When Georgia held on to beat Penn State in the Gator Bowl and Arkansas finished trampling Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday, it clinched a new accolade for the SEC. The two teams picked up the conference's seventh and eighth bowl wins of the year, a new NCAA FBS record.
The reaction to this is a continuation of a narrative that began in 2014, when the SEC's recent historical dominance of bowl games ebbed a bit. Amid what would turn out to be a 7-5 bowl season for the SEC, reasonable folks tried to tamp down on the screeching about conference power and suggested that, just maybe, performance in a bunch of glorified exhibitions is not the best barometer of a league's strength.
And yet, with over 25,000 votes cast in the poll attached to that last link, a majority of respondents thought that the SEC West's teams going 2-5 in bowl games "proved" the division was not the best in college football in 2014. Clearly, the threshold for proof is not so high for some.
But by the same standard, the SEC going 8-2 in bowls in 2015 -- with all eight wins coming by at least a touchdown, and seven coming by at least 20 points -- should prove that the conference was by far the nation's best, right? The utter dominance of those wins, in theory, more than covers for losses in the only two bowls in which an SEC team was an underdog: Texas A&M spitting the bit in the face of a tremendous performance by Louisville's Lamar Jackson, and SEC East victor Florida getting stomped by Michigan. The conference picked up multiple wins over Big Ten and Big 12 outfits, while also having an afterthought (Auburn) decimate one of the nation's best mid-majors (Memphis).
It's tempting to give in to that easy logic. It's just not fair or holistic, though.
The SEC lucked out with its bowl selections this year.
Baylor and North Carolina got sent to the Russell Athletic Bowl instead of to games against SEC teams, while LSU played a Texas Tech team perfect for Leonard Fournette to run over on the same night. Auburn got Memphis instead of Navy -- which runs a triple option similar to the one that flummoxed a Will Muschamp-built defense before -- because Navy's contractually tied to the Military Bowl.
Maybe most importantly, the Sugar Bowl pitted a veteran-stocked and motivated Ole Miss team against a young Oklahoma State team, not the more dangerous Baylor or TCU, because quarterback injuries derailed the Bears and Horned Frogs late in the regular season. And because the SEC and Pac-12 don't have contractual ties to any bowl games, the two leagues didn't meet. Which was fortunate, because ...
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The Pac-12 could have notched eight (or more) wins, too.
The Pac-12 put as many teams into postseason play as the SEC, but because it didn't have a Playoff team, its pecking order shifted down. Stanford crushed Iowa in the Rose Bowl instead of playing, say, Alabama. Washington State got to play a Miami team in coaching flux in a snowstorm because the ACC will send Miami anywhere. Partly because the Big Ten couldn't furnish an 11th postseason-eligible team, Cal ended up facing Air Force, a team poorly equipped to take advantage of the Golden Bears' awful secondary, in the Armed Forces Bowl.
In fact, it's a bit surprising that the Pac-12 didn't do better in bowls. UCLA lost to Nebraska in stunning fashion, and few thought Wisconsin stood a chance against a more talented USC team playing in San Diego. Oregon led TCU 31-0, and even Vernon Adams getting hurt doesn't totally explain that collapse. Arizona State had every chance to beat West Virginia. The Pac-12's four bowl losses were by a combined 17 points, one of them in triple overtime. Florida's loss to Michigan alone was by twice as many points!
The feat of eight bowl wins alone doesn't do much to separate the SEC.
Especially since ...
This was really just the SEC taking care of business.
The reason SEC teams were favored in nine bowl games to begin bowl season is because almost everything pointed to those teams being better. It wasn't like the SEC suddenly claimed the crown of best conference upon winning all those bowl games. It was already the best conference coming into bowl season.
Average S&P+ by conf: SEC +10.0 B1G +7.4 P12 +6.9 ACC +6.7 B12 +5.1 AAC -2.1 MAC -3.6 MWC -4.2 SB -7.5 CUSA -8.1 SEC pre-bowl lead was 0.8— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) January 3, 2016
The pre-bowl S&P+ rankings showed as much, with Florida, Georgia and Texas A&M the only SEC teams facing higher-valued opponents.
S&P+ also suggested that any SEC team other than Alabama would've been an underdog to Michigan, which was shuffled out of the New Year's Six mix by a blown punt and a blowout loss against Ohio State. But instead of a close game between Florida and Kansas State, say, geography and merit led to the Gators being led to the slaughter in Orlando.
Texas A&M, the other loser, might have been the only SEC team in worse shape than Florida at quarterback, having lost both Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray in the span of a week. The Aggies opened as favorites to knock off the Cardinals, but were underdogs by kickoff, and while Jake Hubenak played better against Louisville than Treon Harris did against Michigan, few were surprised by A&M falling in that game.
Georgia "upset" Penn State, per S&P+, but Vegas liked the Dawgs better. Every other SEC win featured a team that Vegas and S&P+ agreed was better than its opponent.
And you know what? SEC teams were favored in nine bowl games in 2014, too -- they just didn't follow through. That year, six favorites won, Alabama fell to Ohio State, Auburn and LSU lost by field goals and Texas A&M (win) and South Carolina (loss) split a pair of pick'ems.
Still, those seven wins were the most in bowl history ... tying the conference's own record from the 2013 bowl season.
And conferences "winning" a bunch of bowl games was bound to happen.
Conference realignment has yielded four megaconferences with 12 or more teams, and another Power Five conference with 10. Those teams, by and large, lard their nonconference schedules to earn bowl eligibility. And with more and more bowl games debuting yearly, conferences will be sending contingents of 10, 11 and 12 teams to bowls for years to come.
Since 2012-13, when the SEC became the first FBS conference to grow to 14 teams, the SEC has sent at least nine teams bowling every season. Since 2013-14, at least two conferences have sent at least 10 teams bowling every year. Dumb luck was going to net one of these conferences an eight-win year eventually, and the SEC arguably got that luck this year.
The SEC going 8-2 in bowl games doesn't mean that the league is the best assemblage of athletic teams ever to dwell on Earth, nor that any other conference is terrible. It means eight SEC teams were better than eight other teams in eight different games, seven of them glorified exhibitions that featured teams out of the race for the national championship. That is fine.
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