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Stoops' comments open up playoff debate

5/10/2013

Oklahoma Sooners coach Bob Stoops stirred the pot this week when he mused about the bottom half of the Southeastern Conference, saying college football fans have been subject to "propaganda" that the league is the best in the country just because the past seven title winners have come from the SEC.

"What are the bottom six doing?" Stoops asked, according to a column by John Hoover, who writes for the Tulsa World. "Half of [the teams] haven't done much at all."

Stoops made the comments at a booster-type event in Tulsa, and that's often where coaches loosen their ties a bit.

But there's something deeper at play: This is the first visible instance in which we have seen a coach begin to spin the political machine when it comes to the impending playoff.

The perception, due to that string of championships going back to Florida in the 2006 season, is that the SEC hung the moon, the stars and every other celestial body. Stoops wanted to remind whoever was listening -- and evidently a lot of people were, judging by the residual debate among fans -- that there are more teams in the SEC than Alabama, LSU and Florida.

Stoops, who was Florida's defensive coordinator prior to taking over at OU in 1999, was standing up to the bully in advance of the fight. There will be others posturing to properly position their leagues and teams as we move toward the four-team postseason system for the 2014 season.

What does the bottom of the SEC have to do with the four teams selected for the playoff? Well, Stoops is theoretically saying that a highly ranked SEC team would not have as difficult of a road as a highly ranked Big 12 team would. Since the Big 12 went to 10 teams two seasons ago, the league has, respectively, had eight and nine bowl teams.

But five of those nine in 2012 had sub-.500 conference records. Is that a result of "we are so good we are beating one another up," or is it a bunch of so-so teams? That's pretty subjective, but so is Stoops' claim.

The SEC likewise had nine (of 14) bowl teams in 2012, and only one had a sub-.500 conference record. Is that a result of playing Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Auburn -- teams with a combined record of 19-41? Or is it still impressive, since those bowl teams had to cobble together wins against a combination of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M -- teams with an aggregate record of 68-12?

While each SEC team does not play every other, especially now that the conference has expanded to 14 teams, that means you probably don't see all of the low-end or high-end teams in a season. You get a mix of the two, which makes Stoops' argument sort of moot. Even if you concede that the bottom of the SEC is worse than the bottom of the Big 12, the middle of the SEC is better than the middle of the Big 12. That point seemed to be made in Texas A&M's 41-13 thumping of the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl. Those teams were thought to be on level footing, or something close to it. For at least one game, they were not.

Another point: The bottom of the SEC, at which Stoops took aim, is a carousel. The pressure to win in the league creates immediacy. If you are not getting the job done, the office is decorated and occupied by someone new. (Stoops' brother, Mark, is one of the new head coaches in the bottom half of the SEC this season, taking over 2-10 Kentucky.)

There is clearly no better illustration than Auburn, which fired Gene Chizik two seasons removed from winning a national title. Say what you want about Chizik in seasons without Cam Newton, but two of the three -- the last being the exception -- were winning years, with two 8-5 seasons bracketing the title year. So an Auburn team that landed in Stoops' cellar had a recent history of winning, and at times winning rather big.

Tennessee, which fired Derek Dooley, won the SEC East in 2007; that isn't all that long ago.

Arkansas? It is difficult to include the Razorbacks, who were on the verge of competing for SEC titles until Bobby Petrino was fired for very different reasons than Dooley and Joker Phillips. Hardly a football matter there, even if Bret Bielema has his work cut out for him to again elevate the program.

Missouri? Doesn't it actually work against Stoops' argument, since the Tigers were better in the Big 12 than the SEC? And if you're trying to dismiss Texas A&M for similar reasons, on the opposite end of the spectrum, consider that the Big 12 never dealt with Kevin Sumlin's system or Johnny Manziel. Again, the Cotton Bowl serves as a strong case for that.

So who's to say the bottom will remain the bottom for long? After all, the consummate SEC cellar dweller, Vanderbilt, won nine games a year ago and finished above .500 in the league. How would Vandy do in the Big 12? Who could say for sure? The Commodores defeated just one of those SEC bowl teams, but won their bowl game against NC State.

TCU, the Big 12's seventh-best team (Vandy was seventh in the SEC), defeated three of the conference's bowl teams but lost its bowl game to Michigan State.

So they're even?

Really, does a conference's perception come from comparing its seventh-best teams or its best? Until Oklahoma -- or Texas, or whoever -- again plays for a BCS title, will the debate really matter? The best way to knock down the SEC is to beat it in the championship game -- or, beginning next year, in the semis. That would be the quickest way to balance things.

How much will perceived league strength factor into the playoff selections? We'll know once we hear more about the selection process and committee, but one example from the recent past shows us how it could come into play. In 2011, Alabama got the nod as the No. 2 team in the BCS standings over an Oklahoma State team that some argued had accomplished more in terms of whom it had beaten (thanks to some worse-than-expected SEC opponents on the Crimson Tide's schedule).

However, the perceived strength of Alabama and the SEC ultimately carried the Tide into the title game, and it's hard to argue with the choice in hindsight, having seen the way Bama dismantled LSU in the championship. But we should expect to see more of these eye test versus resume test debates in the playoff era, regardless of whether they involve the SEC and Big 12 going head-to-head.

For that reason, we should expect to hear more comments like the ones made by Stoops in defense of certain conferences -- and challenging others.

One final thought: Tennessee, with another new coach, has a home-and-home with Oklahoma beginning in 2015. Will the Volunteers still be in that bottom half of the SEC by then? If so, we'll see what the gap is between a top-tier Big 12 team and a bottom-half SEC team.

And we'll see if Butch Jones reminds his guys about Stoops' thoughts.