Conference pride arguments are only partly about football. I mean, there's only so much mileage a person can get out of bragging about how successful his rivals are. Living vicariously through Alabama's success should make any right-thinking LSU fan retch.
But it's not about that, not really. It's about the industrial North versus the agrarian South. It's the identity of two regions of the country, both usually dismissed by the cosmopolitan coasts as "flyover country". But college football is not a cosmopolitan sport. It's the province of small towns and large families.
College football isn't just about love, it's about hate. There's nothing like the hate I can drum up for Auburn and Alabama. So SEC fans hate the Big Ten, and the Big Ten hates us right back. We're just a bunch of dumb, ignorant southerners and they are just a bunch of humorless, frigid Yankees. Go complain again how our nice weather makes college baseball unfair.
For nearly a decade, the Big Ten has not really been upholding the part of the bargain. An important part of any good rivalry is competitiveness. An annual ritualistic beating just gets boring after a few years. Ohio St. won a surprising, upset national title against one of the many "best teams ever" in 2002. Michigan claimed a share of the national title, pre-BCS, in 1997. The Big Ten's last outright title before that? Ohio St. in 1968.
It's been a long time, is all I'm saying.
After four different SEC teams traded the title around for seven consecutive years, we've now gone two straight years without an SEC national champion. This season, an SEC did not make the title game for the first time since 2005. The SEC is still a great conference, but the run of undisputed dominance is over.
An ascendant Big Ten is good for college football. Sure, it will lead to more tedious SEC-Big Ten arguments, but tedious arguments about how much better my guys are than your guys is the fundamental basis of sports fandom. Through in some good old fashioned regional bias, and we could be sitting at the dawn of a glorious new era in these conferences rivalry (sorry, Pac-12 and Big 12, no one really hates you).
The storyline of the bowl season is how the Big Ten kicked some major ass and the SEC fell on its face. The Big Ten can rightfully thump its chest over winning the national title and Michigan St. winning perhaps the best bowl game of the year. The SEC West, which spent all year dominating the conversation, went an underwhelming 2-5 with its 6th and 7th place teams providing the wins. After all of the Best Division Ever talk, the SEC West ends the season with only three out-of-conference top 25 wins: LSU over Wisconsin, Auburn over Kansas St, and Ole Miss over Boise St.
The Big Ten's great bowl season wasn't all great. The conference, overall, went 6-5. The down-on-its-luck SEC went 7-5 which, if you'll note, is better. But not by much, and the Big Ten performed better in the high profile games. Still, the foundation of a real rivalry is there.
Even better for college football fans, Ohio St. grabbed the final playoff spot over Baylor and TCU because of the strength of its out-of-conference schedule. Baylor, particularly, was punished for failing to play good teams in the other Power 5 conferences. Alabama, of course, is still exempt from this criteria, but everyone else seems to be held to the simple standard of: who did you play? Who did you beat?
Teams can no longer coast on the reputation of the conference, not even the might SEC. Teams have to go out and actually beat teams, preferably good ones out of conference. Sure, Ohio St lost to a bad Virginia Tech team, but the Buckeyes also played three quality OOC games. Rivalry is great, but it would be even better if this wasn't a proxy war. After this year, it's more likely good teams from the Power 5 conferences will actually play each other, especially because an OOC loss is clearly not a disqualifier from the playoff field.
The SEC's era of dominance is over. The next era promises to be even better for fans.