SEC Bias? What Do the Facts Say?
Writing for Pencil Storm, the brainchild of Midwestern musical legend and Ohio State superfan Colin Gawel, I feel pretty sure this piece will be read largely by Big Ten loyalists, many of whom have been loudly complaining about alleged “SEC bias” in the media and in the polls for years. Therefore, I shall begin with a full disclosure of my football allegiance: I am an Auburn fan and damn proud of it. Doesn’t matter to me if the Tigers go 12 and 0 or 0 and 12. I have been known to complain about our defense on occasion, but you’ll never get me to say a bad word in print about the Auburn football program. Never.
That doesn’t make me a shill for the SEC. In fact, I really couldn’t care less about the conference. When the bowls come around every year (contests I still think of as more or less exhibitions, even with the advent of the playoff system), people will often assume I root for all of the SEC teams because I am an “SEC fan.” Far from it. I don’t care whether Mississippi State or Texas A&M wins or loses as long as they’re not playing Auburn. Same goes for Kentucky and LSU and Georgia and most of the league.
I may watch Ole Miss in the Weedeater Bowl or South Carolina in the GalleryFurniture.com Bowl, but that’s only because I love football so much. Bowl season is just the last chance to see college ball for eight long months. I am not rooting for another SEC triumph when I watch those games. In fact, on the occasions when I do care about the outcome of an SEC bowl game, it’s almost always because I want a team from the league to lose. As an Auburn fan, I shouldn’t have to say it, but I will state for the record that I always want Alabama to go down in a flaming heap. (Big thanks to the Buckeyes, by the way!) Even if a Bama victory would somehow help Auburn, I don’t think I could bring myself to pull for the Tide. Same goes for Tennessee. And to a lesser degree Florida. To me, the SEC has one team I love, three teams I hate, and ten other teams I’m vaguely aware of.
If you read what I’m about to write and say to yourself, “Oh, Plez is just another SEC homer,” you are plain, dead wrong. I may not be able to convince you of that, but it’s true. In the fall of the year, my life may be consumed by SEC football, but it makes no difference to me where the SEC ranks against the other conferences. I only really care where Auburn ranks within the league. And most of the year, I don’t even care about that exactly. I’m only concerned with where we rank in the western division of the SEC. Beyond that, I don’t give a hoot about the conference we play in. If Auburn moved to the ACC or the Big 12 (fat chance, but if), I would suddenly start buying preview magazines for our new conference and I’d cancel my subscription to the SEC Network in a hot second. Believe it.
Get what I’m saying? I have no loyalty to the SEC whatsoever.
I do have some loyalty to the truth, and I have to say that all of this talk of SEC bias is just false. Demonstrably false. A lot of people like to believe in grand conspiracies of various types, but like most conspiracy theories, there really just isn’t much evidence out there to support this one. Think about it logically for a moment. If the media conglomerates and the polls were really interested in scheming to make sure a certain conference always came out on top, do you really think they would choose the SEC? SEC schools tend to be in small southern towns. Hell, a few of them (Auburn and Alabama included) don’t even have commercial airports. You want to fly to Auburn? Your best choice is probably Atlanta—over 100 miles away and in a different state.
If the media were smart, you’d think they would plan their conspiracy so that a conference with truly big market teams would get the advantage. How about the Pac 12? They play in places like Seattle and Salt Lake City. Oh yeah, and they have not one but two teams in Los freaking Angeles, with a metro population of roughly eighteen million. Fewer than 60,000 people live in Auburn. Fewer than 100,000 in Tuscaloosa. And Ole Miss (ranked as high as #4 in the College Football Playoff rankings and #3 in the AP rankings this year) is located in Oxford, MS, population about 15,000. The two largest cities in the SEC are Nashville, TN, and Lexington, KY, home of the two perennial bottom dwellers in the league, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
And it’s not just the Pac 12 that has bigger markets than the SEC. Big Ten universities and cities are bigger (on average) than their SEC counterparts, too. Columbus, OH, is large, y’all, especially when compared to anywhere in SEC land. The Big Twelve Conference has two cities (Austin and Ft. Worth) approaching a million in population. The ACC is based in places like Miami, Pittsburgh, the Raleigh-Durham area, and Atlanta, the city with the biggest metropolitan area in the football-obsessed south. Seems like Georgia Tech would be getting more of that media love (especially with so much of the media based in Atlanta) if the people running this alleged conspiracy knew anything about marketing.
I can’t imagine why the media would deliberately design this conspiracy so as to avoid some of the biggest television markets in the country. But if that argument doesn’t persuade you, how about some good old facts to solidify my case? Can do.
Football is a sport, not a popularity contest, right? We’re told that teams need to “prove it on the field” and that polls don’t mean anything, and I couldn’t agree more. The winning team—more often than not—is the better team. Therefore—stay with me here because we’re getting to the core of it—the conference that has done the most winning over the years is the best conference, no? I think that’s the one inescapable truth that puts the lie to all of this conspiracy talk. The SEC isn’t the best because the conference has been voted to be the best or because they get more media coverage or because the playoff system was designed to favor them. The SEC is the best because they flat out win more games than any other league.
And that is not my interpretation. Nor is it a result of media bias.
It is a simple fact. Or rather, a collection of facts that all lead to the same conclusion. (Please note: The records below include all of this year’s regular season and bowl games, but not the National Championship Game because it hasn’t been played yet as of this writing.)
I think it’s fair to say that the title of “best conference in college football” is going to wind up being claimed by one of the “Power Five” conferences: ACC, Big Ten, Big Twelve, Pac 12, and SEC. So let’s look at the long-term data on inter-conference matchups among these leagues. The SEC has a 61.3% all-time winning percentage (524-308-23) against the other four major conferences. The Big Ten is next with a 50.3% winning percentage (598-561-30) in inter-league play. None of the other major conferences has a winning percentage in such games. The ACC comes in at just 36.1% (261-448-13). The Pac 12 has an all-time record of 452-464-25 (48.0%), and the Big 12 is just behind at 427-481-27 (45.7%). Seems like the SEC has done a good bit more to “prove it on the field” than any of the other conferences, no? And the media didn’t play a single down in any of those games!
“But,” you may ask, “what about bowl games?” OK, true, the bowls are traditionally thought of as the place where conferences prove themselves. And yes, the SEC had some notable losses in this year’s bowl season. With twelve teams in the “post-season” (a term I think only loosely applies in college football), the SEC went 7-5, with five of those losses by teams in the much-heralded SEC West, including my beloved Auburn Tigers, who lost in overtime to a resurgent Wisconsin team. (I pause now to re-stiffen my upper lip and wipe away a tear.)
And yes, those SEC West losses were embarrassing ones in some cases, such as TCU’s demolition of Ole Miss and an LSU heartbreak in a squeaker against a Notre Dame team that had been struggling late in the season. And more importantly, those losses came in some of the biggest bowl games of the year, including most notably Bama’s loss to Ohio State in the semi-final game at this year’s Sugar Bowl. (And I want to reiterate my heartfelt thanks for that one!) The overall results were very disappointing for the league office, I’m sure, but the SEC still came away with a winning record (58.3%).
Let’s put this season’s SEC losses into a larger perspective, then. A winning percentage of nearly 60% puts the league in second place among the major conferences. The plain truth is that the SEC didn’t do that badly this year in the bowls. The losses just came at some bad times.
Over the last 25 seasons, the SEC has had by far the best winning percentage among Power Five conferences in bowl games. Winning 113 games and losing 73 in that span, the SEC has compiled a 60.8% winning percentage. Compare that to the other leagues:
Pac 12: 72-69 (51.1%)
Big 12: 79-79 (50.0%)
ACC: 77-83-1 (47.8%)
Big 10: 74-94-1 (43.8%)
By winning 58.3% of its bowl games this year, the SEC is (gasp) right where they always have been, statistically speaking.
So here are two conclusions for you to consider, and these are based on facts, not on wild speculation and conjecture, but facts:
One: The SEC’s dominance is real, not a myth, not a result of polls and media coverage that follow the orders of some shadowy football overlords executing a grand conspiracy. Not a result, that is, of “SEC bias,” but a simple fact proven by the league’s performance on the field over time.
Two: Despite all of this talk of the SEC falling apart in the bowl season, there’s no reason to declare the SEC king dead just yet. In fact, the SEC seems to be doing about as well as ever.
I know some people will balk at the above conclusions, but if you do, just know this: The facts do not support your case.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I know why people hate the SEC. They hate the SEC for the same reason I hate the New York Yankees. As an Atlanta Braves fan and a supporter generally of the National League, I’m just sick and tired and getting beaten by the freakin’ Yankees and seeing them smugly hoisting trophies over their heads.
But c’mon, the Yankees haven’t won 27 championships because the media was biased in their favor. They have won because they have a powerful and well-built organization with a hell of a lot of money behind it. They have won because, year after year, they manage to get players that are a little bit better than those on the other teams. And like the SEC, the Yankees play in a very competitive environment, so they don’t always win it all, but over time, the win more games and more pennants than anybody else. Even in a bad year for them in 2014, they finished second in their division and had a winning record.
That’s how the SEC operates, too. They just recruit better players and put more time, money, and effort into the sport than the other leagues do. The gap between the SEC and the other conferences isn’t always enormous, and in some seasons, there is no gap to be found, but over time, you can count on the SEC to be the Yankees of college football conferences.
I don’t say that with pride. I just say it with the facts behind me.
Now, please, if you want to end the SEC’s irritating dominance of college football, get out on that field and do what Ohio State just did: Knock the king off the top of the mountain. As long as you’re not beating Auburn, I’m ok with that. And if you beat Alabama or Tennessee, I’ll probably offer to buy you a beer to show my heartfelt gratitude. But until the other conferences start winning like the SEC does, quit blubbering about this mythical SEC bias that has no basis in fact.
It’s sad to hear that kind of loser talk coming from Big 10 country, and I know the good, hard-working people of the Midwest are better than that.