By Tommy Hicks
So, as you welcome in the new year after binging on all the bowl games on New Year’s Day and quickly glancing in the rearview mirror at the SEC football season just completed — except, of course, for that one other, rather big and important game to be played Monday night — what is your impression?
There are those who suggest this was a down year for the SEC, but then looking at the matchup for Monday night’s national championship game might make one do a double-take at such a statement. After all, the one certainty from the College Football Playoff finale is that a SEC team will be crowned the best team in the land for the 2017 season.
Alabama, which some said didn’t deserve its spot among the four playoff teams, whipped No. 1 seed and defending national champ Clemson 24-6 in a Sugar Bowl game that was dominated by the Crimson Tide’s defense. It avenged the loss Alabama suffered in the national title game to Clemson a year ago.
In Pasadena, Georgia won a double-overtime thriller against Oklahoma with a true freshman quarterback, a tremendous running game and a defense that came up with the right plays at the right time in the second half after being picked on by Baker Mayfield and his offensive buddies in the first two quarters of play. The Bulldogs were the No. 3 seed, while he Sooners were the No. 2 seed.
Thus, the stage is set for Georgia vs. Alabama for the national championship, and it should be quite the game. It’s like the SEC Championship Game, only better. And bigger. And it’s in Atlanta, where Georgia actually won the SEC Championship a few weeks ago and where Alabama started the season in slamming Florida State.
But we digress.
OK, so if you are looking at the big picture, is this a down year for the SEC or is such talk just crazy?
Let’s take a little closer look. If one judges a conference’s strength by its bowl record, there’s good news and bad news for the SEC. Again, it has two of its members playing for the national championship, so it’s hard not to chalk that one up in the plus column. But the league’s overall bowl record was a less-than-impressive 4-5.
Auburn lost to UCF, a team that didn’t lose a single game this year and following its win over the Tigers has people saying the Knights may have actually deserved a spot in the playoffs — but only, must say, if the playoffs featured eight teams instead of just four. The loss by Auburn was its fourth of the year, leaving the Tigers with a 10-4 record and the memory of those big wins over Alabama and Georgia (in the regular season), that got head coach Gus Malzahn a new contract and quieted the talk of him leaving for Arkansas.
LSU lost to Notre Dame in its bowl game, but South Carolina countered by beating Michigan. And Mississippi State claimed a good win over Lamar Jackson-led Louisville in its bowl game. But Texas A&m lost to Wake Forest (yep), Kentucky lost to Northwestern and Missouri lost to Texas. SEC teams outscored their bowl opponents by just three points combined, 270-267. And while Georgia and Alabama looked quite good, as well as Mississippi State, especially under an interim head coach (Greg Knox) and limited staff with Dan Mullen’s departure to Florida. The South Carolina win over Michigan, a comeback victory, was a good one as well.
Otherwise, things were so-so to not that good.
And consider this: eight of the SEC’s 14 teams ended their season with a loss (the number will actually go to nine after the national championship game because Georgia and Alabama are currently both counted as winning their final game, and while one of them will keep that mark, one will not). Consider that three East Division teams and one West Division team had losing records.
There were more than a couple of bad losses tossed in there. Tennessee didn’t win a single SEC game (but hey, they still have that Champions of Life title bestowed upon them by former head coach Butch Jones last year. So there’s that). Georgia won the East crown without much of a fight. Auburn and Alabama shared the West title but Alabama had to sit out the SEC Championship Game because of the head-to-head loss to the Tigers, which actually ended up being a good things because it allowed time for some injured players to heal and be ready for Clemson and the CFP semifinal win.
In truth, is there really a reason to vote down year or good year? What’s the adage? People only remember who won, and this year, it’s an SEC team that will lay claim to that title for the 2017 season. And not a lot else matters.
Tommy Hicks, a Phenix City native, has covered sports in Alabama for more than 40 years. Contact him at email@example.com.