of the 2014 season, eventual conference champion Ohio State lost by two touchdowns to Virginia Tech -- and many, many other terrible results made the Up North Conference the laughingstock of the nation.

That didn't bother everyone. "I'm Glad the Big Ten is Terrible," proclaimed Bart Torvick at our sister site, Bucky's 5th Quarter. (And here is where, since B5Q is an SB Nation site, I insert the note that I generally don't debate people whose arguments I don't respect. If I don't respect the arguments being made, I try to eviscerate them.)

It was probably not a reaction foreign to some SEC fans after Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State wiped out in the New Year's Six bowls, part of a stunning five-game skid by the once-feared SEC West. "Cry me a river," many non-Tide fans probably thought as Alabama's dream season was smashed by Ohio State.

I happen to disagree. And I'd be largely fine if some fans -- not really Torvick, but others -- weren't so haughty about it. "I don't root for a conference," they sometimes say, with the unspoken addendum: "that's dumb / uncivilized / so yesterday."

Just to be utterly clear here: There is nothing wrong with rooting for or against whomever you want to root for or against in any sporting event. One of the things that Torvick and I agree on is that there's nothing rational about cheering for anything in sports. The 11 players who take the field for your school really have nothing to do with you unless you personally know them, and it's the very rare human resources employee who's going to forward your name up the corporate ladder because you're a fan of a good team. For so-called "t-shirt fans" -- whom I will defend until my dying day -- there's even less of a rational basis for pulling for a particular team.

And I don't by any means intend to imply that you are duty-bound to cheer for a hated rival in the SEC. I sometimes have a hard time rooting for Georgia in a big non-conference game -- unless the Dawgs are playing Clemson, in which case the decision is about as easy as it can be. And, obviously, all bets are off when it comes to conference games, which can affect standings and bowl seedings.

But there are pragmatic and sympathetic (if you'll excuse the term) reasons to root for fellow members of your conference when they play teams from other leagues. And a response to Torvick's post, as the SEC goes through what the B1G went through then, actually helps illustrate what I'm talking about.

Pragmatism, Part I

Not cheering for fellow conference members is actually the smarter pragmatic play, Torvick argues.

You know who benefits the most from a Michigan win? Michigan. The same goes for all of the Badgers' conference enemies. I mean, it's not even close. Every Michigan win is 10,000 times more pragmatically valuable to Michigan than it is to Wisconsin. And let's consider the cost-benefit of a loss. Michigan's embarrassing loss to Notre Dame is 10,000 times more harmful to that program than whatever conceivable benefit could have flowed to the Badgers from an upset win.

I've heard some Auburn fans use a variation of this argument, though it's not necessarily applicable any more with a playoff. They point to Auburn's undefeated season in 2004 and how the Tigers were locked out of the BCS National Championship Game despite the supposed strength of the SEC.

That ignores a huge distinction: The SEC was not perceived the same way in 2004 as it was in later years. It's hard to remember this, but the national championship streak began with a 2006 Florida team that was an underdog in the betting lines and a heavy underdog among the punditry -- to the point that the closest anyone came to hedging their bets was saying that Florida might keep the game close.

In fact, when LSU went to the national championship game the following season, it was the first time in four trips that the SEC team was favored in the title game. The perception of the SEC in 2004 was not what it is now. If Auburn, Oklahoma and Southern Cal all went undefeated near the end of the streak -- say in 2011 or 2012 -- does anyone truly think that Auburn would have been the team left out? In 2011, the pollsters found the other contenders so weak that they picked another team from the SEC to fill the second spot.

But the playoff removes the incentive to root for fellow conference teams, right? Not necessarily. Even if you set aside what would have been BCS busters under the old scenario and even if you assume that only conference champions are going to be selected -- and both of those assumptions are far from certainties -- there are five power conferences and four playoff spots. Someone is going to get left out. And if you're talking about the differences between various one-loss or two-loss teams, conference strength is going to play a direct or indirect role in that.

Over the last five years, there's been an average of 5.4 teams from the Power 5 conferences who had one loss or zero before the postseason began. There were six in 2010, four in 2011, five in 2012, and six each in 2013 and 2014. Obviously, there were some conferences in some of those years (and even in a four-team year like 2011) that had more than one of those teams and some who had none of them.

If a two-loss champion from a weaker conference is up against a one-loss non-champion from a stronger conference, is the selection committee really going to overlook that? We're still getting a feel for what the selection committee would do, and we haven't faced that precise situation -- but it would sort of blow up their strength of schedule argument to turn around and take the conference champion from the weaker conference just because they have a trophy. (I hear you, Baylor and TCU fans -- but it's not exactly the same when Ohio State also had a loss.)

And even if "[e]very Michigan win is 10,000 times more pragmatically valuable to Michigan than it is to Wisconsin," that doesn't mean that a Michigan win is worthless to Wisconsin. Let's say someone offers you $1,000, but they'll only do it if they can give someone else $10 million. Are you going to turn down the $1,000 because someone else is getting a lot more out of it?

Pragmatism, Part II

There's also one other argument that Torvik makes.

Wisconsin is actually competing against Ohio State and Michigan State and Michigan for recruits and conference supremacy. In an ideal world, the Big Ten is 13 (or 15 or 23) squads like Purdue and then the mighty University of Wisconsin Badgers, getting first-crack at all the big-time talent in the 27-state conference footprint.

First off, unless those are states that severely lack talent, the idea that having first crack at all of them would only go so far. You can only give out 25 football scholarships a year, so opponents are going to get some of that talent.

But setting that aside, this is what I like to call the mercantilism argument. It's something of a crude comparison, but it works. One of mercantilism's beliefs was that what benefits one country in trade harms another (I'm being very general here), because there was a finite amount of money in an era when gold and silver were basically the currency, so countries should try to accumulate the most gold and silver.

It's largely (though not universally) seen as a failure now, for a variety of reasons. But the zero-sum way of looking at things -- anything that helps my team hurts another team in my conference, and vice versa -- that Torvik lays out is similar. And ironically, it's wrong in part because there is a finite supply of recruits. Four-stars don't grow on trees.

Look at the case of Texas A&M. It's hard to tell how much of A&M's recent recruiting success is due solely to Kevin Sumlin and the success he's had there and how much is due to the program's membership in the SEC -- but it seems safe to say that both play some part of that success. The highest-profile recruits tend to be competitive young men, and they want to be able to face off with the best teams and beat those teams. How much do you think it helped Sumlin's recruiting pitch in late 2012 and early 2013 to be able to tell recruits, "I beat Alabama"?

Would Sumlin have preferred for A&M to win the national championship that year? Sure. But it was far better for Alabama to win it, and Sumlin to be able to boast about beating the champion, than for Notre Dame to win it. Do you even brag to recruits about beating the runner-up?

Indeed, I would argue that because of the large number of recruits and teams in the country, the only way the mercantilism argument works is that what helps another conference -- any conference other than the SEC, in our case -- hurts your team.

Recruits are, after all, 17- and 18-year-old men who are supremely confident in their own athletic ability. They want to prove themselves at the highest level. So if the highest level of competition is the SEC, many of them will want to go to the SEC. And if a few dozen of them want to go to the SEC for that reason each year, that can benefit several teams at the same time. But if the B1G or the Big 12 is the best conference, some of them might start looking in other places.

Put more simply, the pragmatic argument goes something like this: The better your opponents are, the better your team looks. In my perfect world, South Carolina doesn't rule with an iron fist over a kingdom of horrible football teams. It does beat everyone on its schedule by 50 points -- and then everyone else in the SEC beats every out-of-conference Power 5 team by 50 points. (And Clemson loses by 50 points to everyone, but that's Clemson.) It's better for your resume to beat a good team by 50 points than a bad team. And it's more impressive to recruits.

I've encountered some push-back on Twitter lately that goes something like this: It's good for my team if my conference is strong, but that doesn't mean I have to cheer for it. But that strikes me as a bit like wanting a thing but pretending not to want it. If it's good for my team, I'm going to cheer for it. The colors on the jersey of what is good for my team don't matter to me.


But even aside from the pragmatic reasons to cheer for your conference, there's also what I call the sympathy argument. Let's go back to the $10 million example for a moment. Suppose you can't get the $10 million, but you can help decide who will receive it. Would you rather give it to your sibling, with whom you have a bit of a sibling rivalry, or the guy across town that you only vaguely know and don't really like?

The sympathy argument is stronger, I think, for the SEC than for other conferences. With the exceptions of Missouri and Kentucky (thanks, Lincoln), the states in the footprint of the SEC once declared themselves part of a separate country. That is a unique event in the history of the United States, and the fallout from that -- whether you think the Confederacy was a noble experiment or a deeply flawed and tainted idea -- created one of the most distinct regions in the nation.

And SEC football has also, in a way, contributed to the ongoing healing process that has followed the Civil War. It is the one thing that Southerners can point to, together, and take pride in. It is not a coincidence that the golden age of SEC football occurred after integration, as the region stopped playing football with one demographic hand tied behind its back. Players and coaches of all races have helped build the SEC empire. Yeah, as someone with roots that run through decades of Southern soil, I'll cheer for that.

* * *

Again, none of this is to say that you have to cheer for other SEC teams, or that you're a bad fan or a bad person if you don't. There are plenty of reasons for not doing so.

What I have a problem with is the idea floating around that those who do cheer for the SEC are somehow uninformed masses whipped into a frenzy by Birmingham spinmeisters or Southern media personalities. Or that they are living vicariously through teams that are better than theirs. (Bonus note: During the streak and the year that's followed, virtually every team in the conference has either matched or exceeded the best seasons in program history; I'm certain there's a meaningful correlation there, though not necessarily a causation.)

Instead, it's a perfectly rational thought process that happens to be different than the thoughts of some of the self-proclaimed intelligentsia. And different is not necessarily wrong. It's been a rough couple of years -- but different has worked out pretty well for the SEC for nearly a decade now.