Opinion: The gap between the SEC and most other conferences is widening
If you haven’t followed former Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s career since he left UGA you’ve missed a lot. Tucker has recently taken quite the climb up the professional ladder, but his ascent is also a reminder of how far one of the so-called Power Five conferences has fallen.
Tucker spent 2019 as Colorado head coach, and started this year by reaffirming his commitment to the Buffaloes when Michigan State reached out to him about its open coaching position, only to eventually change his mind and take the job with the Spartans.
There was plenty of pearl clutching about Tucker’s waffling, but given the upcoming election, he won’t be the only one who backs off of a grandiose promise this year.
The more significant issue isn’t Tucker’s integrity. It’s the Pac 12’s solvency.
Michigan State convinced Tucker to bolt Boulder by reportedly doubling the salary he was making at Colorado — a financial flex for which the Buffaloes could apparently offer no answer.
To add to the indignity, ESPN reported last week that one of the rumored candidates to replace Tucker at Colorado — Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian — was going to stick with the Crimson Tide, and possibly get a handsome raise in the process.
Let this sink in: we might be at the point where it’s more financially rewarding to be an assistant coach in the SEC than it is to be a head coach in the Pac 12.
If that’s true, how did we get here?
Like most things with college football, it revolves around television.
Simply put, the Pac 12 Network is the biggest TV disaster since Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
Its revenues fall well short of what the Big 10 and SEC networks provide their league members, and that extra cash allows a program such as UGA to spend twice as much on recruiting as Pac 12 schools.
Bigger recruiting budgets lead to better players, and the best players seemingly don’t want to stay out west anymore. There were no Pac 12 teams in the top 10 of the 247Sports Composite Team Ranking for the 2020 class, and only two Pac 12 programs in the top 20.
USC — which was fourth in 2018 — fell to 55th this cycle.
UGA signee Kendall Milton –from Clovis, Calif. — is the nation’s No. 7 running back, and the exact kind of player you might have expected to see playing for a team like USC in the past. However, Milton made it clear during the recruiting process he wanted to test himself in the talent-rich SEC.
“It seems like out here, in a sense, people want to go get it more,” Milton recently said of playing in the South. “When I came out here it kind of motivated me to have that same mindset, and come out here and basically do anything necessary to get what you want.
“I’d say it’s the mindset out here that sets it apart.”
Other recruits seemingly agree.
“You can’t play for a title staying out west,” an unnamed former five-star recruit from California told 247Sports.
The Pac 12 hasn’t had a representative in the College Football Playoff since 2016.
However, it isn’t the only league dealing with issues.
Oklahoma has won the Big 12 five consecutive years, and made the Playoff in each of the last three seasons, but the Sooners don’t have much to show for those postseason berths.
Oklahoma blew a 17-point lead in a loss to UGA in 2017. The following year, the Sooners stumbled into a 28-0 hole vs. Alabama before losing 45-34. This past season, Oklahoma surrendered 63 points in a humiliating beatdown by LSU.
In other words, Sooner Playoff flops vs. SEC foes have joined the New York City ball drop as one of America’s most dependable New Year’s traditions.
Oklahoma simply doesn’t recruit well enough to beat the best SEC teams.
The Sooners had top-10 classes from 2017-19, but UGA and Alabama had higher rated classes in each of those seasons, and LSU had higher classes in two of those three years.
To make matters worse, Oklahoma fell to 11th for the 2020 class — a fact that seemed to make Sooners coach Lincoln Riley a bit defensive.
“Everybody wants to judge classes when they sign, which is the absolute worst time to judge a class,” Riley recently said. “There’s a lot of guys we signed that we wouldn’t trade for anybody.”
Riley certainly seems confident in his choices, but keep in mind he’s the same coach who squib kicked at the end of the first half vs. UGA in the Rose Bowl, so maybe his decision making isn’t as laudable as he thinks it is.
And speaking of bad ideas, how about the ACC?
It’s hard to find much fault with Clemson. Dabo Swinney has built an elite program and a perennial championship contender, but the league the Tigers call home is weaker than a wine spritzer.
Clemson was the only ACC team last season ranked in the final Associated Press top 25.
The ACC had the same number of ranked teams as the Sun Belt and half as many as the Mountain West.
These unfortunate facts beg a question: why is it assumed that Playoff spots each season should be gifted to underperforming leagues like the Pac 12 and ACC or a proven fraud like Oklahoma?
In true “It Just Means More” fashion, six of the top 11 teams in ESPN’s SP+ preseason ratings are from the SEC. The Pac 12, Big 12 and ACC have a combined six teams in the top 20.
Yet at the end of the season, hot-take-for-hire pundits will be arguing the SEC doesn’t deserve two Playoff teams.
College football isn’t little league baseball. Everyone doesn’t necessarily get a turn.
If we’re going to have five so-called “Power” conferences, then some of those leagues need to do more to look the part.
Stop getting outbid for your coaches. Stop getting beat for the best recruits. Or stop pretending to play at the SEC’s level.