The biggest shift in college football happened almost overnight, with so little warning it’s practically gone unnoticed. But as of today, with the release of the preseason Amway Coaches Poll for 2017, the SEC is no longer the sport’s most overrated conference.
That honor now belongs to the Big Ten.
While the SEC boasts the nation’s No. 1 team in Alabama, the coaches have put four Big Ten teams in the top 10 to start the season.
Four teams from the conference that hasn’t scored a single point in two consecutive appearances in the College Football Playoff.
Four teams from the conference that face-planted during the most recent bowl season, going 3-7.
Four teams from the conference that, in the last two seasons, has a 20-24 record against the other Power Five leagues.
What in the name of Jim Delany is going on here?
It used to be this part of the calendar was dominated by overwrought SEC hype, but at least it was somewhat deserved based on the year-over-year dominance it had established in the BCS era. Until the last couple of years, giving the SEC the benefit of the doubt was usually a good bet.
But what has the Big Ten done to deserve four spots in the preseason top-10 besides giving Ohio State a free pass for underachieving the last two years, riding the Jim Harbaugh hype train and going overboard on a Penn State team that suddenly will have to deal with big expectations for the first time in a decade?
It’s remarkable how thoroughly the script has flipped.
Though there’s no doubt the college football landscape has flattened out — the first three College Football Playoff champions have come from three different leagues — the disrespect for the SEC has gone overboard.
Indeed, 2016 was a down year for the conference. The gap between Alabama and everybody else was embarrassingly wide. If the Sugar Bowl hadn’t been contractually obligated to pick a team from the SEC, it wouldn’t have (and Auburn’s 16-point loss to Oklahoma underscored how much it didn’t belong in that game).
At the same time, though, it feels like there’s been an overcorrection of public perception here. While taking shots at the “It Just Means More” conference has become a sport in and of itself, make no mistake: The SEC is still formidable, with quality depth of teams, highly ranked recruiting classes stacked on top of each other and more future NFL players than any other league. While there are undoubtedly some questions about who will rise up and compete with Alabama, it’s a good bet the final poll of 2017 will have multiple top-10 teams from the SEC.
But that doesn’t excuse the fact voters have now shifted to give the benefit of the doubt to a league — and, more specifically, a group of teams — that has done little to deserve it.
Ohio State at No. 2? Sure, that’s fine based on Urban Meyer’s reputation, the talent he brings in annually and his 61-6 overall record since coming back to coaching. But this is also true: Since winning the 2014 national title, Ohio State hasn’t won a Big Ten championship and has finished the season ranked lower than it started both years. It probably would have been safer to put Florida State or Clemson — a program that has had Ohio State’s number lately — in that spot.
What about Penn State at No. 6? There’s no doubt James Franklin’s team has some exciting offensive talent led by running back Saquon Barkley, but the Nittany Lions’ reputation was made off a loss in the Rose Bowl to USC. Before that thrilling 52-49 game, Penn State was viewed as a bit of a fluky Big Ten champion and didn’t get serious consideration for a playoff spot. Though this team should be a lot of fun to watch, let’s see how they handle an entire summer of hype.
Still, putting Penn State at No. 6 is far more defensible than Michigan at No. 9 — one spot above where it finished last season. The Wolverines won’t sink very far, but this is a really young squad that returns only six starters and will have to replace eight all-conference players on defense. And though nobody wants to talk about it lest it disrupt our unending focus on his antics, Harbaugh has managed to generate all this hype without earning a signature win in his first two seasons.
Then there’s Wisconsin at No. 10. Good old, reliable Wisconsin. There certainly is a scenario this year where the Badgers get to 9-1 or 10-0 in November and put themselves right in the thick of the playoff conversation. The problem is they will have done it without beating anyone of note, as their only tough games are at Nebraska and BYU, both of which are unranked in the preseason. It’s not hard to envision a game against Michigan on Nov. 18 being all that stands between Wisconsin and a perfect regular season. The Badgers are good, but starting at No. 10 they’re already in position to be the nation’s most overrated team all season long.
None of this is meant to bash the Big Ten. The league deserves tremendous credit for good coaching hires over the last few years, which has led to more aggressive national recruiting and a better overall product. These days, it would be hard to envision a College Football Playoff without a Big Ten team.
Still, something feels off about anointing the Big Ten as the best league in college football.
Maybe it comes down to how we judge them against one another. Is it the quality at the very top? Is it 1 through 14? Is it somewhere in the middle?
Though we can debate whether they’re too high in the poll, the Big Ten has four good teams. The middle of the league leaves something to be desired, and the bottom is downright bad. If the top four win the games they're supposed to win, the perception in early December will be that the league has surpassed the SEC and ACC.
But if the last couple Januarys are any indication, it won’t hold true when it matters most.
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