OK, class, we know school has just begun, but we are springing a surprise pop quiz on you.
Is the Southeastern Conference truly the best conference in college football?
The correct answer, until proven otherwise, is yes. Still, yes.
The SEC rules because it has the best program in the nation the last decade in Alabama; because it has had nine national champions in the last 13 seasons with four different teams; because it and the ACC are the only two to have placed a team in all five of the College Football Playoff brackets; because the NFL goes there more than anywhere else to find its players; and because the SEC has three of the best 10 coaches in the nation in Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Jimbo Fisher.
“I don’t know that anybody is qualified to say which one is better or worse than another,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “I mean, play the games.”
He will soon enough, kicking off against sixth-ranked LSU on Saturday.
And never mind that the SEC had a disastrous opening week with some of their teams losing to an opponent from the Sun Belt, to a Conference USA team, to a team picked fourth in its own division of the Mountain West Conference and to a North Carolina club coming off a 2-9 season and breaking in a new, old coach who looks very familiar.
It might mean more in the SEC, but last Saturday, for the most part, it just hurt more.
Especially when you’re losing to Georgia State, Wyoming, Memphis and North Carolina. And that doesn’t even count Arkansas barely surviving a scare from FCS Portland State. Or maybe it was the Portland Trail Blazers.
The big winner was Auburn, which actually led for only nine seconds against Oregon. But they were the right nine seconds as the Tigers came back from a 15-point deficit to knock off the Ducks with a freshman quarterback.
Hey, it’s all about the scoreboard.
And the ultimate scoreboard insists the SEC still ranks supreme.
Yes, a valid argument could be made that it is very top-heavy with Alabama, Georgia and LSU, but so is the Big 12. Oklahoma and Texas looked strong, but Iowa State was lucky to avoid getting upset by Northern Iowa as was West Virginia against FCS James Madison.
And some leagues like the Pac-12 are no-heavy. Oregon, you blew your chance. And don’t look for help from USC, whose starting quarterback J.T. Daniels is lost for the season.
As for the five years of the CFP rankings, the Pac-12 has failed to qualify a team three times. The Big Ten has missed the last two seasons, and the Big 12 has missed two of the five with Oklahoma as the league’s only representative. That doesn’t suggest balance.
The SEC also has upgraded the most important position on the field after being lackluster. Two quarterbacks are Heisman candidates in Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia’s Jake Fromm, and two more are knocking on the door in Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and LSU’s Joe Burrow. Bo Nix got off to a shaky start for Auburn before settling in and throwing the game-winner, and Kelly Bryant is working through some rust.
Tom Herman doesn’t sound convinced.
In fact, he looked downright puzzled when I asked him on Monday if he agreed that the SEC is the premier league in the country.
“It’s not my job to judge whether one conference is better than the others, but I know this: I haven’t had one NFL scout or general manager telling me they’re drafting kids based on a patch on their jersey or anything like that,” Herman said.
Maybe not, but that’s usually the conference where NFL scouts and general managers are headed. Know that for 13 years running, the SEC has led all conferences in players drafted. Thirteen years.
The SEC had 64 players taken in this spring’s NFL draft. The second-most proficient conference? That’d be the Big Ten with 40. Little bit of a dropoff there. The Pac-12 was next with 33, followed by the ACC at 28 and the Big 12 at 26.
Nine of those 64 SEC draftees were selected in the first round. Alabama had three of those as well as 10 overall. Texas A&M had seven players drafted, Ole Miss six and Kentucky five.
True, the league does have 14 teams, so there’s strength in numbers. There’s also strength in defensive lines, and NFL teams make a living by plucking them from places like Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge.
Early mock NFL drafts for next spring cite as many as 13 SEC players in the first round by draftwire.com and 12 by CBSsports.com. So don’t look for that trend to change.
So the draft is a pretty good barometer.
Dabo Swinney, the one guy who legitimately can take umbrage over the SEC’s perceived dominance after beating Alabama for titles two the last three years, weighed in this summer and poked the bear.
“Listen, the SEC is a great conference, but I don’t think they’ve been as deep the last few years,” the Clemson coach told ESPN. “I think they’ve had two or three really good teams, and then it’s kind of been hit-or-miss from there. It’s an awesome league, for sure, and I know people say that Alabama was tired because they went through the grind and had to play all these teams. Well, they won by an average of 33.1 points per game (entering the CFP), so they ought to be well-rested.”
Swinney did have a strong point.
“My thing on that is, ‘Are you serious? They’re tired?’ Then you look at Clemson, and we won 12 games by 20-plus,” he said. “Who really challenged Alabama in the SEC? They didn’t get challenged by anybody until the Georgia [SEC title] game.”
That said, I’m sure Swinney would prefer battling it out week to week in the softer ACC rather than the SEC. Those collisions in the SEC just hurt more.
Herman wasn’t trying to demean the SEC, just saying he’s not sure how to validate such a notion. He was raving about LSU on Monday and said, “This will be as talented a defense as we have seen in our time here. They’ve got NFL players at pretty much every position.”
Uh, yeah. Guess that means LSU’s one of the best teams from, well, what is still the best conference.