Once upon a time, the BCS championship was not the Southeastern Conference’s domain. In fact, despite the six consecutive national champions by the SEC, that period of parity in college football was not long ago. The SEC claimed exactly one BCS title before its current run, which dates back to 2006, so what happened so drastically and quickly that the composition of the college football landscape began to tip the scales toward the realm of Alabama, Auburn and Florida?
Several of the SEC coaches, such as Nick Saban of Alabama, who is vying for a national title this year, and Steve Spurrier of South Carolina, are previous NFL coaches. The conference also has three Heisman trophy winners to its name since 2006, all of which occurred during this current championship streak. However, it is difficult to believe that the coaches and players purely capture such a sudden gap of this magnitude in national title contention, especially given how quickly this supremacy emerged. At some level, preobservation perceptions have positively impacted the SEC’s chances at titles. AP preseason polls are constantly saturated with these apparently dominant teams from the South, with five in the top ten this year.
The way the system is constructed, losing to a top team, particularly in a close game, negatively affects a team’s ranking less than a loss to a weaker opponent. There is nothing wrong with that principle in isolation. But when a majority of the perceived “top teams” are concentrated in one conference, it essentially guarantees the conference at least one, maybe two, berths in the championship game, even if those teams did not even win their own division in the conference — just see Alabama’s run to the title last season.
Assessing the validity of the SEC’s consistent high rankings simultaneously assesses whether they come as a result of self-fulfilling expectations. The SEC makes a strong case that it does deserve to consistently have a large percentage of the nation’s ranked teams. From 2003 to 2011, about 64 percent of SEC teams ranked 11-25 in preseason AP polls (to focus on marginally ranked teams) remained a top team at the end of the season. The six straight national championships from the SEC’s 10 percent share of the nations’ teams also speak toward their rankings, which is why nearly everyone expected an SEC team like Alabama to find its way to the championship game.
In a completely different era, Notre Dame was a college football powerhouse. Given the competitive environment of today, nobody expected the Fighting Irish to be number one in the nation going into winter break this season. Conventional wisdom, in this case, had a solid basis. Over the same time period, 2003-2011, Notre Dame was ranked in the preseason poll six times, but four of those times, the Irish finished unranked. Rick Reilly, an award-winning sports columnist, said before the season that football had passed Notre Dame and the team would have to regain legitimacy to regain respect. Reilly even promised to polish the famous Notre Dame helmets if they fully defied the history of the system and beat USC to clinch their spot in the national championship. Notre Dame came away victorious and they will now don Reilly-polished helmets in Miami on January 7.
Can Notre Dame finish off an improbable season and hoist the trophy? That remains to be seen. What the football landscape can surely witness this January is the reasserted dominant conference of today, and a reminder of the sport’s proudest tradition; a quintessential clash of the present and the past. In Miami, one month from now, Notre Dame will be hoping to start a new era of success. With or without a victory, that era will no longer exist alone on a precipice, but instead it will be squarely in the midst of the SEC’s reign of the early 21st century.