Beware, College Football Playoff committee: there is a looming SEC West problem.
It is admirable that the Playoff committee wants to reward conference champions. The committee presumably also wants to reward good records, as college football and its polls and bowls have done for time immemorial. But those criteria are predicated on what used to be a pretty safe assumption: that the level of play across college football is close enough that results matter as much as strength of schedule.
The SEC West is on its way to blowing that up.
By now, you've heard that the SEC West is 25-0 against all teams that are not in the SEC West. Quibble about the strength-of-schedule numbers all you want, but everybody in the SEC West has a legit win to go with its diet of cupcakes:
- Alabama has dispatched West Virginia and Florida;
- Arkansas thrashed Texas Tech in Lubbock;
- Auburn beat Arkansas by 24, plus went to ranked Kansas State and won
- LSU beat ranked Wisconsin on a neutral field;
- Mississippi State stomped LSU at Death Valley;
- Ole Miss obliterated Boise State in Atlanta;
- Texas A&M incinerated South Carolina in Columbia.
Two things become clear. It's the best grouping in college football, probably by a wide margin. And there are no easy wins within division play, as Saturday's struggle between the Aggies and Razorbacks in Arlington proved.
So let's make a couple improbable assumptions:
- The SEC West will go undefeated against the rest of college football for the rest of the season;
- Everyone in the SEC West will go .500 against the rest of the SEC West.
That gives you seven teams, all 9-3 (5-3), with each going 4-0 out of conference, 2-0 against the SEC East, and 3-3 in the division. In total, their claim of playing the best football would be unimpeachable.
But past that, do you hail any individual teams? Do you put all of them in the top 10, or none? Are you just left to judge them on their best non-conference wins? Whose last loss came earliest? Who beat the highest-ranked SEC West teams to start the year? Seriously, how do you rank a three-loss team that would probably throttle anybody else you put in front of it? How do you rank seven* of them?
* In the real world, there could be easily be three or four teams tied at 6-2. Good luck with that if/when it happens.
Then there's the matter of who goes to the SEC Championship. Virtually every tiebreaker procedure is useless, as everyone's record is the same against each group of opponents. Now that there's no BCS ranking to sit at the bottom of the tiebreakers, the SEC announced at its spring meetings that it would use cross-divisional opponents' records, if it had to come down to it. From AL.com:
In what would result in the seventh step for a two-team tie and the eighth step for a three-team tie, the SEC will use the combined SEC record of the teams' cross-divisional foes to determine the divisional champion, the SEC clarified Friday at the conclusion of its annual spring meetings.
This development favors Auburn the best; the Tigers get Georgia and South Carolina, two of the strongest contenders remaining for the SEC East crown. Arkansas (Missouri and Georgia) and Texas A&M (Missouri and South Carolina) are candidates as well. Ole Miss and Mississippi State, the two beneficiaries of Vandy's presence on their schedules, won't be in this conversation. LSU is hampered significantly by Kentucky and (sigh) Florida, and Alabama's duo of Florida and Tennessee is only somewhat better.
Bama-Ole Miss Comin'
Bama-Ole Miss Comin'
Auburn would win the SEC Championship, because of Rule 1. Auburn would be 10-3 and the SEC champion, so ... do you put the Tigers into the Playoff? You'd have to, right? Their strength of schedule would be head-and-shoulders past any other conference champion's. Wins over KSU, South Carolina, Georgia, any three of this SEC West, and the SEC East champion would blow the hats off the committee's heads.
But what do you do with the rest of the Playoff spots? Remember, there are three SEC West teams who have beaten this beastly Auburn team. Does beating Auburn matter more than beating any other SEC West team if the Tigers only got into the SEC Championship because of a low-level tiebreaker?
There'll be several other conference champions out there. Is it "undefeated or stay home" for those champions' Playoff hopes? What if none of them goes undefeated? Suppose Nebraska runs the table in the grievously mediocre Big Ten West. Is it in over an SEC West team? Should it be? And don't you almost, kind of, maybe miss the BCS computers just a little bit in scenarios like this?
Even outside this exercise, the likelihood that the SEC West produces at least one team that doesn't win the division but is still better than a major conference champion is considerable. The likelihood that the SEC West is so good that its best team eats multiple losses is also considerable. [We'll have more on these SEC West likelihoods on Wednesday! Ed.]
This scenario isn't exactly going to happen. But later this season, the Playoff committee is still going to have to grapple with the reality of a heavily unbalanced power structure in college football.