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Talking Points: Is the SEC down, and if so, why?

A few of TSK’s staffers got together to discuss the state of the conference.

Auburn v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Welcome to a special edition of Talking Points. With the regular season over and bowl season approaching for the Southeastern Conference, a few of us got together to discuss the state of the SEC and whether it’s down as far as quality.

Contributors to the roundtable include myself, Will Marshall, Robert O’Neill, Tom Stephenson, Cam Newton and Bryan Manning.

Chris Novak: Everything is cyclical, especially in college football. Most schools, with the exception of some, go through their fair share of ups and downs over the years and in this case, that appears to be what’s happened here. It’s hard to be as dominant as the conference was for nearly a full decade and damn near the entire conference reached a high-level bowl game during this era of dominance.

Good coaching elsewhere (like the Big Ten and ACC elsewhere) has stunted the conference for now and it hasn’t helped that the SEC East has been down like it has been.

Now given the scope, only Florida and Georgia should be pacing things along but even they haven’t played up to par. Especially the Gators, who’ve been suffering in the recruiting game for their standards.

Georgia has been recruiting outstandingly and has the #3 class in the country in 2017, but as we saw from 2016, Kirby Smart is still relatively unknown in the head coaching world.

Tennessee’s struggles are well known, and it’s uncertain how, exactly, those can be fixed.

So a mix of circumstance and the competition around them, I think, are the main reasons the SEC is in the state that they are.

Wamarsh: The perception the SEC is down isn’t supported by the “advanced” stats, but rather, it seems by the infallible eye test. I think there are two big factors at play that lead to the conclusion.

First, the SEC was so dominant from roughly 2006-2014 that any drop in conference rankings was going to appear like a bigger step back than it really was. Meanwhile, great hires followed by great recruiting immediately improved programs within the ACC and Big 10. The SEC wasn’t going to win the arms race forever, and the gap has inevitably closed.

Second, I’ve written for the last two years that the bottom tier SEC schools were poised to begin taking a bigger bite of the SEC win total pie at the expense of the mid-tier teams. When bottom tier schools start beating mid-tier schools there’s a natural inclination to think it’s the mid-tiers that have dropped a few notches rather than a rising tide lifting teams traditionally at the bottom of the East and West. It’s an odd perception but it is a common one.

A significant contributor to bottom tier turnarounds are solid coaching hires, better recruiting, and improved facilities. All of those variables feed off one another to some extent, but the underlying factor has been the windfall of money whether that comes from the SEC Network or other merchandising and media deals. The war chests have gotten bigger across the board which aids the schools like Kentucky to spend more money on state-of-the-art facilities, higher assistant coaching salaries, and bigger recruiting budgets.

There are fewer cupcake wins in the conference anymore as the middle of the conference has gotten more crowded. This shouldn’t be mistaken as a weakness by outsiders.

Tom Stephenson: I don’t know that it’s necessary correct to say that the SEC is “down.” The SEC from about 2006-14 or so was a historic stretch, and there’s simply no precedent for that in college football history for any conference. It would probably be correct to say that the last couple of years have seen a return to “normal” from a historic high.

So what’s changed? At the top of the conference, Alabama has clearly separated itself from everyone else; meanwhile, at the bottom of the conference, programs like Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky aren’t automatic wins like they used to be. If we’re being honest, when people talk about the strength of the SEC, or any conference, they usually mean the strength of the traditional heavyweights. Fair or not, people think the East is down because Tennessee was uncompetitive against Alabama and has now lost three of its last five to Vanderbilt.

There’s this weird trend in the SEC right now where Alabama is just far and away the best team and everyone else seems to be mired in NFL-style “everybody is 8-8” parity. I’m exaggerating a bit, but I can’t remember the last time I watched Vanderbilt play Tennessee and thought that Tennessee wasn’t clearly the better team. But that’s happening right now.

Robert O’Neill: I think Tom nailed it. “Down” is unfair. The SEC from 2006-13 was similar to Tiger Woods’ original dominant run in the early 2000s. Right now, the SEC is Tiger Woods in the mid to late 2000s. Still pretty good, but probably not ever going to be back where it originally was. The similarities end here, though, as the SEC will likely never turn into present-day Tiger Woods.

I think in time programs like Tennessee and Florida will find their way back to dominance, while programs like Missouri will eventually find their footing and be annual bowl participants. Alabama is far and away the best team in the conference and the country, and that won’t change as long as Nick Saban is at the helm. However, with there being four CFP spots now, you don’t necessarily need to focus on being better than Alabama. Obviously it would be incredibly tough to get two SEC teams into the Playoff (in the short history, no conference has sent two teams), but I don’t see it as being impossible.

Cam Newton: I don’t believe I’d go so far as to proclaim that the SEC is down and the sky is falling. In fact, I wouldn’t necessarily say that the SEC has gotten significantly weaker than it did in the waning years of the BCS system. If anything, I’d say that the rest of college football has simply improved and caught up to the level of play we’ve been used to seeing from SEC teams for the past decade or so.

Any time there’s a stretch of dominance from a team or group of teams, there will always be those on the outside who are looking in, wondering how they can get a slice of the pie that the successful teams are enjoying. Eventually, the other powers replicate the methods of successful teams, leading to greater parity throughout all of college football. Now, not even top-tier SEC teams are rolling over nonconference opponents like they had been during that huge span of SEC dominance. Instead, the rest of the country has simply been elevated to the level that the SEC had been playing on since 2006.

Bryan Manning: Is the SEC really down or is Alabama so dominant that we look at the rest of the league as being inferior? Well, 2016 wasn’t as strong as previous seasons in college football’s most dominant conference. A big reason that the perception around the SEC has changed is because of the struggles in the East division.

Tennessee was poised to be Alabama’s primary competition this fall and, well, the Volunteers did what they always do. Underachieve. It’s become a theme in recent years. Florida has become known for strong defense, but hasn’t really been the same offensively since Urban Meyer departed years ago. Georgia is in the first year of a new regime. I expect the Bulldogs to improve drastically next fall with another strong recruiting class in the fold and Jacob Eason, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel all back.

Mississippi State and Ole Miss were very good over the last few seasons. The Rebels saw a mass exodus of talent to the NFL this year, while State lost Dak Prescott. Those schools were going to struggle this season. Auburn could be poised for a big year next season with the signing of Jarrett Stidham and a host of talent returning to The Plains.

LSU has struggled offensively the last few years despite having a ton of talent on that side of the ball. With the signing of Matt Canada as the new offensive coordinator, the Tigers will finally be creative on that side of the ball.

As long as Alabama stays strong the SEC will remain college football’s top league. And there are reasons to believe teams like Georgia, LSU and Auburn step back up in 2017. So the talk of the SEC being down won’t last long.