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October 11, 2013

Gameday: Dominance at top hurting SEC's rep?

Seven consecutive Bowl Championship Series national championships.

That streak of dominance in the battle for the crystal football now defines the Southeastern Conference as the top football conference in America and galvanizes its rivals and critics in an effort to explain how it has happened. There are obvious reasons, of course. SEC schools pour resources into their programs and reap the harvest of the best facilities and the best coaches at the best salaries. Demographic changes have contributed as well, with population growth in SEC states fostering an ever-increasing talent pool within easy recruiting distance.

But there is another measure that at least some of the critics say is a factor as well, a notion that can be expressed in a single statistic.

Forty-and-zero.

That is the record, since the SEC expanded with the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri last year, of its top six teams against the rest of the league. That top six, last year and this, are Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M in the Western Division and Florida, South Carolina and Georgia in the East. In 2012, those teams went a combined 30-0 against the other eight teams in the league. In games thus far in 2014, the record is 10-0. That means 40 games without one single SEC-rattling upset, a record that drives the SEC critics, led by Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, to label the SEC as a league lacking parity, to the point that it affects quality.

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"Do you know the stats?" Kansas coach Charlie Weis, defending his own conference, the Big 12, asked in an ESPNU interview. "I'm just saying, if you look at the bottom of their league and the bottom of our league, there is some validity in what (Stoops) said. I'm just going based on the numbers. I'm a numbers guy. Just based off the numbers, you'd have to say he's got a point."

In a nutshell, the theory works like this: Because of the disparity between the top teams in the SEC and the next tier, those top teams have a built-in advantage, padding records without fear of the kind of BCS-crushing upsets that the Big 12 has suffered in the past two years (Oklahoma State losing at Iowa State in 2011, Kansas State falling at Baylor on "Chaos Saturday" last season). As a result, SEC teams are able to build glossy records and strong strength-of-schedule ratings while facing only two or three regular-season risks. The result, the argument goes, is that the SEC can go into its championship game in December with the winner already assured of a BCS title shot, as was the case with Alabama and Georgia last season.

The counter-argument is that the 40-0 record is a quirk, generated by the fact that today's top six teams aren't necessarily the historical top programs in the league, just a group that is currently of national top-10 strength. SEC commissioner Mike Slive, by the nature of his job, can't talk about any specific teams as being good or bad. But he has heard the theory, too, and knows the 40-0 statistic and the perception it creates.

"My observation would be this," Slive said in a wide-ranging interview with Tidesports.com on Wednesday. "Expansion has improved us. In terms of competitive balance, as I watch our teams play, it seems to me that we are even stronger top to bottom this year than we have been in recent years.

"All of our institutions have made a significant commitment to take the steps to become more competitive. And the evidence is that, in many cases, they have improved."

Again, diplomacy keeps Slive from speaking specifically but the above point is clearly a reference to the fact that four of the league schools who struggled last season -- Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee - brought in new head coaches who appear, at first blush, to be upgrades.

The on-the-field results seem to hint that the streak of top-six dominance will be broken soon, maybe this weekend. Tennessee pushed Georgia into overtime last week, and Missouri brings a lot of momentum into its game in Athens, Ga., Saturday. Arkansas hosts South Carolina. Kentucky beating Alabama would be a monumental upset, but UK coach Mark Stoops - the brother of Oklahoma's SEC-denying Bob Stoops - sees a day when it could happen.

"You have to look at it like it's encouraging," Stoops said on this week's SEC coaches' teleconference. "I think the quality of football in this league can't help but make you better. Now, we understand that the drawback is that every team is getting better. Alabama's at the top of the food chain, (but) we are all trying to get there and be as consistent as them."

Slive also notes that the SEC dominance cannot be solely built on winning conference games, that 40-0 mark notwithstanding.

"We are proud of the fact that we have won the national championship for the past seven years, but you cannot, cannot do that within your conference alone," Slive said. "We can't get to the best without winning outside our league, and we have done that."

There has been much attention focused of the fact that two of the SEC's upper echelon lost in early-season road games, Georgia at Clemson and Florida at Miami. On the other hand, teams from the dismissed other half of the league have accumulated wins against all other major conferences: Auburn winning over Washington State, Missouri cruising at Indiana and Ole Miss crushing Texas all fit in that category.

"People are going to advocate for their own area of the country, but overall the national recognition we have gotten has been gratifying," Slive said. "You see that over time. The fact that we had a team with two losses (LSU in 2007) win the BCS Championship, and have had several with one loss, shows that people recognize that, and that they appreciate that going undefeated in this conference is both amazing and rare."

Success, too, can become its own reward for the SEC. The more it wins, the more exposure the conference gets, and that means more dollars that can be reinvested back into football.

"Our success has translated into significant interest in terms of our media partners," Slive said. "That interest has allowed us to develop the SEC Network.

"All of that is tangible evidence of not just regional interest in our teams - all our teams - but national interest. And that interest is there, whether you are cheering for us, or against us."

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0225.



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