Hearing the babbling around stadiums and on the radio on the American highways from Texas to Alabama to Pennsylvania, it seems the Big Ten in 2018 has proved something of a scoreboard disappointment. The Atlantic Coast Conference offers much mush. The Big 12 isn’t yet quite believable because belief takes time. And, as it might say even in the National Archives, the Pacific-12 surely will spend the autumn cannibalizing itself.
Meanwhile, in the latest Associated Press poll that can rankle those who secretly desire being rankled, the Southeastern Conference sports the top two teams, three of the top five, half of the top eight and five of the top 13, plus No. 22 and then three more teams in the ORV (“Others Receiving Votes”). The SEC just finished last winter becoming the first conference allowed two teams in the College Football Playoff. Those two next-door neighbors, Alabama and Georgia, won their semifinals and played for a championship both national and regional.
Dauntingly, both were good enough that they couldn’t even decide the thing in regulation.
As if No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Georgia weren’t imposing enough, and as we know No. 2 Georgia has made it big because people are already picking at its anticipated victories, there’s a sturdy case that a wise voter could rank the SEC team situated at No. 5, LSU, at No. 1. LSU has the distinction of having accomplished the most on the actual fields of actual football this actual football season, edging the No. 8 team (Auburn) on the scary road and blasting the No. 17 team (Miami) at a neutral site.
Further, yeah, further, there’s the sudden presence of No. 13 Kentucky (5-0), an entity with which the nation once could comfort itself because Kentucky limited its tail-kicking to basketball, yet functioned less well when the ball didn’t bounce the same way every time you dropped it.
Now Kentucky and its fresh layer of self-image head for Texas A&M (3-2), and that occasion looks damned interesting, with Kentucky 3-0 in the SEC, and with sixth-season Coach Mark Stoops from the Stoops Royal Pigskin Family observing that some parts of the latest win, 24-10 over South Carolina, constituted “as good a football as we’ve played since I’ve been here.”
As the weirdest sport heads into the woods of conference play, which always highlights the neighborly bile and contempt forged across the decades, the Power Five nonconference records against other Power Five conferences go like this: SEC, 6-2; Big Ten, 7-5; Big 12, 4-6; Pac-12, 3-4; ACC, 3-6. Factor in that brute Notre Dame, and it’s 6-3, 7-6, 4-6, 3-5 and 3-7.
Even with that winning record, the Big Ten gets a docking because it has lost six games against the smaller-conference Group of Five teams during those occasionally curious occasions when the economic strata collide. Northwestern lost to Akron, Nebraska lost to Troy, Purdue lost to Eastern Michigan, Illinois lost to South Florida, Maryland lost to Temple and, most dauntingly, Wisconsin lost to Brigham Young, even as we could debate whether Brigham Young belongs in the “Group of Five” at all. BYU subsequently went to Washington last weekend and took a dismantling which, in the calculus of college football, worsened that Wisconsin loss, especially as Washington had gotten edged by Auburn, which is in the SEC.
(It will matter in the College Football Playoff selection committee room, of course, that Washington dared to schedule Auburn. That loss will not echo as groaningly as, say, Virginia Tech against Old Dominion.)
Of the 18 times Group of Five teams have upended Power Five teams this season, the Big Ten and Pac-12 have divided evenly 12 of those barely bearable days, while the ACC has suffered four and the SEC two, both by one proud place having a dismal moment in Hog history: Arkansas.
The Big 12 has zero such losses, with a caveat: It owns the lone Power Five loss to a Football Championship Subdivision team this season, Kansas’s overtime loss to Nicholls State, and for those unfamiliar with the tiers of the sport, the FCS is effectively the sport’s third tier, daring to include even schools that deem academics more important than football, if you can imagine such outrage. The Big 12 is, however, freshly interesting, with Texas reestablishing some prowess, with No. 19 Texas versus No. 7 Oklahoma the top game of the coming weekend, and with West Virginia quite the curiosity.
To remind: The SEC won all seven of the national championships between 2006-07 and 2012-13, produced the national runner-up in both 2011-12 and 2013-14, and managed to spread those riches among four programs, none of which was even Georgia. The rest of the nation reeled and the first selection committee met in October 2014 and thought about it and placed three SEC teams in its coveted top four.
Then came the rest of 2014 when, just as the Big Ten seemed forlorn and forgotten, Ohio State blasted through and won a championship game that featured zero SEC teams. Georgia remained a horse that could hit the board but not top it, while Florida and Tennessee felt the diminished relevance that causes mass mood-mauling.
Then Georgia got itself the kind of aggressively dull coach everyone craves and repositioned itself as a giant, while No. 22 Florida (4-1) will present some riddles for visiting LSU this weekend, even after it lost at home to Kentucky, which has become very good.
Kingpins elsewhere have stumbled some. In the Big Ten, Michigan hasn’t quite surfaced even though it still could. In the Pac-12, Southern California isn’t quite itself. In the ACC, Florida State isn’t itself at all, while Clemson seemed a mastodon above the others until it drifted into quarterback questions and trailed 23-13 in the fourth quarter against Syracuse last weekend before “Clemson-ing,” a term which used to mean something else but now means making the pivotal plays in the tough spots.
In four more Tuesdays, the committee will have met and released its first irrelevant and yet riveting rankings. If the top four include two or even three SEC teams — Four? Surely not — it will provide another signal that the nation has slipped again beneath SEC rule, and will have to dust off the fine American art of seething.