Two Leagues, Two Resumes, One Winner

Comparing the Big Ten and the SEC shouldn’t be limited to assessments of
the athletes in each conference. What about this small matter of
comparing the bodies of work fashioned by each league in the 2006 season?

In America’s sporting culture, where winning is everything and being No. 1 the only acceptable goal, Big Ten fans will make the powerful emotional argument that their conference had the better college football campaign. Michigan and Ohio State played the game of the year. The league nearly had two teams battling for the national title, and still has the heavy favorite — and the only unbeaten team other than Boise State — playing for the whole enchilada in Glendale. If supremacy at the very top is the standard by which a conference’s quality should be judged, well, the Big Ten would be the winner in 2006.

But this is where emotion-fed arguments must end and common sense has to enter the picture.

“What makes a great conference?” is the question that annually and unceasingly haunts college football fans across the country. It’s a query that has no one answer, no single overriding standard of measurement. Conference quality is almost always the product of a number of factors that converge to form a reality that can’t always be categorized by numbers.

Is conference strength a reflection of quality at the top, as Big Ten fans are sure to argue right about now (though in other years, one suspects the tune might be different … ah, human nature)? Well, maybe so, but this leads to the typical parade of follow-up questions: How do you define the “top” of a league? How do you define a particularly high level of excellence, as opposed to “solidity” or “above-average aptitude”? When is a conference “competitive to the point that everyone gets beaten up,” and when is a league “mediocre to the extent that no one can rise above the fray”?

Is conference strength a reflection of quality depth? Maybe, but then the follow-ups continue: what is depth — six teams above .500? Seven? Eight? Is it reflected by having five teams with 9 wins or more? Is it revealed by having a 10th-place team with five wins or a last-place team with four?

You get the point — these discussions can get very murky in no time. This is why one has to try to impose some order on a messy debate… and temper the emotional arguments of Big Ten fans.

Yes, the Big Ten and SEC don’t have the beautiful college basketball event known as the “ACC-Big Ten Challenge,” in which the two conferences get to play each other up and down the line before league play starts in January. This means that it’s hard to compare these football conferences in a decisive or supremely revealing way. But even with the numbers and records that do exist, this season suggests that by all reasonable standards, the SEC has had a somewhat better year than the Big Ten. It’s not a landslide by any means, but it is a modest to narrow edge for the Southeastern Conference.

The whole debate between the Big Ten and the SEC in terms of the quality of each league during the 2006 season was resolved, in many ways, by CBS analyst Gary Danielson during the SEC Championship Game. By comparing Florida’s and Michigan’s schedules, Danielson explained how the SEC, up and down the line, had enough depth and quality to offset the Big Ten’s advantage at the top of the standings.

Going down the roster of teams in each conference, the SEC outclassed anything the Big Ten had to offer this season. Penn State, a woefully impotent offensive team, was the fourth-best team in the Big Ten. By point of comparison, Auburn would rate as the fourth-best team in the SEC (behind the Gators, Arkansas and LSU). Tennessee would be fifth in the SEC, compared to Purdue. No contest in favor of the SEC. (And Michigan didn’t play Purdue this year.) Georgia, at 8-4, would be sixth in the SEC, compared to 6-6 Minnesota in the Big Ten. Kentucky, at 7-5, would clearly rate better than 5-7 Indiana in a comparison of seventh-place teams from the two conferences. In eighth place, 7-5 South Carolina would top 6-6 Iowa — another notch in the SEC’s belt. Ninth? Alabama, at 6-6, scores another one for the SEC over 4-8 Northwestern. Tenth? Michigan State, at 4-8, would rate as a push with 4-8 Vanderbilt. Eleventh? Ole Miss or Mississippi State — either one — had a better record than 2-10 Illinois. But given the poor nature of the Mississippi schools, it would be somewhat fair to throw the Big Ten a bone and rate either one of those games a push.

The SEC isn’t a tremendous conference, it should be said. Chris Leak is a great leader and JaMarcus Russell an awesome specimen, but the two best QBs in the SEC are not what one would call excellent quarterbacks. Not in a league with below-average signal callers (especially in comparison to 2001, one of the golden years for SEC offenses) and a continued inability to light up the scoreboard. But if the SEC isn’t a great conference, it’s definitely a tough and deep one, and in 2006, the SEC certainly had a lot more top-to-bottom quality than the Big Ten.

If a dry comparison of the two conferences — based on the final placing of their member teams — leaves you unsatisfied or unconvinced, a better way to explore the differences between the two leagues is to pinpoint a few teams that stood out, for better or worse.

In the SEC, Auburn is playing in a Cotton Bowl game that is (sadly; this used to be a decorated and venerated bowl game … shame on college football for driving a postseason classic straight into the ground) having a horrible time unloading tickets. The Tigers still went 10-2, beating Florida and LSU. Forget any comparisons with Penn State, the fourth-place team in the Big Ten; what should really stand out about Auburn is that it has the best resume of any fourth-place conference team in America. It’s not even close.

In the Big Ten, the unheralded success story was, of course, Wisconsin. But whom did the Badgers beat on their way to an 11-1 record? Ohio State? Didn’t play ‘em. Michigan? Lost to ‘em. Any bright lights in the Big Ten? Nope. Out of conference? Let’s see: Bowling Green, Western Illinois, San Diego State, and Buffalo. The sixth-best SEC team — Georgia — had more quality wins than Wisconsin did, proving that not all 11-1 (or 8-4 … or 6-6) records are created equal. This kind of nitpicking and intense examination shows why conference comparisons are very susceptible to lots of false, thin, and generally insubstantial arguments that rely more on numbers than on the weight of certain accomplishments and existing realities.

Let’s take one more case study to show why the SEC had a better year than the Big Ten: South Carolina. Even with a 7-5 record, even with a lot of defeats, even with a losing conference record, and even with a number of cupcakes on the 2006 schedule, South Carolina — technically the eighth-best team in the SEC but possibly the seventh if you consider their win over Kentucky — played elite teams close. The Gamecocks lost by one at Florida, by seven versus Tennessee and Auburn, and by six against Arkansas. Penn State gave Ohio State a vigorous battle for 57 minutes, but got smacked around by an injury-depleted Michigan team at home (the margin was a “soft” seven, more like 14 points). JoePa’s Lions, however, were the fourth-place Big Ten team. Steve Spurrier’s group, by contrast, resided in the bottom half of the 12-team SEC, and still took the best teams in the league to the wall. Anyone who watched USC in those games knew that the Gamecocks gave a legitimate battle to a superior team. This differs markedly from the Big Ten, in which no middle- or lower-division team could even breathe on Ohio State or Michigan. Illinois did get within seven of the Buckeyes at home, but the Illini did so on the basis of a late garbage touchdown followed by an OSU recovery of an onside kick. As far as seven-point wins go, Ohio State’s win over Illinois wasn’t a white-knuckle escape act; it was an appreciably decisive win that simply tensed up a little at the end. Just as all 11-1 records aren’t equal, so it also is that all seven-point victories aren’t equal. In other years, the details might suggest a better year for the Big Ten, but in 2006, the SEC had a superior body of work from its member teams.

A final point puts this Big Ten-SEC debate in perspective. One of the more interesting college football questions I fielded as a CFN columnist this year was as follows: “Matt, why is it that Southern Cal losing to Oregon State is good for the Pac-10, but West Virginia losing to South Florida is bad for the Big East? Isn’t it always good when a league displays quality depth? But if not, why do you have a double standard? Shouldn’t it be equal for both conferences if their top teams lose to underdogs?”

This has a clear and strong connection to the SEC-Big Ten competition in this or any other year. The point I made in response to the reader was that each conference has elite teams with different reputations. Accordingly, one must assign a different level of value to a loss by an upper-tier team in a given conference. For those conferences with established, brand-name powers at the top, it’s almost always good when that top dog loses the occasional game. It’s more a reflection of quality in the middle section of the conference. On the other hand, when a conference has top teams that have not yet become entrenched juggernauts on a consistent basis, it is important for those teams to build a track record of dominance. In the Big East, for example, it’s important for West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers to become year-in, year-out studs. Once those three programs have turned into monsters, THEN the league will stand to profit from victories by South Florida and Cincinnati. But until the big boys reach the big time and stay there, a conference such as the Big East (and the even weaker ACC) must attain star power if it can expect to become great.

What does all this mean for the Big Ten and the SEC? It’s actually not that complicated.

In these two leagues, the top teams have always been — and should continue to remain — five-star attractions in the world of college football. Michigan, Ohio State, Florida and LSU (among others) will be part of college football royalty. The brand-name identification with these schools is so deep and strong that these programs have assembled an overwhelming amount of resources. Therefore, any win or near-miss against these programs represents authentic quality depth in a conference. The Big Ten and SEC already have what the Big East and ACC are still looking to cultivate, because the top teams in the Big East and the ACC do not possess the status enjoyed by the signature programs in the Midwest and the Deep South. In the Big Ten and the SEC, an assessment of conference quality must include an analysis of how severely the top teams get tested by middle division foes. The examples provided by Auburn, Penn State, Wisconsin and South Carolina all show that while the Big Ten might have more heft at the top, the SEC has substantially more balance and competitiveness from top to bottom.

The standards by which conferences are measured will always be somewhat fluid and inexact, but a fair and all-encompassing examination of each league indicates that the SEC, in 2006, had the superior football season.