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Resume and Privilege in the SEC

This article is about Cameron Newton and the Auburn Tigers, but with all the investigative press swirling around Newton like vultures, it’s not really about Newton at all.  It’s about his team, and about the BCS, and the way that SEC teams aren’t held to the same standard as teams elsewhere in the nation.

The BCS works for the SEC.  In that conference, the system is essentially a season-long playoff, or a season-long survivorship.  You can make a coherent argument that the SEC is the strongest conference in college football, and the voters themselves enable this argument every single season.  Look around.  Right now it’s Auburn that has survived the SEC through 75% of the season.  They are the only team without a loss.  It’s accepted that this makes them the front runner to represent the SEC in the BCS Championship game.

Are they appreciably better than LSU, Arkansas, or Alabama?  Probably not, but they survived the best punches of LSU and Arkansas at home, and are at least 50-50 to beat two loss Alabama in this years iron bowl.  If they do, they will have the best resume of any SEC team this year, and provided they survive the SEC championship, they are likely either no. 1 or no. 2 in the nation.

Progressively more, however, the BCS isn’t about picking out the best teams for number one or number two.  This goes back to the SEC survivorship bias.  There’s a really good probability that every season some team will come out of the SEC without a loss, but there’s a really low probability that YOUR favorite SEC team can do it in any given year, which is the strength of schedule element.  It’s one of the reasons that Alabama can still claim to be the elite SEC program: they’ve lost two games, but because they have such a strong strength of schedule rating, they can argue that they are as good as any team they’ve lost to in the SEC.  It’s the transitive property: they may not have beaten LSU or South Carolina, but they beat Arkansas.  Arkansas beat South Carolina and Georgia.  Auburn is immune from the transitive property…until they lose, then every team in the SEC has a “we’re better” argument.

Auburn fans certainly are familiar with the 2004 season, when a 12-0 AU team led by Jason Campbell, Ronnie Brown, and Cadillac Williams finished third in the nation and missed the title game.  I think that definitely factors in here.  However, according to the rule of the law in the BCS, if Auburn isn’t the most impressive or second most impressive team in college football, they’re not supposed to be deserving of consideration at no. 1 or no. 2 in the polls.

Frankly, that’s the case here: I’m not sure what the argument here for Auburn is vs. teams like Oregon, TCU, and Boise State, the other undefeated teams.  When you look at Auburns season, and look at their key games, you find the following facts:

  • 3 point road win at Mississippi State
  • 3 point OT win at home vs Clemson
  • 7 point home win vs South Carolina
  • 3 point road win at Kentucky
  • 22 point home win vs. Arkansas*
  • 7 point home win vs. LSU

Auburn has played in a lot of big games with a lot of media coverage.  That 22 point home win against Arkansas should be asterix’d because while the Tigers showed they were the better team, the point differential was a function of multiple defensive TDs scored against Arkansas’ backup quarterback.  The story of Auburn’s season has been relatively unimpressive home wins against quality opponents.  Would they win a bowl game against TCU, Boise, Oregon, or even Ohio State?  Based on their resume, you would expect the answer to be “no.”  Auburn doesn’t win by comfortable margins against good teams.  They’ve merely survived every test.

That’s essentially what a playoff system does, is it not?  If the BCS formula was that any team that is undefeated in the SEC conference automatically gets to play for the BCS title, Auburn clearly has qualified to this point, and is just three tests away from automatic qualification in the title game.  That’s not officially the BCS position however.  The official position is that the three most impressive teams, clearly the ones who beat opponents consistently by multiple TD margins, should be the top three in the polls.  That’s Boise, TCU, and Oregon right now.  Then you can consider other really impressive one loss teams who have run through their schedules for the most part with only losses to top ten teams before considering the first SEC team this year.  I’d say the resume of Ohio State, and of Stanford is just as impressive as Auburn’s this year.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think Auburn is entitled to be ranked above these one-loss teams: if they beat Alaabama, they certainly will have done more against a more difficult schedule.  But I mean, to honestly make a case for undefeated Auburn over Oregon or TCU or Boise, don’t they need to beat Alabama by more than a score?  Is that not what those other undefeateds have been doing all year?

That’s essentially privilege in the SEC.  In no other conference would a team receive an automatic berth for merely surviving the SEC gauntlet.  Style points are supposed to and need to matter.  Well, except for the computer average, but thats a different story entirely.  Auburn’s chances of winning the SEC as an undefeated team are somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2, which is a realistic possibility.  Their chances of being so impressive in their last four games that we glance at what TCU and Boise have done all season and think, “you know, those teams are certainly no…Auburn?”  That’s not a realistic possibility, I don’t think.

It’s in a bout of irony that this injustice will likely be rectified, as the wolves surround Auburn and Cam Newton’s status as an eligible amateur athlete.  If Auburn loses, either in the court of the NCAA or on the field, it’s unlikely that any SEC team is going to one-loss its way to the national championship (considering that LSU is the only other team with just one loss…to Auburn).  At that point, we probably would get the two most deserving teams in college football playing for the championship, even if **gasp** none of them play in the SEC.

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