It's been an entire week since the College Football national championship game, won in scintillating fashion by Clemson. The Tigers finished the season the way they started, by defeating an SEC West team from the state of Alabama. That's a pretty good way to bookend the season, especially given the SEC's dominance in the recent past. Since 1992 and the advent of at least a partial attempt to pit the top two teams together in a championship game, the SEC has a total of 17 appearances, with twelve wins, including seven straight from 2006 to 2012 What's even more impressive is that those appearances are spread out over five teams, all of which played in at least two of those games. Only the Big 12 had more than two teams represented, and one of those was Nebraska, now in the Big Ten. Of course, these results are skewed in a way, because until the advent of the BCS in 1998, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 didn't participate, choosing instead to maintain their annual meeting in the Rose Bowl. Nonetheless, it's still an impressive showing by SEC teams.
The last four years have painted a little different picture. Suddenly, the ACC, after over a decade of absence from the championship game (remember, Miami was in the Big East when it made its last appearance following the 2002 season), has had a resurgence, tying the SEC with three appearances and one-upping them with two championships. In addition, this past season saw the ACC run up a record of 10 - 4 against the SEC, winning an impressive four out of five in the postseason. What does this say about the relative strength of the two leagues? Since I have close ties to both Virginia Tech and Arkansas, I tend to watch a lot of games involving teams from both conferences. My take is that the SEC just had a bit of a down year, while the ACC is benefiting from longer tenured coaches or in the case of Virginia Tech, new energy at a solid program. Teams like Ole Miss and Mississippi State that had seen their programs rise recently in both talent and results, were in more of a rebuilding year. Unlike Alabama and LSU, and to a lesser extent Florida, which tend to reload rather than rebuild, the other schools in the conference tend to ride a couple of decent recruiting classes to three or four successful seasons before having to replace key players. This is especially true of Mississippi State, which had to replace an almost singular talent in Dak Prescott. We need look no further than the rookie QB's performance with Dallas this season to appreciate what he brought to Starkville.
The SEC East was breaking in new coaches at key schools like Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri. LSU, meanwhile, was dealing with the circus surrounding their handling of the Les Miles era.
I believe the anomaly isn't so much that the ACC is more competitive against the SEC, it's that it was off the radar from a national perspective for much of the first decade of the new millenium. Mark Richt's presence at Miami, what Dabo Swinney is doing for a traditionally strong program at Clemson, Jimbo Fisher's commitment to keep Florida State in the spotlight, Bobby Petrino's always dangerous offense at Louisville, the aforementioned revitalization of Virginia Tech under Justin Fuente and the always difficult offensive scheme of Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech have all emerged to bring the ACC back to national prominence. I also believe that the ACC is making a better effort, at least at the top, of focusing more on improving their out of conference schedules. The addition of Notre Dame's commitment to play five ACC teams every season, bolsters, at least on paper, the pedigree of the ACC. For instance, in addition to Notre Dame, Virginia Tech took on Tennessee in the Battle at Bristol. Clemson opened at Auburn and finished the season against South Carolina. Pittsburgh took on Penn State and Oklahoma State, while North Carolina played Georgia and Illinois to open the season. True, Boston College, Syracuse and some others played embarrassingly weak non-conference slates, but half the SEC did as well.
Can and will the SEC bounce back? Every indication from the past would point to yes. Arkansas, with Bret Bielema in the final year of his contract, should be better with a full season under QB Austin Allen's belt. Missouri, with its strong football tradition, will probably rebound in Barry Odom's second season, building on a season ending win over Arkansas. Will Muschamp at South Carolina and Kirby Smart at Georgia will be in their second year, while Tennessee's Butch Jones will be looking for a way to build on a season that, while not up to early expectations, ended on a positive note with a bowl win over a tough Nebraska team. With just over seven and a half months (but who's counting?) until the 2017 kickoff, we still have a lot of time to speculate. One thing is certain, though, when it comes to the SEC. Alabama is king of the hill, and at the moment it's a long way down the closest challenger!
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