College Football: The Pac-12′s Perception Problem
On Thursday night, the Washington Huskies upset the Stanford Cardinal, 17-13, and the social media universe erupted with tweets and posts that said the game proved the Pac-12 conference really isn’t as good as advertised.
The conference has had as many as five teams in the Top 25 in the same week this season, but if Washington could beat Stanford, and Stanford already had a win over USC, who was supposed to be a national championship contender, then doesn’t that prove that the Pac-12 might have been a little overrated? Especially since the Huskies were obliterated by LSU, 41-3, earlier this month?
Not necessarily, because each week is different. Each team is different every week, but by using the popular common opponent principle some have concluded that LSU > Washington > Stanford > USC and, therefore, that the SEC overall is better than the Pac-12.
The SEC has a reputation as the nation’s toughest college football conference so getting to that conclusion wasn’t much of a jump, but is that argument really fair?
After Thursday night’s game, Kevin Carden, a Fox Sports and Scout.com writer and recruiting analyst, tweeted:
Upset in the SEC = This conference is so deep. Upset in Pac-12 = Man this conference sucks.
— Kevin Carden (@KevinCarden) September 28, 2012
It illuminates the difference in perceptions about the two conferences, but why the differing images?
SEC teams regularly win big games in the national spotlight. For six straight years, an SEC team has won the BCS National Championship Game (Alabama and Florida twice each, LSU, and Auburn), which makes a pretty good case that the conference is the best in the nation. But does the fact that the SEC’s top teams are among the best of the best mean the conference itself is automatically the best?
A comparison of Pac-12 and SEC teams in bowl games over the last ten years suggests that the SEC is, indeed, the deeper conference. Almost every year, the SEC sends more teams to bowls than its West Coast counterpart and, overwhelmingly, their teams win more of the games.
Even in years when the Pac-12 finished with a better overall winning percentage in bowl games, the SEC was represented by a greater number of teams. In the 2008-09 bowl season, Pac-12 teams went undefeated and won the Bowl Challenge Cup – but the SEC had three more teams who made the postseason, including Florida, who won the title.
Things can change from year to year, though, and while Washington’s win over Stanford raised questions about the overall strength of this year’s Pac-12, SEC teams haven’t exactly been unquestionably dominant in 2012.
Arkansas, projected to be one of the conference’s top teams this year, has lost to just about everyone, including the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Auburn, just two seasons removed from a national championship, needed overtime to beat ULM.
Perhaps ULM is just really, really good. So what’s the excuse for LSU struggling against Towson on Saturday?
As a Marylander, I’m pretty familiar with Towson, and they had no business playing LSU that closely. Last season, Towson was coming off a one-win 2010 campaign and played pretty well in a 28-3 loss to a Maryland team that finished 2-10. The preseason #1 team from the SEC should’ve beat them much more than 38-22. LSU also managed to scrape together a win over the same Auburn team that barely beat ULM, so perhaps “overrated” discussions have been misdirected.
Football fans are buzzing about the cutthroat battle for the SEC East, but #7 South Carolina trailed a struggling Kentucky on Saturday before eventually winning, and Tennessee battled then-#5 Georgia into the fourth quarter.
Even Alabama, which has looked far and away like the nation’s best team in 2012, needed all four quarters to finally put Ole Miss away.
In any other conference, that would be a sign of weakness, or of parity bringing down the quality of the conference, but fair or not, in the SEC, it’s just called surviving a tough schedule to get to another title game.