ESPN gets called out for SEC bias, pro and con

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 9.44.52 PM

LLANO, Texas — Paul Johnson, coach of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, was not a gracious winner after beating Mississippi State in a New Year’s 6 Bowl Game, which is the next best thing to being in the Final Four.

“And for at least a week or two, we don’t have to hear about the SEC,” Johnson said.

Georgia Tech is a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, derided as the All Cupcake Conference.  Never mind that its champion, Florida State, defeated Auburn of the highly hyped Southeastern Conference in last year’s College Football Championship Game.

And never mind that on the final weekend of this regular season the ACC went 4-0 against the SEC.

Johnson was dreaming if he thought the South would stop chanting “S-E-C” with three of its first seven bowl teams knocked off.   Reporters who dared point out the obvious – that the SEC might be taking the slightest of steps backward – were met by outrage from Bama Nation.

On Colin Cowherd’s ESPN talk show, a “Phyllis from Alabama” repeatedly called him “Cow Turd.”

As humbled as the SEC was NOT by the pratfalls of LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, the most celebrated conference was confident of bouncing back with Auburn and its otherworldly speed sweep offense.

But the day after Johnson’s smackdown of Mississippi State, the War Eagle was shot down by a Wisconsin team that had been crushed 59-0 by Big Ten champion Ohio State.

Then came the ultimate SEC debacle:  the flagship Alabama sinking, full of holes drilled by Ohio State’s power-armed third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones.

Anticlimactic though it was, Florida saved some face for the SEC by beating the ACC’s East Carolina Pirates in the Birmingham Bowl, after many of us wondered how motivated the Gators could be, leaving balmy Florida for a trip north to gritty Birmingham.  But they appeared happy just to have some relevance again.

It was up to the Gators to save the SEC from .500, not to mention make a favorable impression on their soon to be head coach, Jim McIlwain.  The esteemed conference finished its bowling with a collective 7-5 record, and missing from next Monday’s national championship finale.

That’s hardly a confirmation of SEC exceptionalism.  It’s enough to inspire conspiracy theories.  

ESPN, which televises the national championship game, is suspected of being in cahoots with the College Playoff Committee, which again and again plays the SEC card.  Everybody benefits, so the conspiracy theory goes, with an overly hyped Southeastern Conference.  Alabama success is good for the ratings.

Just Google “SEC Bias” and see all that pops onto the screen.  

I really don’t believe there’s a conspiracy, as such, by poll voters and committee members and talking heads all but waving the SEC banner.   There are enough metrics, such as recent national championships, number of top recruits signed, coaching salaries, etc., to support the SEC’s incessant claim to be No. 1.

But as Mark Roberson months ago suggested on this website, the SEC superiority is not what it’s long been made out to be. 

It’s not so much conspiracy as a bandwagon effect.

So many media sources – many, granted, from the same network — trumpeting the SEC that its fame exceeds reality.  Its fans cling to delusions of grandeur, saying there’s no need for SEC teams to play a strong nonconference schedule to establish their worthiness.  Just being in the SEC is ipso facto proof of mettle.

Jordan Burchette, writing in – of all places – Rolling Stone magazine – pointed out that during the 2014 regular season the Pac 12 and ACC both had a better record than the SEC in non-conference games against Power 5 teams.

Not that you find many games between the SEC and the other Power 5.  Alabama opened its season against West Virginia, which would finish tied with Texas for fifth place in the Big 12.  The dull 10-point victory at home showed the Tide was ebbing, if anyone wanted to notice.

The rest of Alabama’s schedule was all-SEC, except for unchallenging, though lucrative, home dates against Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina.

In retrospect, the media should have been more impressed with the schedule of the Playoff’s fourth-ranked team, Ohio State.  Except for a September tuneup with Kent State, the Buckeyes faced bowl-bound non-conference opposition:  Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati.

But it was conference bias that worked against Ohio State.  The Big Ten was too slow, too cold and – overall – too smart to be anywhere near the caliber of the SEC, where the SAT bar is lower and the bulk of 5-star recruits had migrated.

Anti-Big Ten fervor was such that its teams were underdogs in every bowl game they played.  Yet they went 5-5 while the supposedly soft and yielding Pac 12 was 6-2, with its headliner, Oregon, in the final with Ohio State.

Phyllis from Alabama is free to denounce one of the ESPN programs, The Herd, that  never sold out to the SEC.  But the empirical evidence should tell her and all of us that it’s wrong to assume that the top team in the SEC is automatically one of the four best in the country.

Comments will post after a short period for review