The Southeastern Conference enjoyed a terrific bowl season this year.
Eight bowl wins is a record for any single conference. An 8-2 record is undeniably strong, a record which points to pronounced consistency in a larger number of games than conferences which had seven bowl games or fewer. The SEC, spread across 10 games, packed a wallop. Full stop.
Yet, as great as the SEC in fact was in the bowls this time around, any reasonable person can laud this achievement and yet refrain from being overly effusive.
LSU defeated Texas Tech, a thoroughly average team. Mississippi State thrashed North Carolina State, a team which did not defeat a single winning FBS opponent this season. Arkansas defeated a Kansas State team which was decimated by injuries at the skill positions (especially quarterback) this season. Georgia defeated a Penn State team whose offensive line was a piece of swiss cheese all season long.
Competition is a bottom-line theater of activity: You win or you lose. The SEC didn’t lose a single bowl in which one of its teams was expected to win. Texas A&M and Florida were gutted at the quarterback position and entered their bowls at a great disadvantage. Their losses do not detract from the SEC to any particularly meaningful extent. This adds to the SEC’s profile in the 2015-2016 bowl season, so let’s be clear: This is not a steady drumbeat to erode what the SEC has done; it’s an attempt to place everything it has achieved in context.
The two losses should be minimized. So, however, should most of the victories, as you’ve just seen.
What more exists to be said about the SEC in the bowls this season? Three points demand a brief bit of elaboration:
First, on a more local and narrow level, the two conference teams in the New Year’s Six not only won, but won big. That carries a level of resonance which outstrips other conferences, specifically those which won by comparatively smaller margins.
Twin blowouts from Alabama (over Michigan State) and Ole Miss (over Oklahoma State) should rightly reshape the way those two teams are viewed. Alabama and Ole Miss both wobbled at times during the regular season. Being able to put their best feet forward in the postseason shows that they were capable of improving to a marked degree; their performances also show that Bama and Ole Miss can be very intimidating when at their best.
When Ole Miss coasted past LSU, it was easy to frame such a result in terms of LSU’s weaknesses more than Ole Miss’ strengths. Beating Oklahoma State after a month off (in the Sugar Bowl) makes it so much easier to applaud the Rebels for their quality instead of chalking up their successes to the struggles of SEC West opponents. That was a true battleground game against the second-place team in the Big 12. Alabama is a program which can and does exist on an elevated plane, regardless of what the rest of the SEC might do. Ole Miss, in many ways, did more than any other SEC team to boost the claim that the league (after bowl season) is stronger than many people gave it credit for.
There is, however, a second point to make about the SEC after the bowls: It is the one weakness in the above argument and in the specific assertion that the Ole Miss win is a defining indicator of SEC depth and strength: Auburn’s win over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl, part of a larger pattern in which specific SEC triumphs curiously magnified the conference’s regular season failures.
That result might seem to be a further validation of the SEC on the surface. Narrowly, it certainly paints Auburn in a better light. However, when one realizes that Memphis thumped Ole Miss during the regular season, Auburn crushing Memphis diminishes Ole Miss to a certain extent rather than enlarging the Rebels. In many ways, a Memphis victory over Auburn would have helped the SEC by bolstering Ole Miss’s non-conference resume.
Yes, let’s acknowledge Alabama and Ole Miss, decisive winners of New Year’s Six games. Let’s also acknowledge that Ole Miss — so formidable against Oklahoma State — did not show up against Memphis.
SEC teams did underachieve this season — consider Tennessee as well. The Vols were able to clobber Northwestern, but where was that team against Arkansas? Why couldn’t Big Orange have finished at least one if not more of the games in which they owned a lead of at least 13 points?
Some of the SEC’s bowl wins — especially the most impressive ones — ironically had the effect of undercutting the teams’ regular-season portfolios.
Now, we arrive at the third basic point about the SEC and the bowls: The league has experienced an inversion relative to 2014.
Know this about the 2015 SEC: It was worse than 2014 over the course of the regular season. Texas A&M endured a season even more disappointing than the one before. Auburn and Mississippi State were clearly worse than in 2014. Other SEC West programs were basically the same. In the East, Florida and Tennessee improved this year, but Missouri took a huge step backward and both South Carolina and Georgia also regressed. More teams moved down in 2015 than up, measured against the 2014 season.
Yet, whereas the SEC West endured a wretched 2014 bowl season, the division thrived in 2015, losing only one game.
This inversion reminds us that broadly and universally applicable lessons are elusive in college football. Sometimes, a strong conference in the regular season delivers a strong bowl season on top of it. Sometimes, the successful regular season conference falls flat in the bowls. Sometimes, an underachieving league in the regular season comes to life in the bowls.
The SEC — in 2014, better than it was this season on a larger level, but worse in the bowls — declined for much of 2015 but rebounded in the postseason over the past 10 days.
It’s not easy to arrive at broader conclusions about the SEC right now… but this much is clear: The conference needed a huge bowl season, and it answered the bell as well as it reasonably could.