It’s easy to overlook the SEC right now. Just go look at the polls -- there’s not a team from the conference in the top four. LSU, which is undefeated and No. 5 in the coaches’ rankings, received just one first-place vote. In the AP poll, Les Miles’ Tigers are devalued even more, coming in at No. 7 despite possessing arguably the best college football player on the planet in Leonard Fournette.
Here’s the thing: No one knows who to believe in. And it’s the primary reason why the SEC won’t get a team in playoff when it’s all said and done.
First, it felt like Auburn was the safe bet to reach the final round of four, but we all saw how that blew up in a hurry. Then it looked as if Alabama was the team to beat, but then they lost at home to Ole Miss. Ole Miss then took its turn in the spotlight only to lay an egg at Florida. At the first sign of adversity, Georgia was proven to be a fraud, just like upstarts Arkansas and Tennessee. It’s only Week 6 and what a mess the SEC already is.
If you’re the selection committee, what are you supposed to do with that? When 5-0 Florida has the best chance to win the SEC, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, you have to start questioning the overall strength of the conference. I mean, it’s Florida we’re talking about. The Gators were supposed to be treading water in The Swamp as they rebuilt under new coach Jim McElwain, not upsetting teams like Ole Miss and competing for a trip to Atlanta. Either something’s in the Gatorade in Gainesville or what’s happening is a mirage.
The only other unbeaten teams in the SEC right now are LSU and Texas A&M. If you could combine the two programs -- and how great would that be considering John Chavis’ legal battle with his former school? -- they’d be a playoff contender. But on their own, they have significant flaws. Given A&M’s history of second-half letdowns (5-7 under Kevin Sumlin vs. ranked teams in October and November), the jury’s out on the Aggies. With LSU, it’s a matter of playing down to competition (see: Eastern Michigan scores 22) and a lack of faith in quarterback Brandon Harris.
Last week, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen told me he could see the winner of the West going undefeated just as easily as featuring three losses. And he’s right, though the latter seems far more likely right now.
After dominating Georgia on the road Saturday, Alabama has the look of a potential playoff contender. But with one loss already on the books and Texas A&M and LSU still on the schedule, the road ahead won’t be easy. If Alabama doesn’t run the table, the SEC’s chance of reaching the playoff might go up in smoke.
Now that’s not to say that’s fair. It’s more of an issue of perception. None of the other Power 5 conferences have blown the competition away, but none of them have risen to the same level of disappointment quite like the SEC. With the exception of Week 1, nearly every week since has featured a letdown of some sort. Couple that with last season’s struggles in bowl games, and the reputation of the conference is damaged.
The SEC built up such a high standing over the past few years that this year’s fall back to the rest of the pack feels more pronounced. From the outside looking in, it’s fair to wonder whether anyone in the conference is any good. It’s certainly a justified opinion to say that no one would deserve to reach the playoff over Utah from the Pac-12, Ohio State from the Big Ten, Clemson from the ACC and Baylor or TCU from the Big 12. If Michigan State runs the table in the regular season and loses a close game to Ohio State in late November, good luck keeping Sparty out.
In a season defined by chaos, it’s easy to see how the SEC could be left standing when the music stops. The attitude of “win and you’re in” just isn’t going to fly this time around. An elite team will have to emerge, rather than relying on the strength of the conference to speak for itself, and right now the prospects of that aren’t looking good.
In the SEC, you may have a team you like. But do you have a team you believe in?
After all we've seen thus far -- and bear in mind that we're less than halfway through the season -- belief and faith are in short supply.