Jimbo Fisher: "I think we've established ourselves as the premier conference in college football."
— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) July 13, 2017
I suppose it starts in the Big Ten. The legendary 1 vs 2 game against Michigan was so cool and good and awesome that not only was there a serious push for a national championship rematch between both teams, the implicit assumption of the Big Ten as leagues better than every other conference was fairly well cemented.
Then, of course, Urban Meyer and Florida completely skunked the Buckeyes in what at the time was arguably the biggest upset in modern college football history, and Jim Tressel and company followed that up the next year with a loss to LSU in another natty. Cool.
But pretty much nobody thinks of the 2006 championship game as a massive, mind-bending upset anymore. In the years following that loss, it was reframed as being part of a narrative that says the Big Ten sucks and the SEC kicks ass, and at this point those ideas are more or less accepted fact. Florida and LSU being better than a lowly Big Ten team was a given, and inevitable.
So the Big Ten is complicit.
Okay, Ohio State is complicit. As fans of the football team, we can't avoid that. We also, because of these super high profile and brutal losses, can't avoid looking extremely salty when pointing out the inherent absurdity of the entire concept of "conference pride." Which means that I need to choose my words very carefully when responding to Jimbo Fisher's ACC media days claim that his conference stands above all others:
No one cares anymore. It's 2017, the ACC is dumb, you're dumb, everyone is dumb. You are playing right into an extinct narrative that now only exists to let the SEC feel good about itself even though it sucks now. Clemson's accomplishments are not your own. Sorry.
To be completely fair to the SEC and Jimbo, people have debated the merits of conferences and leagues and divisions versus one another forever. Before the American and National leagues played each other with regularity, it was a constant source of debate and discussion among baseball fans about which league had the better overall product. Wars were almost started over designated hitter debates. That's pretty much dead now, thanks to interleague play, but the sentiment is still there.
Likewise, the SEC or the Big Ten or the ACC or whoever else is mostly just playing up the tension between conferences that's always existed in the bowl era. Groups of teams playing each other in games that showcase matchups that you rarely see during the regular season is the perfect excuse to get deliciously partisan. Which is fine! There's nothing wrong with adding some extra sauce to a postseason game, especially when said postseason game is being played in Memphis or Shreveport and is being sponsored by a brake pad company.
However, the SEC chant and conference pride as a means to an end was outdated the second it was brought back to national prominence following 2006 and 2007, and if you're a member of a Power 5 conference it's absolutely not relevant in 2017.
One of the best side effects of the playoff era is the increased emphasis on schools to schedule better out of conference games to help pad out their resume for the playoff committee, and a school with a history of looking for powerful out of conference opponents (like, say, Ohio State), doesn't really have an incentive to worry about what its conference looks like in relation to anyone else. So maybe it's not surprising that the SECs athletic directors, coaches, players, and fans hold on to the mythology that they were able to revive a decade ago.
But hell, you can see the attraction. Here's a clip from 2008 when LSU beat Ohio State for the national title:
Here's a southern football fan super high on his own supply in 2014:
Here's the SEC conference extremely high on their own supply last year, complete with their standard "S-E-C!" tag:
Aaaaaannd here's the SECs anemic out of conference schedule from last year, courtesy of CBSSports.com:
|1||South Carolina||East Carolina, UMass, Western Carolina, AT Clemson|
|2||Arkansas||Louisiana Tech, AT TCU, Texas State, Alcorn State|
|3||Florida||UMass, North Texas, Presbyterian, AT Florida State|
|4||Alabama||USC, Western Kentucky, Kent State, Chattanooga|
|5||Mississippi||Florida State, Wofford, Memphis, Georgia Southern|
|6||Georgia||North Carolina, Nicholls State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Georgia Tech|
|7||LSU||Wisconsin, Jacksonville State, Southern Miss, South Alabama|
|8||Kentucky||Southern Miss, New Mexico State, Austin Peay, AT Louisville|
|9||Vanderbilt||Middle Tennessee State, AT Georgia Tech, AT Western Kentucky, Tennessee State|
|10||Auburn||Clemson, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe, Alabama A&M|
|11||Missouri||AT West Virginia, Eastern Michigan, Delaware State, Middle Tennessee State|
|12||Texas A&M||UCLA, Prairie View A&M, New Mexico State, UTSA|
|13||Tennessee||Appalachian State, Virginia Tech, Ohio, Tennessee Tech|
|14||Mississippi State||South Alabama, AT UMass, AT BYU, Samford|
Even ignoring the prerequisite awful FCS game, outside of a few exceptions it's a predictably weak (and local) out of conference slate. When the playoff system started, the SEC proclaimed that they were simply too tough to take on significant opponents from other conferences, and that mentality has carried over to a time when that's laughably untrue.
Like a snake eating its own tail, the SEC now finds itself bad at football. Last year the conference went 12-16 against teams from other Power 5 conferences, which includes a 6-7 bowl record and losses against the likes of NC State and South Florida. They were a startling 4-10 against the ACC, their closest geographical rivals, and all year were subjected to repeated articles like this one about how the conference is hot garbage. I mean, it is hot garbage, but now I have an incentive to rub it in their faces.
Apparently Jimbo feels the same way. He shouldn't.
Getting caught up in the constant jockeying over conference pride and prestige is a fool's errand at this point. I would argue that the main reason the SEC took such a hit last year in terms of public perception is because they staked their reputation on the idea that the conference as a whole makes every team in it great, and not vice versa. It's not a bad philosophy to have when teams up and down the conference are kicking the asses of every non-conference opponent they meet, because a 48-3 win by Alabama over Texas Tech or whoever can help make a 13-7 Florida win over Georgia seem significant, but as soon as you start losing those games the whole thing falls apart.
Instead, it is much better to focus on beating the hell out of as many different teams nationally as you can. As Ohio State anticipated, tying your fortunes to those of your conference is a gigantic mistake. Even if the Big Ten is horrible on a given year, the Buckeyes have been able to maintain their prestige through some clever and prescient scheduling, making sure that the likes of Texas, USC, Oregon, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and so on always gave them a chance to have a marquee game every season (especially as Michigan fell off the national radar).
It's led to a situation where Ohio State almost at times seems separate from the rest of the conference, which is by design. The last thing that Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes want in a given year is to be attached at the hip in terms of perception to the likes of Rutgers or Maryland. So they aren't. And it feels really, really nice.
Conference pride is stupid for the simple fact that no one in history has ever signed a recruitment letter to the SEC and no coach has ever gushed with pride about leading the Big Ten to a victory. But it's also stupid because when you're a top tier college football team, asking the dredges of your conference to help bolster your case nationally rarely works for long.
Jimbo Fisher and the rest of the ACC will naturally really, really, reeeaaallly want to use Clemson's win over Alabama to make themselves look tough. They will want to read every freaking article about how there's a new sheriff in town, and they might even start chanting "A-C-C! A-C-C!" at bowl games like a bunch of weiners.
That's all well and good, just as long as they don't forget to keep kicking the crap nationwide, too.