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The SEC is Not Invincible, and West Virginia is the Latest Reminder



David Sills
(Photo Courtesy of the Associated Press)

Before we close the book on the first week of the 2018 college football season, it’s important to point something out, loudly and clearly. I’m not the first person to say this, and I won’t be the last, but I want to add my voice to the growing demand for increased conference equality.

No conference receives more overhyped fanfare than the SEC.

Look at West Virginia’s Week 1 opponent, Tennessee. ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, Tim Tebow and crew showed up in Charlotte, North Carolina to do their SEC Nation pregame show for WVU vs. Tennessee. I stopped by to check it out, and there were barely any SEC fans to be found. It was a ghost town. One member of the event staff told me they were completely full while hosting College GameDay, so he couldn’t believe the minimal turnout for SEC Nation.

Like many other of its conference brethren, Tennessee was more myth than monster. Any preseason hype surrounding this Tennessee team was centered around its identity as a historic program and as an SEC member — not tied to any tangible talent on the turf.

On the other hand, Mountaineer fans spiced up the Charlotte economy, filling up hotels, restaurants and bars all weekend. Will Grier did more than enough to back up the off-season hype, vaulting himself into an early No. 1 spot on ESPN’s Heisman Watch. Perhaps more importantly, the Mountaineers won the hearts of America once the post-game Country Roads videos hit social media. Dana Holgorsen offered some great quotes while mentioning WVU fans getting the best of Tennessee fans in every way.

“Mountaineer nation was in full force,” Holgorsen said. “We won that game on the field, but we won that game with the fans too. We outnumbered those Tennessee fans. We were louder than those Tennessee fans. We probably spent more money on beverages than those Tennessee fans. Everyone was having such a good time in Charlotte, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay and partake in the festivities.”

WVU limiting Tennessee to 14 points doesn’t fit the reputation of a Big 12 defense; Tennessee giving up 40 points doesn’t fit the SEC defense narrative, either. The Vols probably won’t see another offense like WVU this season, because Tennessee doesn’t play in a dynamic offensive conference.

It’s easy to pick on Tennessee right now, since the Vols are the easy whipping boys of Week 1, but this isn’t just a Knoxville problem. Dana Holgorsen has routinely made made fearsome defenses look mortal, and SEC units are no exception: 429 yards against Tennessee, 365 yards against Alabama, 346 yards against Texas A&M and 463 yards against LSU. And let’s be really honest — West Virginia isn’t the most consistently excellent offense in the Big 12, let alone all of college football.

“If you throw Georgia in the Big 12 every year, they’re not going to be a top-five defense,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said earlier this summer.

Riley is correct. Georgia probably wouldn’t even be a top 20 defense. That kind of statistical providence is more or less impossible when playing high-quality offenses on a weekly basis.

Despite the blowout in Charlotte, ESPN was quick to say the SEC still won the weekend with exciting victories over Washington and Miami. There could be some truth to that. Auburn, for instance, has all but locked themselves into four wins before even thinking about a conference game, with upcoming non-con games against Alabama State, Southern Miss and Liberty.

How about the biggest mover of the week, LSU? What does that nonconference schedule look like? The Tigers play Southeastern Louisiana, LaTech and Rice. They play the standard eight-game SEC conference schedule, plus one quality nonconference opponent and three cupcakes.

In the last 10 years, Alabama has only played two nonconference road games. LSU has played three. Tennessee and Auburn have both played four. That’s in 10 years! This is a conference that’s getting a lot of credit for being better than other conference, all while not playing that many games against conferences that matter.

Let’s talk about that dreaded SEC schedule, too. Nobody doubts the ferocity of games with Georgia, Alabama or Auburn. However, the combined 2017 record of LSU’s other five SEC opponents? They were 26-31 against FBS opponents last year.

The worst part about the SEC schedule is the de facto bye week game against a bad FCS team in November. SEC teams schedule fluff games before their big rivalry showdowns because we let them.

Alabama is a true powerhouse, but most of the rest of the 14-team SEC has been riding the Tide’s coattails for years. Still, the media and playoff power structures are prepared to give any SEC team the benefit of the doubt. Preseason No. 25 LSU? They just zoomed past WVU in the AP Poll, jumping 14 spots for beating a Miami team that could be anywhere from good to average as hell.

College Football has different rules for SEC teams. This is not an opinion. This is a fact.

There is nothing equitable about the scheduling system in college football, and nobody is capitalizing on the lack of uniformity like the Southeastern Conference. Teams like Ohio State, USC, Texas and even West Virginia are challenging themselves, playing 11 P5 games in the regular season. The SEC has been permitted to hold itself to a completely different standard.

We need to flatten out the oligarchy and create even scheduling policies in college football. There’s no reason why some teams should play 11 or 12 P5 games while others play eight or nine.  If the SEC is truly the best conference, the rank-and-file members shouldn’t be afraid to prove it on the field against worthwhile opponents.

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