First, a couple of disclaimers.
Disclaimer #1: I am a South Carolina Gamecock fan.
I am utterly and shamelessly biased when it comes to college football. So there will be a distinct slant to this article. It does not mean I will not be objective for the most part here, but it does mean at some point you will realize that I would not pull for Clemson even if they were playing against a team coached by Emperor Palpatine, with the Russian from Rocky IV as quarterback and Miley Cyrus and Newman cheering from the stands.
Disclaimer #2: I am not an ‘SEC Fan’ but more often than not I root for teams in my conference when they are not playing my team.
There are logical reasons for doing this. The way college football is set up, with only four teams getting in (and formerly only two getting in), your strength of schedule is supremely important. Unlike other sports and other levels of football, your conference constitutes 70-80% or more of your schedule. Like it or not, the conference discussion matters. College football fans–especially outside of the SEC–like to say, “I don’t root for a conference, I root for a team” and disdain the idea of conference loyalty. But in my opinion they do so potentially to their detriment.
Let me illustrate this: In 2007, LSU got in the BCS National Championship game with 2 losses. Oklahoma, also with two losses and a similar resume, did not. Why? I believe in large part because Florida obliterated Ohio St. in the NC the year before and changed the perception of conferences entirely. The SEC went on to win the National Championship that year and the next three years (by 4 different teams). And then in 2011, the controversy of the century occurred when Alabama got in the National Championship over Big XII champion Oklahoma State despite not even winning their division. Why? It was because by then the SEC reputation was formidable after winning an unprecedented five undisputed championships in a row. And it kept happening. In 2012, one-loss Alabama again got in the championships over one-loss Oregon and Kansas State. In 2013, there was no doubt that the one-loss SEC Champion (That year it was Auburn, but it would have been Missouri had they won) was going to get in over one-loss Big Ten Champ Michigan State and one-loss Big XII Champ Baylor. It was a foregone conclusion. A seven-year run of National titles eliminated significant controversy. Auburn owes Alabama who owes LSU who owes Florida. So I root for the SEC in those games because if it is ever my team that needs the benefit of the doubt, even now with a four-team playoff, I want to get it. As the fan of a team that recently had three 11-win seasons and Top Ten finishes in a row, it is not unthinkable to see my team being in this position.
Beyond the opportunity to be considered over teams from other conferences for playoff games, conference association also helps with important things like revenue and recruiting. Conferences get a share of the pie for every bowl game teams play. And top line players my school has gotten to come play, like Jadeveon Clowney, have made it clear they consider the SEC to be big boy football. This affects what happens on the field. I do not think it is coincidence at all that our first three 11-win seasons and our first ever five-game winning streak over our hated rival, Clemson, happened at the height of the SEC run. Even Vanderbilt had back-to-back 9-win seasons when the SEC was on fire. The whole conference benefits each others’ success.
And while the SEC had a dominant run at the top of the college football world, laying claim as best conference most years from 1996 to 2005 and every year from 2006 to 2013, last year brought a resounding end to the SEC’s reign. The SEC East was terrible, highlighted by four of its teams getting swept by the ACC on rivalry weekend and Missouri emerging as champion after losing to 4-8 Indiana out of conference. All five ranked SEC West schools lost their bowl games, two of them in very embarrassing fashion (Ole Miss and Mississippi State). Alabama lost in the playoff as a heavy favorite to traditional SEC whipping boy Ohio State. And so there was no ground to claim the SEC as best. I thought it may just be a one-year hiccup because those happen. But this year the SEC–outside of Bama–was horrid in the regular season. There were no teams in the Top 10 outside of Alabama. The second highest ranked team, Ole Miss, lost at home badly to a four-loss Memphis. The third highest ranked team, Florida, has been awful since their starting QB got suspended, culminating in a beat down vs. Florida State on rivalry weekend. It was a day where the ACC again beat the SEC East. Throw in losses to Toledo, Western Kentucky and the Citadel (by my Gamecocks) and it was a rough year for the SEC before the bowls. The SEC has seen resurrection of sorts in the bowls this year, going 8-2, breaking records for bowl wins and games over .500 for one conference. Yet even with that success, this year for the conference still feels like Alabama and their 13 little brothers.
So the SEC narrative is changing. Now it is not a dominant conference but a good conference with one dominant team. In my opinion, should Alabama win this year it will NOT be another chance to chant “S-E-C!!”. For years people have tried to detract from the SEC’s success by saying that the SEC is just one or two good teams with the rest of the conference just average or riding their coattails. In doing this, they overlook how many different SEC teams have won the championship or finished in the Top 5 in the country in the last decade. (I count at least 8 of the 14). But now that claim is becoming more accurate. I really do not know why the 13 teams outside of Alabama have struggled the last two years; I can only account for my team and I’ll spare you my theories on the demise of the Gamecocks. But if the rest of the conference doesn’t build on this season’s bowl success, then Alabama will continue to be the class of the conference and the benefit of the doubt over playoff position and recruiting advantages for the other 13 will be diminished.
On the other side of the field, you have Clemson, who has earned their way to the top of college football this year without much conference reputation help, similar to Florida St. and Ohio St. the last two years. Until the last three years, the ACC was an afterthought in the college football championship world for a long time. There was a recent stretch of ten years where their champion went 1-9 in the BCS game they played. As recently as 2012 I joked that if you win the SEC, you play for the championship and if you win the ACC you play Northern Illinois in your bowl game. I really thought Clemson’s 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl four years ago would set that program back (wishful thinking). It didn’t. The Tigers coach, Dabo Swinney, has a reputation for remaining positive no matter what. Ever since their loss, the Tigers have maintained an incredibly high morale around the program that has translated into winning 10+ games every year and four straight bowl games over teams like LSU, Ohio St. and Oklahoma. And even their losses have been respectable, all coming to teams that finished in the Top 10 at the end of the year and nothing even closely resembling that West Virginia game. By going undefeated this year they took all the benefit of a doubt out of getting to play for the championship.
So now they have a chance to win it all. And they have done it with a coach who gets players to love and trust him in an unrivaled way, a bevy of four and five-star recruits and coordinators that put together exceptional game plans, especially in bowl games. I marvel at how they lost all linemen on both sides of the ball last year and seemed to get better this year. I marvel at how their best defensive player got injured vs. Oklahoma and they didn’t miss a beat in dominating OU’s line. I marvel at how their offense didn’t slow down when offensive coordinator Chad Morris left. But more than anything, I marvel at how smoothness of their quarterback, Deshaun Watson. He has a real Cam Newton thing going on where he seems unflappable in pressure moments. For instance, he made three big plays against us this year on the 3rd down in a crucial drive in the 4th quarter. I also admire how he almost glides when he runs, especially near the end zone. I always think he is going to get tackled well before he does.
I make no secret that I don’t like Dabo Swinney, but I only mean this in a sports sense; I’m sure he is a fine man. Mostly I don’t like him because of a controversial rant he went on in 2011. But you have to give credit where credit is due. If Clemson wins it all, I will just have to shut up and seethe quietly until we play them next year, and probably much longer. The fact he could keep that program going forward after that 2011 Orange Bowl loss and losing to us five times in a row is amazing. Everything that has happened with the two programs since USC’s Pharaoh Cooper’s TD pass to Brandon Wilds to make it 31-17 USC and clinch the “one for the thumb” in 2013 has seen Clemson move forward and us move backwards. It’s been a nightmare for me and all Gamecocks to be sure.
Who do I think will win? I have no idea. College football is so unpredictable. I hope Alabama wins 52-0 and not so I can chant “S-E-C!!” The Alabama team that romped Michigan St. with offense, defense and special teams “processing” seems like it could beat anyone like a drum. But Clemson never seems to get beat at the line – which is where the SEC was most dominant during their championship run, ask Chip Kelly. Their QB and first RB are as athletic and talented as anyone. Bama has the name reputation, but they lost at home to Ole Miss and didn’t blow out teams like Auburn and Florida who were vastly inferior. So it will probably be close. I’ll say 31-30 Alabama. I know I’ll be singing “You’re Dixie’s football pride, Crimson Tide” the whole night, along with most of Gamecocks nationwide. Help us, Nick Saban. You’re our only hope.
 Florida was NOT going to get into the Championship game in 2006 until Southern Cal lost to UCLA the last weekend. Southern Cal was going to play Ohio St. that year even though both they and Florida had one loss. There was even a loud cry for one-loss Michigan to get a rematch with Ohio St. for the NC, since they were the two best teams by perception. Note as well that in 2004, of the three teams that were undefeated at the end of the year, the SEC team, Auburn, was the one who got left out. “SEC bias” was not a thing until the SEC started earning it on the field.
 The Big XII Champions got left out of the four-team playoff in 2014 mostly because they did not have a championship game. However, even if they had, one of the Power 5 conferences champions with a loss would still have been left out. It would not have been the SEC. 12-1 Alabama was ranked #1 over undefeated Florida State.
 Some fans of college football may note that the SEC did not win the championship in 2013. I still think the SEC was the best conference that year because I do not base “Best Conference” on the simplistic criteria of who wins the championship. I base it on several factors, mostly how the conferences fare head to head in bowls and other even match ups. The SEC has not had a losing record in bowl season since 2002 and most years wins 60-70% of its bowls. No other conference comes close. The 7-years championship run just made it easy to make the argument in a superficial, reductionist culture. But top to bottom, the SEC had been consistently better than other conferences for nearly two decades, despite what the conference’s detractors have claimed.