The Real Problem for SEC Football? Someone Has to Finish Last

Quick: Who’s your pick for last place in the SEC West next year?

Choose from 1 of 7 teams that could conceivably win the national title if things break the right way. One will finish last.

Amazing, isn’t it? Though it has been ridiculed for its string of unexpected bowl losses (by Alabama, by LSU, by Ole Miss, by Mississippi State, and by Auburn), few serious College Football fans would argue that the SEC West isn’t still the best all around division in the sport. Why? Because its programs all expect to win big every year. And they act accordingly.

That’s why picking a last place team is so hard – because all 7 institutions (the above 5 + Arkansas + Texas A&M) spend, and hire, and recruit and plan and scheme as if they’re competing for national championships. That’s the standard in the SEC. National championships.

After Ohio State upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, talk across the college football universe has centered, gleefully in parts, on the end of SEC dominance and superiority. The SEC’s biggest rivals laud Urban Meyer’s SEC-ization of Ohio State’s roster. Enemies of the SEC are giddy about Jim Harbaugh’s hiring at Michigan, as they habitually look for any development to convince themselves that the tide of SEC domination has been stemmed, that the conference has lost its edge, that the gap has closed.

There may be a shred of truth to this argument, but the Harbaugh and Meyer hirings are circumstantial, not systemic developments. There’s nothing new about Michigan and Ohio State trying to win at the highest level. The hiring of great coaches at Ohio State and Michigan, or Florida State’s resurgence under Jimbo Fisher, are not threats to the SEC. That’s silly. The real threat to the SEC is the SEC itself.

Is the SEC too good for its own good?

The truth is that the SEC will no longer, nor will any one conference, singularly dominate the CFB playoff. In a playoff format, there’s bound to be more variance in the conference affiliation of the eventual champion. Yet the SEC still dominates recruiting – in 2014 7/10 top classes belong to the SEC. That’s not going to change unless the SEC decides to move out of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.

The other vital edge the SEC will always have is that their programs – meaning their fans, communities and therefore administrators – just care more about winning.

The hyper competitiveness of SEC football is about more than the games. SEC Football is a never ending arms race of coaching hires, coordinator hires, staff restructurings, and facility upgrades in which all 14 league schools are behaving like corporate competitors fighting each other 24-7-365 to win market share and kill off the competition.

Other conferences simply don’t have that. Not at the same level. Not at all. Some like to pretend the PAC 12 and B1G are getting there, but is anyone really convinced that Purdue, Indiana, Illinois or Northwestern are doing whatever it takes to keep up with Ohio State? Or that Colorado, Cal and Washington State are genuinely trying to compete with Oregon? No. Because it’s not true. They certainly invest in football and in some instances (Colorado) have alot of history and tradition – but they’re not trying like the SEC is trying. Fact is, some schools in some conferences don’t need to be successful in football. Kansas, Iowa State, Syracuse, Wake Forest, etc… don’t need to be successful football.

SEC schools need to be successful in football.  And therein lies the real problem for the SEC:

Someone has to finish last (in each division) every year.

And someone else has to finish 6th (in each division).

And someone else has to finish 5th (in each division).

And when they do, something is going to hit the fan. Because everybody cares in the SEC. Everybody.

Consider some of the SEC coaching moves this offseason:

Last week, longtime LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis left for the same position at SEC rival Texas A&M. His new salary? $1.67m per year. LSU reportedly offered a similar contract, but reports out of Louisiana indicate Chavis was lured by the promise of working with a superior offensive unit. The extra $340k annually probably didn’t hurt. Does the B1G or PAC 12 have these kinds of intra-conference, intra-division staffing wars? Not to the same degree, no.

After he was fired as head coach at Florida (2 years after winning 11 games and guiding his team to the Sugar Bowl), Will Muschamp was hired for 3 years at $1.6m annually at SEC Rival Auburn, who is cleaning house defensively, including firing Coordinator Ellis Johnson just one year after he helped lead Auburn to the BCS title game. Among Muschamp’s other opportunities? The same position at yet another SEC school, South Carolina. Would a coordinator in another conference get fired one year after leading his unit to a BCS Championship game? Probably not.

It’s no accident that Muschamp and Chavis’ hirings came immediately after seasons in which Auburn and Texas A&M both failed to meet expectations. Though both schools finished a respectable 8-5 in the rugged SEC West, both were virtually eliminated from playoff consideration months ago after piling up early losses. Auburn finished 4th, and A&M 6th in the division – which though respectable, won’t satisfy fans of either school.

When SEC fans aren’t satisfied, heads roll. More expensive heads are brought in. Bigger name heads are brought in. That’s just how it goes at every conference school. Even Vanderbilt – the one school you might arguably be able to say doesn’t really care about winning championships – cleaned house on staff after just 1 disappointing year under new head coach Derek Mason. That’s right, even at Vandy you might not get more than one year to show your stuff. Vandy. Hyper. Competitive.

The SEC has arguably 100% of its football membership competing for championships. No other league can match that, but would they even want to? The gauntlet that the SEC has become doesn’t mean it won’t be the best conference – it will be – but it could mean the conference will find it more difficult to have its champion survive well enough to win the playoff. By the time the playoff rolled around, it sort of feels like an afterthought to an Alabama team that had been in war after war for months. October was a lifetime ago. That’s a difficult endeavor.

Is the SEC too competitive for its own good?

The SEC’s television deal, including portions with both CBS and ESPN (who operates the new SEC Network) is worth approximately $400m per year. The league distributed $20.9 million per school in 2013-14, but that number is expected to grow to the neighborhood of $40m per school per year as the SEC Network’s impact begins to be felt. In other words, everybody’s rich. Every school has resources, and every school is using them. Because they have to. Their consumers demand it.

Their bowl performance aside, it’s an accepted fact that the SEC West is a gauntlet of programs who, without exception, expect to compete for the SEC and therefore the national championship every year. But the SEC East, ridiculed in recent years for its weakness, has closed the gap. Georgia and Florida are traditional, yearly powers. Tennessee appears to be returning to power status now that Butch Jones is locked up, as are multiple top recruiting classes. UT happily coughed up $3.6m annually to make sure Jones had no thoughts of leaving Rocky Top in the middle of what appears to be a successful rebuild. South Carolina took a step back after 3 consecutive 11-2 finishes, but several of their losses were close and they figure to stay competitive nationally, at least in the near term.

And the rest of the division – including 2 time defending SEC East champion Missouri – are pouring more and more money into making sure their teams have every resource in order to compete for championships.

For example:

  • Missouri recently completed a $45m expansion of Memorial Stadium which included a new skybox, two suites, 1,200 premium seats and more than 4,100 new upper-deck seats. They’re now working on an indoor practice facility.
  • Kentucky just released plans for a $45m football training facility, complete with tricked-out new locker room, featuring a giant interlocking UK on the ceiling, and players lounge with multiple TVs and a gaming area. There will be new meeting rooms with theater-style seating and new coaches’ offices overlooking two grass practice fields. This on top of a $110m renovation of their football stadium.
  • Vanderbilt, as mentioned, had a terrible year, but is just a year removed from opening a new $31m facility that former coach James Franklin said is nicer than Penn State’s current setup.

This hyper-competitive landscape is only found in the SEC. Other conferences barely approach it, none match it. It’s what makes the SEC the best, but the advantage might not translate into results on the field or happiness for its fans. After all, not only is surviving this gauntlet and advancing to a playoff a herculean challenge, but what about the team that finishes last? What about the program that hired a coach for millions, put together a top ranked recruiting class, built a new jumbo tron and new locker room, worked its fans up with slick marketing campaigns and fancy uniforms and spent every dollar they could possibly spend to compete for the league championship and therefore a national championship. What happens when that team finishes last?

It’s a valid question. Because it’s going to happen. To 2 teams. Next year – and every year.

That’s the real problem.

The SEC – where a national champion contender finishes last every year.