The Myth of the SEC

The SEC is home to the last six BCS National Titles and they will have a shot to make it seven in January. They are home to some of the best teams that college football has to offer. Their style of play is the standard to which the rest of college football is measured in this era.

Make no mistake, the SEC is good; however, like some good things, their actual excellence is oversold, over-hyped, and grown into a myth of epic proportions.

I’m sure by now you have heard more than once that the SEC plays the toughest schedule out there. The argument continues that their conference is so tough from top to bottom, there are no weeks off and a team like the Irish would find themselves a mediocre team in the SEC.

This perceived fact was taken to task here by Twibby earlier this week and Pat Forde had something to say about it as well. I too want to go into this a little bit deeper by looking at the records of all the SEC teams this season.

SEC Win-Loss Records (Click Columns to Sort)
Team Division Conference Overall
Alabama West 7-1 11-1
Georgia East 7-1 11-1
Florida East 7-1 11-1
LSU West 6-2 10-2
South Carolina East 6-2 10-2
Texas A&M West 6-2 10-2
Vanderbilt East 5-3 8-4
Mississippi State West 4-4 8-4
Ole Miss West 3-5 6-6
Missouri East 2-6 5-7
Tennessee East 1-7 5-7
Arkansas West 2-6 4-8
Auburn West 0-8 3-9
Kentucky East 0-8 2-10

Six out of fourteen of the SEC teams are .500 or below. Two teams just above that mark sit at 8-4. Like much of the conference, both of these teams, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, have had the benefit of playing at least one FCS team. Both teams also each benefited from playing a school in their first year as an FBS program. In reality, these two teams are .500 teams at best as well, making over 50% of the conference .500 or below.

In conference play, 50% of the SEC were .500 or below and those teams went a combined 12-40 (.300). That isn’t a stacked conference. That is the cream of the crop beating the living crap out of teams that aren’t even on the same level as they are.

There is a clear, and evenly split, divide in the SEC. Each division has three double-digit winners and four of the subpar teams that I mention above. This means the six teams that are the cream of the crop of the SEC (Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, Texas A&M, and South Carolina) are all able to feast on the weak in their own conference to boost their numbers. In fact, the only losses these teams had were to each other.

Each team is required to play eight SEC conference games, including playing all teams in their division. This means four were against subpar SEC teams within their own division, leaving only two real challenges. They must also play two teams from the opposite division. As there are more subpar teams than good ones, this means they had better than coin-flip odds that they’d draw a crappy team instead of a good one (as long as there is no protected rivalry matchup already in place, e.g. Georgia/Auburn).

The remaining four out of conference games show some truly pathetic scheduling. Into those games, five teams played only a single BCS conference opponent and one FCS team, with Alabama being the only team to schedule a BCS team that wasn’t an already protected rivalry matchup (e.g. Florida/Florida State, South Carolina/Clemson). Texas A&M, however, played zero BCS teams out of conference and played two FCS schools (in their defense, they did want to keep Texas on their schedule, but Texas refused).

Not so terrifying of a schedule when it is broken down in that fashion, but let’s go ahead and give all six of those teams the benefit of the doubt. After all they are still the best of the SEC and are by no means awful.

So let’s next take a look at the other part of the SEC myth: the legendary SEC defense.

For this analysis, we will see how each of these six teams stack up and also throw Notre Dame into the mix and see how the Irish compare.

Now, there has been much debate over just “how good” ND’s defense is. This is mostly due to the quality of offenses played and the perception that the Irish have simply faced weak opponents. Regardless of what is perception or reality, the mark of an elite defense is to dominate whatever opponent you face and restrict them to less yards and points than they usually gain, even if their usual isn’t very much to begin with.

Therefore for the below analysis we will compare the top six SEC teams with ND and see just how well each defense did in comparison to their opponents averages in passing yards, rushing yards, and points scored. I was even kind and included the SEC’s FCS cupcake games as well to keep all sample sizes the same. You can click here for larger & interactive chart versions and all raw data. Data was sourced from cfbstats.com and the official NCAA statistics site.

For all charts, the lower the data points, the better. This means that the defense held their opponents below their usual average in the related statistic. Higher points above the 0-axis means that opponents achieved a higher mark than their usual average.

For the most part, you will see everyone grouped together and Notre Dame right in the thick of things and that’s pretty much the point. On a game-to-game basis, Notre Dame preforms just as well if not better than the defenses of the top teams in the SEC in each of the above categories. The best defenses in the SEC aren’t somehow magically better than the Irish just by being a SEC defense which appears to be the prevailing thought.

Need more proof? Let’s take each of the three graphs above and average all of the data.

Delta Averages (Click Columns to Sort)
Team Avg. Passing Delta Avg. Rushing Delta Avg. Scoring Delta
Alabama -71.7 -91.3 -19.4
Georgia -14.0 -31.8 -9.9
Florida -50.4 -83.9 -19.0
Texas A&M 29.2 -39.1 8.3
LSU -30.2 -67.5 -11.9
South Carolina -34.5 -68.1 -14.2
Notre Dame -46.5 -67.5 -17.7

Once again, the Irish are right in the thick of it; in fact, they are ranked 3rd, T-4th, and 3rd in each category respectively. And that’s despite not having the benefit of playing FCS or a slew of sub-.500 teams to help boost their averages a bit. In fact, ND has faced off against nine bowl eligible teams. In comparison, Georgia faced only four and Alabama five.

The Irish are far from outclassed by any potential SEC opponent. Anyone writing off the ND in comparison to a SEC team is just perpetuating the false myth of the SEC’s supposed power. They are strong, but as I’ve shown, they aren’t on another level.

The bottom line is that no matter who ND faces, the BCS Championship game is going to be one hell of a dog fight.

About NDtex

Editor-in-Chief
Texan by birth, Irish by choice.

Born and raised in the great state of Texas, Tex is a first-generation Domer and a former student manager. After graduation, he left the cold winters of South Bend behind and returned back to his home state with a computer engineering degree in tow. Missing the daily grind of working football practices and talking football with fellow Irish fans every day, he took to blogging, a path which eventually led him to Her Loyal Sons. Continuously diving into stats and game film, Tex strives to break down every aspect of Fighting Irish football--even though it's determined to kill him.

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  • Billy

    What does the analysis show if you take off any non-BCS conference team from the schedule. (That would include Navy and BYU off ours – though they are good non-bcs teams, for sake of consistency.) I love this, because I have been saying this all year. I think playing an FCS and other low level teams just pads the stats. I think any team who plays FCS schools shouldn’t have the individual or team stats count. I also think the NCAA should allow for teams to play FCS team in a scrimmage in April instead of inter-squad. $$$ maker!

    • NDtex

      Actually if you see the raw data, it is a bit of a mixed bag.

      There are some good performances in there, especially from teams like Alabama, but there are also some games that they simply feel asleep. LSU/Towson is a good example — they gave up far more yards than you’d expect.

      Hilariously enough, taking Navy off the board would help ND a ton in their passing defense. That game was their worst performance against opposing passing averages (but it would take away a great running defense performance).

  • Nate

    Check you numbers on bowl eligible teams, Alabama in particular. Looks like 6 is the number of bowl eligible teams rather than 4. Other than that, good analysis

    • NDtex

      I reversed the numbers it appears. Should be 5 for Bama and 4 for Georgia. I will correct this, thanks.

      Ole Miss, despite having 6 wins, is not eligible due to one of their wins coming against an FCS team.

      • Gimber

        Unbelievably, Mississippi State is barely eligible as TWO of their wins came against FCS foes.

        Ridiculous.

        • NDtex

          And Vandy is in the same boat. Like I said, those are basically .500 teams.

  • texas matros

    i have been and fan since 1943.I made the BYU PITTSBURG GAMES>WHAT ATREAT AND BROUGHT BACK MANY MEMORIES>keep up thegood work and go Irish! TEXASND

  • Larry

    As a ND fan since the era of Ara I find it beyond words to express my joy and appreciation for the 2012 football team. It has been a long time coming but recruitment and coaching have finally put together a magnificent group of young men who no matter how the final game ends , will go down as one of the very best ever in ND lore.

  • Kyle

    What I think would make this data a lot clearer and easier to look like would be if you compared changed the x-axis. Going in chronological order is simplest, but it makes the data really jumbled up. I would suggest plotting these either by best performance (lowest delta to highest) or by game difficulty (rank each team’s games and plot that way). The first method will give each team a curve that you could use to compare their best (and worst) performances against each other, while the second lets you see how the quality of the opponent affects them (though this way could be jumbled as well).

    Any chance you could re-plot either of those ways?

    • NDtex

      Fantastic suggestions. I will definitely try those out.

      I definitely was frustrated in trying to figure out the best way to plot this last night. It’s a shame I didn’t think of that first!

      Thanks!

    • NDtex

      Per your suggestion, edited charts from worst to best performances in each stat. Much cleaner.

      • Ted

        Good suggestion and good charts.

        Thanks!

  • Kevin

    Thank you for this. I think the issue we come across is people thinking that by trying to bust the SEC = Perfection myth, there is an automatic assumption that we are saying the SEC is no good. Of course they are good, definitely the best conference.

    However, the SEC love is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially with how much they beat up on each other. And any conference that feasts on FCS schools and points to those wins and inflated stats as proof of dominance is fooling itself.

    What makes the Irish so good this year is not their “SEC defense” or their “SEC style” ball control. Its their undeniable ability to play their game, focus on their opponent each week without losing focus, and never quit on each other or their fundamentals…in short, playing “IRISH” football.

    • NDtex

      Precisely. The Irish belong in the same tier as the elite SEC teams this season. Membership in the SEC is not a requirement for that honor.

  • Ted

    Nice job. A lot of SEC fans conveniently forget their slate of stat- and record-padding punching bags.

    This is probably off-topic, but can you muster a similar breakdown of the academic side of the equation? The GSR rankings have snagged a few headlines – though not nearly enough – but even those numbers fail to address the fact that not all degrees are created equal. A lot of kids slide through the big football factories taking “rocks for jocks” (Matt Leinhart, anyone?), and many walk out with degrees that don’t mean much in the real world.

    This aspect of things has a particularly sharp edge this year, with ND going against an SEC program for the crystal football, but it also is worth mentioning in the context of the Heisman Trophy. “The outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” I have nothing against Mr. Manziel, but doesn’t that copy describe Mr. T’eo to a T?

    I’m not a Domer, but I’m a fan of any program that emphasizes academics the way ND does.

    BTW, here’s an interesting take on the whole SEC thing: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6936235/s-e-c-s-e-c-s-e-c
    Having received both my undergrad and doctoral degrees at universities in the Upper South, I’d say this hits the mark.

  • Ted

    HLS has been doing great.

    It’s a shame that the national sports media doesn’t pay more attention to the academic side.

  • Robert

    So, what do your cute little graphs tell you now? Roll Tide.

  • Ben

    That was fun. Do you still think ND would hang in the SEC now that you have seen SEC speed and power together?