Why Alabama, Georgia, and the Rest of the SEC Wouldn’t Make it out of the PAC-12 with One Loss
The SEC is widely considered the best conference in college football and with good reason. Teams like Alabama, Florida, LSU, and Auburn have largely dominated college football over the past decade. What I’m about to say is considered heresy in the south, where zealous fans claim that no other conference in college football can hold a candle to the SEC. For the most part, national pundits agree and because of this money flows to the SEC in the form of massive contracts with ESPN and other sports networks. I agree that for the most part the SEC has the best athletes and its top tier of teams generally has higher ceiling than other conferences. Despite this, there isn’t a team in the SEC that would make it through the PAC-12 with only one loss. From top to bottom conference strength to the weather, there are several reasons why none of the SEC powers would be quite as successful in the PAC-12.
First, lets take a look at the most obvious reason. The bottom of the SEC is filled with cupcakes. Let’s face it, every year there are a host of basement dwellers in the SEC that are awful. They are part of the reason that the SEC is 6-9 in non-conference games this year. The best teams in the SEC are generally the best teams in the nation, but the bottom half are usually atrocious. No one is afraid of playing Vanderbilt or Tennessee this year and there are a host of teams in that basement that wouldn’t be competitive in any conference. The PAC-12 may have a lower ceiling, but it also has a higher floor. This means there are more teams capable of knocking the top dog of the pedestal in any given week than there are in the SEC. If you don’t show up every single week you have a much higher chance of losing in the PAC-12. This is part of the reason why the PAC 12 has 6-2 non-conference record this year.
Second, the guy under center. There are no elite QBs in the SEC. Sure there are plenty of athletes that happen to play QB, but there aren’t any guys and who are going on to the next level and dominate. Name the last QB who came out of the SEC and is now making it big in the NFL. The only one that comes of the top of my head is Cam Newton and that was six years ago and he is as much athlete as he is an accurate passer. The SEC is devoid of pure passers which allows defenses there to do things schematically they wouldn’t dare try if the QB was going to torch the blitz or throw his receivers open. In order to win the PAC-12 you are going to have to beat Sam Darnold, Josh Rossen, Khalil Tate, Luke Falk, and K.J. Costello. I know this is subjective, but I would argue that any of these QBs would start on any team in the SEC with possible exception of Georgia.
Third, schematic diversity. Every team in the SEC runs basically the same offensive and defensive schemes. Do you want to know why Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier and other SEC coaches couldn’t cut it in the NFL? Its because success in the SEC relies so heavily on recruiting and less in X’s and O’s. As a consequence, the SEC scheme’s rely heavily on talent and less on the X’s and O’s and at their core all look relatively the same. As a coach this is helpful, because it allows you to recycle elements of game plans throughout the season. Players become familiar with the same route concepts, blocking, and coverage schemes. The lack of variety means players are less likely to be confused and give up big plays. Confusion can be a great equalizer on the field in terms of talent. This is one of the biggest challenges of playing in the PAC-12. The variety of offensive and defensive systems in the PAC-12 is so much greater than it is in any other conference. One week you could be playing a power running team like Stanford and the next week you’re going to have defend Washington St.’s 65 pass attempts. Oregon is going to put speed all over the field and run 100 plays while USC is going to come at you in a pro-style system. Game-planning for that type of variety is going to cause headaches and will eventually lead to some surprise loses. This is how Washington can going into Tempe and lose to a middling Sun Devils team or USC can get upset on a Friday evening in Pullman. Inevitably the conference cannibalizes itself every season. While Alabama would win the PAC-12 they would incur enough wounds along the way to create a challenge of getting into the College Football Playoff.
Fourth, geography. Weather is an important part of football it is also one of the reasons I love to watch football in November and December. From fog to snow, blistering heat to frozen tundras, the weather creates new challenges each week and can wreck a game plan in a matter of hours. Additionally, elevation can be a major factor for teams. In the SEC, early in the season, the heat can be a challenge to play in, but nearly every team in the conference has the same weather. Allowing players to adjust to the humidity, heat, and occasionally a rainy mess. In the PAC-12, teams may have to play on a sunny southern California afternoon one week and the next week will have to deal with a blizzard at 5,000+ feet in Salt Lake City or Boulder, Co. They may have to play in the 100° heat in Arizona and play in the wind and rain of the Pacific Northwest the next week. The elements can be a great equalizer, increasing the odds that a underdog steals a game late in the season.
I have little doubt that a team like Alabama would win the PAC-12 this year, I just don’t believe they would make it through the gauntlet without a couple of hiccups along the way.