The SEC West looks terrific this season. And lest we think that the hype regarding the division with five teams in the AP top 10 is some sort of subjective bias on the part of the media, a self-interested push by ESPN to draw viewers to the SEC Network, Bill Connelly's numbers show just how good the division is shaping up to be:
It is still early in the season, and the numbers are rather unstable (and will be for a few more weeks), but this week's opponent-adjusted S&P+ rankings are incredibly SEC-heavy, with six members of the seven-team SEC West ranking in the nation's top 14 (No. 2 Alabama, No. 5 Auburn, No. 9 Ole Miss, No. 10 Texas A&M, No. 11 Mississippi State, No. 14 LSU). And the seventh (No. 30 Arkansas) is rising like a rocket.
Arkansas finished dead last in the SEC West in 2013, failing to win a single conference game. Not surprisingly, the Hogs were a unanimous pick to finish in the same spot in 2014. So when Arkansas hammered Texas Tech in Lubbock on Saturday, the result was noticeable. Arkansas has looked good in the first three weeks of the season, and that improvement still might leave them stuck in the basement like Bubbles.
The division is a perfect 16-0 in non-conference play. The list of scalps claimed by teams in the division is nothing awe-inspiring, but wins over South Carolina, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Texas Tech, Boise State, and a handful of decent non-power teams is a reasonably impressive list for just three weeks. If the division can remain perfect, Week 4 would include Kansas State (no small task) and Northern Illinois.
Thus, the question arises: if the SEC West is the best division right now, what's the best division in college football history? It's obviously too early to confer that title with the season not even a quarter complete, but it's worth considering what the yardstick is. In other words, since the SEC first split into divisions in 1992 and was then followed by the Big 12 in 1996, the ACC in 2005, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 in 2011, what are the best divisions ever?
The numbers generated by Connelly and Brian Fremeau at Football Outsiders go back to 2005, while Jeff Sagarin's numbers at USA Today go back to 1998. Happily, though, the database at College Football Reference goes back to the dawn of college football, so we can use its Simple Rating System to compare divisions.
Last December, we used SRS to determine whether Florida State had a chance to be the best champion of the last two decades and determined that the softness of the ACC would prevent them from contending for that title. Now, we can use the same measure to look at the 104 divisions that have existed in power conferences since Roy Kramer first split the SEC in 1992 and pick out the cream against which we will measure the 2014 SEC West. Here are the 10 best*:
|Ranking||Division||Average SRS Rating|
|1||2009 SEC West||12.84|
|2||2010 SEC West||12.64|
|3||2008 Big XII South||12.42|
|4||2013 SEC West||11.95|
|5||1997 SEC East||11.45|
|6||2004 Big XII South||11.26|
|7||2007 SEC East||11.1|
|8||2013 Pac-12 South||10.98|
|9||2011 SEC West||10.79|
|10||2012 SEC West||10.77|
|2014 SEC West (through three weeks)||21.5|
So the target for the 2014 SEC West is ... the same division from 2009.
That division produced the 2009 national champion (Alabama), as well as two other teams that finished in the AP top 20 (LSU and Ole Miss). Moreover, the division was deep, as every team had a positive SRS number, and five of the six teams had SRS numbers over 10. In other words, the bottom of the league was strong, and that allowed it to maintain the highest number.
The 2014 SEC West doesn't need to produce the national champion in order to match the 2009 version of the West. The 2014 West currently has a stratospheric SRS average of 21.5, which is almost a touchdown and a field goal better than the best division average, but the ratings are unreliable and inflated at this stage of the season. We know that the SEC West looks excellent, but we need to wait for the ratings to settle to know just how good it is.
The table illustrates another point: the high caliber of the 2014 SEC West is a continuation of a six-year pattern. The last five editions of the West all rate among the top 10 divisions of any conference since 1992. The unit has been building toward this season. The competitive pressures in the division have forced every participant to up its game, and they have all come through. A cynical observer would also note that the NCAA's newly casual attitude towards rule enforcement has prevented the sort of downfall that has befell a number of current SEC West members at various times in their history.
Finally, the table can be an exhibit in the case for Nick Saban going up on college football's coaching Mount Rushmore. Alabama's current run started in 2009, just as the rest of the division was entering a period of sustained excellence. Now, Alabama's consistently excellent teams since 2009 are part of this statistical phenomenon, but the conclusion is inescapable that Saban's three national titles and five straight elite season have come in a competitive jungle. To compare to the last Southern dynasty, Bama's last six years is not anything like Florida State running roughshod over the ACC in the '90s because of the quality of the teams that the Tide has been trampling.
SEC chauvinism is not always warranted. The league hasn't always been the best in college football. The very division whose praises we are now singing was positively mediocre for the first five years after the split. According to SRS, the Pac-12 was slightly better on average than the SEC was last year.
However, there are times where the plaudits are justified, and this version of the SEC West warrants it. We are a long way from the finish line, but the division is on pace to surpass its recent predecessors. The 2009 West set the standard, and now the 2014 West will try to surpass it.
* - In case any ACC fans are wondering, the best division that the league has produced since its split in 2005 was the 2009 Coastal, which would finish 25th in these rankings. The Big Ten has only three completed years of divisional play, and its best division -- the 2013 Legends (thanks, Michigan State!) -- would place 41st. And if any Big Ten fans have a sense of morbid curiosity, the 2014 Big Ten West currently has a negative average SRS number. Only two other power divisions have finished with a negative average: the 1997 Big 12 South (the one where the divisional champion lost the conference title game in its home state, 54-15, to Nebraska) and the 2006 ACC Coastal (the one where the divisional champion lost the title game, 9-6 ,to Wake Forest in front of a coterie of friends and relatives in Jacksonville). Just as we can measure whether the 2014 SEC West is the best division ever, we can also keep an eye on whether the 2014 Big Ten West is the worst power division ever. If only the division had a catchy brand like "Leaders" or "Legends" to distract us from its wretched state.