By Mark Knudson @MarkKnudson41 Special to WoodyPaige.com
For the second time this decade, College Football’s national championship game will feature a pair of teams from the same conference – Alabama and Georgia from the wildly popular AND wildly UNpopular Southeastern Conference. Love ‘em or hate ‘em.
Back in the 2011 season, Alabama and LSU reprised a regular season game that was a complete dud. In that game, the Tigers tripped up the Tide 9-6 in an overtime battle of field goals. The rematch began much the same way before Alabama pulled away to win 21-0. Fans were not enthralled, but there was little question that SEC football reigned supreme. The Crimson Tide’s title was the sixth in a row for the SEC. They’d make it seven straight the following season.
Fans grew tired of the SEC dominance, and some people believe that having an SEC rematch in the national title game that season was the impetus for the sport to finally getting a College Football Play-off…so two teams from the same conference wouldn’t meet in the title game ever again.
“Again” is happening six short seasons later, and it’s no less distasteful even if the circumstances are different.
The play-off formula will likely get some additional tweaking following another All-SEC title game. Alabama didn’t even reach the SEC title game this season, while conference champs Ohio State and USC were left out. That kind of exclusion will probably be fixed in the not-too-distant future, as it should.
It should because the SEC, while fielding two of the best teams in the country this season, is no longer the “top-to-bottom” dominant league it was six years ago when it was easy to make a case for the rematch. Changes in the way the NCAA handles scholarships for student athletes has created a more level playing field and as a result, the SEC – outside its top two teams – is not as deep as, for instance, the Big Ten is now. It would have been a more representative play-off to have all four play-off teams be conference champions, playing for the big prize.
The Big Ten got left out of the play-off, but the conference team’s bowl game performances were outstanding. It would be too simple to throw out the Big Ten’s 7-1 bowl record and call it “proof” that the Big Ten is now the best conference. You needed to watch and then apply the eyeball test, having seen dominating performances by Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin in New Year’s Six Bowls. Mid level Big Ten teams rolled over foes from the Pac 12 and ACC as well.
Meanwhile, the other SEC teams struggled. Auburn, who beat both Georgia and Alabama during the regular season before losing the conference title game to the Bulldogs, was beaten by Central Florida. LSU lost, and so did Missouri, Kentucky and Texas A&M. Five of the seven non-play-off SEC teams got beat and didn’t look great doing it.
So while it’s still great at the top of the SEC, the stuff underneath isn’t so special anymore. Top-to-bottom, the Big Ten is proving to be the stronger conference.
Why is this? Because back before the 2015-2016 school year, the powers that be within the NCAA did something really really smart. While the highly publicized and long overdue “cost of attendance stipend” was finally being added to athletic scholarships, the NCAA was also passing legislation that prevented schools from choosing not to renew a student-athlete’s scholarship for “athletic reasons.” They wiped away the provision that allowed athletic scholarships to be subjected to “annual renewal” and players to be effectively “cut” NFL-style.
The Big Ten as whole had been guaranteeing four –year scholarships since 2014. Many schools in other conference did the same. But there were plenty of schools, largely in the SEC, that used the “annual renewal” clause to discard their weakest players at the end of each school year. This opened up more scholarships. Then, they would bring in recruiting classes that far surpassed the 25-per-year limit to fill the voids they’d purposely created. “Oversigning” was a practice that coaches like Steve Spurrier – then at South Carolina – openly endorsed. “They should have to earn their scholarships year-to-year” said the coach with the multi-year contract. He criticized the Big Ten for NOT allowing oversigning, noting that it left the conference with “a lot of walk-ons being put on scholarship.” Coincidence that Spurrier quit coaching the Gamecocks shortly after the four-year scholarship guarantee was put into place? Probably not.
The four year scholarship rule has effectively squelched over-signing. Now that a scholarship can’t be opened up simply because a recruit didn’t measure up the way the coaches projected he would, there aren’t enough empty spots to fill for many more of those 30+ recruiting classes that a whole lot of SEC schools were getting away with bringing in a few short years ago. Now, recruiting mistakes (a player doesn’t turn out to be as good as the coaches thought he would be) and injuries have the same effect on SEC teams as they do on everyone else.
Regardless of the new rules, the truly great college football coaches and programs will still be great. In the case of Alabama, it was noted that this year’s team wasn’t quite as “deep” as in past seasons. That’s something they can handle in Tuscaloosa, but maybe not quite as well in Baton Rouge, Lexington and Columbia.