Thursday, July 12, 2007

Gulf Coast bias

I'm a rabid Alabama fan. With few exceptions, I'm a strict SEC loyalist during bowl season. I have no business defending the Pac-10. But thanks to Les Miles, I'm about to do it anyway.

LSU's football coach, with kickoff still a couple of months away, has taken to filling the offseason with incendiary comments, the most notorious of which was his description of the Crimson Tide with the adjectival form of the F-bomb. But as uncouth as it may have been, you can chalk that up to an SEC West rivalry that became a million times more intense the moment Alabama made LSU's crystal-football golden boy, Nick Saban, the highest-paid college coach in the nation.

Where Miles entered the realm of the bizarre, though, was asserting a couple of weeks ago that USC's schedule, heavy on Pac-10 opponents, would allow it to roll to the national title game with only minimal opposition. A simple look at USC's schedule disproves that. Many phrases come to mind when I see a slate that requires trips to five bowl teams: Arizona State, California, Nebraska, Notre Dame, and Oregon. "Minimal opposition" isn't one of them. (In fairness, I'd prefer that schedule to LSU's gauntlet of Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia Tech, even with all but one of those games at home, but that still doesn't mean the Trojans have an easy row to hoe.)

Underlying the whole brouhaha is the age-old argument about which conference is the best, and your answer probably depends largely on your region of choice. As a long-time connoisseur of Southern football, I tend to see the SEC, on average, as the nation's premier football league. But I recognize, as any clear-headed fan of the game should, that conference strength ebbs and flows, as Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel has asserted repeatedly.

No one league is permanently the best in every single season. Nor are the same teams always in the top tier. It's easy to argue the SEC's top six programs -- Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, and Tennessee -- are better than any other league's top six. But it's also important to consider the ebb and flow of power within conferences. In the last 15 years, every Pac-10 school has played in a bowl that's a member of today's BCS, compared to only six teams from the SEC. That degree of internal fluctuation means Pac-10 teams rarely can point to a conference game as a gimme, because no opponent is more than a few years away from having been in the spotlight or getting there again.

Thanks to the NCAA's scholarship limitations, even the top programs in the top conference are never more than a few plays away from falling to average teams from other leagues. LSU fans who remain unsure of this fact should just look to the 2005 Arizona State game, which the Tigers beat a mediocre Pac-10 squad with a fourth-down touchdown with a minute left, or the 2004 Oregon State game, which they won against an Insight Bowl-bound team only when the Beavers' kicker missed three extra points, or the 2000 UAB game, when a four-loss Conference USA team walked into the fearsome Death Valley night and strolled out with a victory.

The SEC is touted as the nation's best conference right now, and I think that's as it should be. But it's important to remember that hype isn't always reality: Back in December, sports commentators were crowning the Big Ten as the king of the sport, and you see how that turned out. The beauty of college football is its unpredictability -- everyone who had Wake Forest as the ACC champion last year raise your hand -- and that state of flux is a big part of what makes the game so fun to watch.

It's fine to claim the SEC is the toughest conference around. But it'd be wrong to say that everyone else has it easy.

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