Oh, it is so close to football season. You can almost taste it in the air. We're almost through the silliness of Media Days for each conference, and we're a few weeks shy of players actually hitting each other. OK, it'll be their teammates, but we're close.
There is no greater sign that we are almost ready for the season to begin than the usual cacophony of taunts that the SEC is overrated. It's like seeing birds beginning to fly south. Heck, this year, even Paul Finebaum is getting in on the act.
It's not like the SEC can pretend the value of the brand hasn't slipped. After seven straight titles, the SEC has now gone TWO WHOLE YEARS without a title and worse yet, it did not have a representative in the title game for the first time since Texas and USC were playing the Game of the Century, version one.
The SEC dropping a gigantic goose egg in New Years Day Bowls didn't help, going 0-5. The bloom is off the rose, and the rest of the country is poking around to look at the man behind the curtain. Any aura of invincibility to SEC once died last year. The SEC has gone from arguing for two of its teams in the playoffs to wondering if it will even get one this season, given the parity we might see in the Western Division. Gus Malzahn is already on the case:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Auburn's Malzahn told me he thinks SEC at disadvantage in CFP because of strength of the league. Others fresher for playoff as result.</p>— Trav Haney (@TravHaneyESPN) <a href="https://twitter.com/TravHaneyESPN/status/623567903833591808">July 21, 2015</a></blockquote>
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No one is buying that line anymore. So, no, the SEC is not overrated because no one, outside of some die hard partisans, honestly believes that the SEC is so much better than everyone else that it should automatically get a team in the playoff. SEC conference membership is no longer a golden ticket.
This is a good thing for college football. It's also a good thing for the SEC. The delusional belief that no one outside of the conference's borders could play top tier football was embarrassing for the bulk of SEC fans, as we got plopped in the same bucket as the average Finebaum caller.
Get this, other teams can play pretty well. The Pac-12 South is every bit as loaded as the SEC West. Ohio St. is a monster under Urban, poised to dominate the Big Ten, though it's not as if the conference is devoid of legit contenders. The decline of Texas has allowed traditional minnows TCU and Baylor to blossom into powers. It may not be a longterm reality, but for right now, two of the best programs in the country are in Texas, and neither play in Austin or College Station. OK, the ACC is still a bit of "Florida St. and a bunch of other teams," but given how the ACC smacked around the SEC in its rivalry games last year, perhaps we shouldn't throw too many stones.
The fall in the SEC's reputation means we can start looking at the playoff system with clear eyes, instead of wondering how many SEC teams we can cram into it. With a four-team playoff and five major conferences, we can see that conference reputation is still going to play a large role in crowning a national champion.
That's a silly system, but it's better than the one we had, and likely the one we are going to live with for some time. I still think we'll eventually see expansion, and a requirement that all five major conference champions get an invite, but that could be a decade away. Last year was almost the perfect storm of five legit contenders, and everyone seemed to walk away satisfied, except Baylor and TCU fans.
But it does mean that as long as the four-team playoff system endures, so will arguments about conference strength. Because, like it or not, the argument matters. Arguing that your conference is the best conference and everyone else's is the worst isn't just regional triumphalism... it's the first part of the lobbying effort to get your team into the playoff.