Is the SEC Truly the Best Conference in College Football?
The Life and Tides of the Southeastern Conference
Tim Tebow is the most polarizing figure in professional sports; it seems fitting that the college football conference he played in carries the same sort of love-it-or-hate-it opinions. Loved by its fans and detested by its critics, the Southeastern Conference has become the powerhouse of American college football, with the conference winning the BCS National Championship Game (NCG) for the past seven seasons in a row and producing Heisman Trophy winners in 4 of the last 6 seasons.
Everyone loves a winner, but the annual hype train the SEC drives has brought its own flock of disparagers. That brings us to an important question: is the SEC overrated? Follow along as we analyze the most high-profile conference in college sports.
A Link in the Chain? ESPN and the SEC
How are ESPN, the AP poll, and the SEC related?
Back when the SEC was first evolving into the dominant form we know today, ESPN paid big money - over $2 billion - for the broadcasting rights to the Southeastern Conference. The contract began at the start of the 2009 season, when Alabama would go on to beat Texas in the 2010 National Championship Game.
ESPN is also - not surprisingly - largely composed of sports journalists, writers, radio and TV personalities, and reporters. Each year, polling lists such as the famous AP poll Top 25 receive votes from sportswriters across the country to determine the best college football teams in the country. The list is a component of the official BCS rankings, which determine the teams that will compete in bowl games such as the NCG.
Breaking Down the Numbers: Poll Favoritism?
The AP poll has always been pretty kind to SEC teams; since 2003, there has always been at least one team ranked within the top 10 in preseason rankings. Starting the season as a top 10 team would surely be instrumental for a NCG-season run; after all, Alabama was able to earn a NCG appearance despite its late-season loss to Texas A&M. Starting the season out as the #1 team had to have provided the leash to loosen a bit, right?
Maybe not, you say. After all, Alabama played some tough teams last year - perhaps the loss to Texas A&M only proves the wealth of talent found within the conference. However, what if all SEC teams are over-ranked? If one top 10 team managed to beat other ranked teams within their division, you're looking at a top 5 team. That's my theory: one overhyped SEC team beats another, thus allowing for the repeated NCG appearances.
Method to the Madness
Not buying my hypothesis? That's okay. I went back to 2003 and looked at the AP poll preseason rankings for every team and noted their place within the top 25, then repeated the process up to 2013 so we might have an appropriate sample size. A decade of information would seem like enough, right?
Here's what I found: before ESPN received the broadcasting rights to the SEC in 2009, the average SEC team was ranked 10.8 within the AP Top 25. An average of roughly five teams would be ranked within the Top 25 each year, with about two of them in the top 10. After 2009, the stats reveal some notable numbers: the rank of an average SEC team remained about the same at 11, but the average number of SEC teams in the top 25 increased to six, while the top 10 increased to three. Not only has the presence of the SEC increased in the polls, but so has their position! Before 2009, the average SEC team within the top 10 would be ranked at around 5.8, but after the ESPN purchase it escalates to 4.6.
While the difference in numbers may not seem gargantuan, they're a big deal. Compared to the pre-ESPN era in the SEC, one extra team has been included in both the top 25 and the top 10, and the heightened placement of the top 10 teams has allowed for the SEC to become even more top heavy.
Whether you religiously watch the SEC every Saturday or curse them every weekend, I hope this article provided some insight into the AP poll and how college football has worked for the SEC. With ESPN's sphere of influence on the sportswriting industry, they have cultivated their SEC product from a promising sapling into a new-age Garden of Eden.
Don't get me wrong - the talent the SEC has produced cannot be denied. All-time NFL greats such as Peyton Manning, Joe Namath, Champ Bailey, Don Hutchson, Reggie White, and Emmitt Smith have all emerged from the conference, and no other conference in college football equals the number of players represented in the NFL by the SEC. However, it's a lot easier to win a raffle when you have more tickets than anyone else. With eight straight NCG appearances by the SEC, it appears ESPN and the AP poll have helped provide them with plenty of opportunities to win it all.
SEC/AP Preseason Poll Correlation
SEC Annual Team Representation
Before ESPN (2003-2009)
After ESPN (2009-2013)
Avg. # of teams ranked
Avg. ranking in AP Top 25
Avg. # of Top 10 teams
Avg. ranking within Top 10