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What the hell happened to the SEC West?

The alleged best division in history went 2-5 in bowl games? So were we all wrong about them all along?

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In the regular season, the SEC West was a perfect 28-0 in non-conference games. When the league was en route to its flawless out-of-conference performance, some numbskull was using the Simple Rating System to ask whether the division was the best since conferences started splitting in half.

Admittedly, that non-conference performance featured a healthy dose of FCS and lower-level FBS, but it also included Kansas State, West Virginia, Wisconsin (Big Ten West champion), Boise State (Mountain West champion), Northern Illinois (MAC champion), and Memphis (American champion). The West then tacked on an 11-4 record against the SEC East on its way into the bowls.

Unfortunately for those people who staked out the position that the West was something special in 2014, bowl season was a disaster. It started well enough, with the two bottom finishers in the West -- Arkansas and Texas A&M -- winning their postseason games, the former in utterly dominating fashion. When LSU lost to Notre Dame on a last second field goal on December 30, it marked the first time in 31 games that an SEC West team had lost to a non-conference opponent.

And then, in the space of two days, the West's reputation came crumbling down. The two Mississippi schools were both thrashed on New Year's Eve, then Auburn and Alabama lost close contests on New Year's Day. The division touted as the best ever ended up 2-5 in bowl games. The conference's reputation had to be preserved by the SEC East, which was 5-0.

So what conclusions should we draw from the SEC West's New Year's face plant?

1. The West was overrated all along.

This is the simplest answer and the most satisfying for fans of other conferences who have gotten sick of hearing about the SEC's dominance.

The corollary would be that we should not rely heavily on computer ratings when assessing teams, because non-conference schedules are so watered down these days that it's impossible to draw connections between teams from different conferences, and therefore, we can't really compare them.

I'm not a fan of this conclusion, because advanced computer ratings are still better than other ways to compare teams and conferences. They give weight to all of the sample, even if that sample is smaller than in pro sports. However, the West's very bad bowl season is at least a reminder not to view computer ratings as the end-all, be-all.

On the other hand, it was the same computer ratings that said that Florida State was not playing like an elite team during the course of its 13-0 season. That conclusion was affirmed when Oregon thrashed the Noles in Pasadena.

2. The teams in the West regressed over the course of the season.

This would be the best way to account for a year in which the West was perfect in non-conference play -- most of which was accomplished in September -- and then weak in bowl season.

Maybe some teams in the West were hit harder by injuries than most (Ole Miss likely was).

Maybe their coaches were able to scheme around deficiencies early in the year, but those deficiencies became apparent once opposing coaches got a lot of film on the teams in the West and came up with schematic counters (Mississippi State had given up five-plus rushing yards per carry to the unconventional Texas A&M, Auburn, and Ole Miss offenses before facing Georgia Tech's).

This latter explanation would jibe with a point that SB Nation recruiting guru Bud Elliott has been making all year, which is that the quality of quarterbacking in the conference had taken a significant step back. In a year in which teams in the division were having to replace the likes of A.J. McCarron, Johnny Manziel and Zach Mettenberger, it would stand to reason that a collection of inexperienced prospects and career backups would struggle to perform. Thus, a plausible explanation would be that SEC West bowl opponents were able to spend the month of December studying film that demonstrated all of the limitations of those quarterbacks, limitations that the teams in the West had tried to conceal with all manner of makeup, and then ruthlessly exploit those imperfections.

3. Bowls are a dumb way to evaluate entire seasons.

Bowl games have been referred to as "notoriously unpredictable" for a variety of reasons. It's hard to say which teams will be motivated, especially bowls with little at stake.

The lengthy layoff breaks the rhythm of the season and can mean that the teams we saw for the first 12 weeks are not the teams that come out for the postseason.

Coaching changes can wreak havoc on preparations. Only Alabama and Arkansas from the West did not face an assistant coach change during bowl season. The fact that most coaches make their moves before bowl games shows the lack of importance that the coaching fraternity puts on bowls (outside of championship games), which matches the feelings of fans who don't seem interested in attending bowls anymore.

The lengthy layoff breaks the rhythm of the season and can mean that the teams we saw for the first 12 weeks are not the teams that come out for the postseason.

If you need a good illustration of the dangers of overrating the importance of bowl games, just look within the SEC. As mentioned above, the West dominated the East during the regular season, from Texas A&M's thrashing of South Carolina on opening night to Alabama's domination of Missouri in the SEC Championship Game. So should we disregard a 15-game sample of head-to-head results and conclude that because the East was 5-0 in the bowls and the West was 2-5, the East was better? Or do we recognize that we place great importance on non-major bowls at our peril?


In the end, the best conclusion of what we make of the West's poor performance during bowl season is that the division had one of the elements needed to be the best of all-time (depth), but not the second (elite teams at the top). The fact that Arkansas finished in last place in the West and then thrashed Texas shows that there wasn't a bad team in the division. However, the performance of the Mississippi and Alabama teams, the four teams that finished on top of the division, on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day shows that the division lacked a truly special team.

In some years (most notably 2011), the SEC maintained its reputation as the best conference in college football even when the computer ratings disagreed. The SEC managed this feat because of the teams at the top, which hid the flaws of a lot of mediocre teams below. 2014 was the opposite for the West.