As long as college sports are played, debates about conference superiority will endure.
College sports own a regional identity and culture which might not create tribalism, but certainly invite it at every turn. It’s true that some conferences don’t root (heartily) for other member teams to thrive: Whereas many SEC fans rooted for an SEC school in a BCS title game over the previous 15 years, far fewer Michigan fans would ever root for Ohio State (or vice versa) in a College Football Playoff game out of a sense of Big Ten loyalty. Conference pride exists to a certain extent in all cases, but the level varies in different pockets of the country when certain teams are concerned.
Conference debates become fierce — and entrenched — not when certain teams play in big games (because rival fans won’t necessarily come along for the ride), but when the strength of each league is examined. This is the turf battle when fans of blue-bloods and outcasts, of the kings and the peasants, all band together to defend the honor of their own conference.
We are arriving at the time of year in this and every college football season when this specific notion of conference superiority becomes difficult to process and clarify.
These two concepts — conference strength and conference prosperity — sometimes coexist. When great teams meet at the end of the regular season, a conference’s profile is enhanced. No loss is suffered when Team A beats Team B, because Team A is great and merely advances to receive its reward. Strength and prosperity flow together in such a circumstance.
However, there are many situations in which conference strength and conference prosperity work against each other. The 2016 college football season features this dynamic, as opposed to making it marginal or aberrational.
A modest and relatively brief survey of the various Power Five conferences confirms this notion.
In some years, the SEC has owned a strong and deep conference, such that when a national champion emerged, the triumph was the product of overwhelming depth. The SEC swallowed up the rest of college football in those seasons, 2011 and 2012 being representative examples.
However, as alluded to over the weekend in two different pieces, the SEC has become “Alabama and Everyone Else” in this season and the past few seasons. The league is still making the College Football Playoff without fail. Alabama is poised to give the SEC a second straight national title. Yet, unlike 2011 and 2012 (among other examples), these current riches are not really the product of a conference. They’re the product of one team being great in its own sphere of self-created excellence. An apt comparison: The 2014 (pre-Harbaugh) Big Ten wasn’t very good, but Ohio State rose above it and stamped itself as the best team in college football.
That’s Alabama in the 2016 SEC. It’s Clemson in the 2016 ACC to a lesser but still real extent. The Tigers did have to overcome very tough tests against Louisville and Florida State, but the league isn’t deep enough — not yet — to be viewed as an every-week gauntlet the Tigers must endure. Clemson has been able to coast against some teams so that when it arrives at a main-event game, it is mentally fresh.
This dynamic also applies to Washington in the Pac-12.
The Huskies have exceeded expectations through nine games. Even the most optimistic pundit probably didn’t forecast a perfect record heading into Week 11, complete with a second College GameDay appearance in a three-week span. Though USC, Stanford and Oregon have struggled — a scenario which, if contemplated in September, would have suggested Pac-12 doom as far as the playoff is concerned — the Pac-12’s playoff prospects are good thanks to Washington.
The point can’t be overlooked, though: Washington is thriving because its conference is weak. That’s not a knock on the Huskies, but it’s definitely a commentary on the Pac-12. Since the Pac-12 moved to a nine-game league schedule roughly a decade ago, only one team — Oregon in 2010 — has forged a 9-0 record. If Washington and Washington State both win their next two games, the winner of the Apple Cup on Thanksgiving Weekend will notch a 9-0 league mark. It’s a great feat, should it happen… and yet the diminished level of quality in the league is the inescapable reason such a possibility is so real. (Washington State’s big pre-Washington test: at Colorado. U-Dub’s big pre-Wazzu challenge is this upcoming Saturday versus USC.)
These points are easy enough to grasp. What is their larger meaning?
Consider: What exists in a majority of the Power Five conferences right now points to the larger tension — and in this case, contradiction — between “events which are good for a conference’s publicity and bank account” and “events which speak well of a conference’s raw football quality.” They sometimes flow together, but in 2016, they generally militate against each other.
In terms of making the playoff and not being the one Power Five league left out of the candy store, sure, it’s in the best interests of the SEC that Alabama wins out. It’s in the best (financial) interests of the ACC that Clemson wins out. It’s in the best interests of the Pac-12 that Washington runs the table.
If the point of focus is the pure quality of a conference, the SEC will look better, stronger and deeper if Auburn beats Alabama. The ACC will be seen as a tougher, more ferocious league if Virginia Tech or North Carolina beats Clemson in the ACC Championship Game in early December. The Pac-12’s quality will be appreciated by football connoisseurs if USC lives up to its immense talent level and beats Washington in Seattle. A win by Utah or Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship Game (provided that the Utes or Buffaloes win their remaining games before that contest) would lend weight to the idea that the Pac-12 has three or four really good teams, as opposed to being “Washington and 11 nobodies.”
In some seasons, a rising conference tide lifts all boats. In college football 2016, that’s not the case. Alabama, Clemson and Washington are rising above the wreckage of their conferences. (In the Big 12, Oklahoma could do the same; the league would look better if West Virginia beat OU later in the season.) Those shared ascensions could all lead to playoff appearances which would make Greg Sankey, John Swofford and Larry Scott very happy men.
Just realize that what’s good for the playoff cause is not good for the reputations of these conferences — not this season.
Carrying the banner for a conference — praising a bastion of regional pride in a sport with a highly regional identity — is not free of complexities and complications.