The SEC’s dominance of college football has been well-documented over the last decade, and for good reason. Southeast America’s favorite football conference has routinely produced the BCS national champion, and now that the playoff system has been implemented, that doesn’t figure to change anytime soon.
Why bring this up now? It’s about time to revisit a story that pops up around this time every season, when a particular NFL team is so futile that a question pops into the minds of many fans – could the SEC’s best take down a professional team?
This year, that special team is the Oakland Raiders — the Jets are really struggling too — a franchise known of late for its ineptitude, which has only seen its star fall farther this season. As of this writing, they have won just one game, and the numbers aren’t exactly lending much hope that they’ll improve. Despite the encouraging play of rookie quarterback Derek Carr and rookie linebacker Khalil Mack, the Raiders rank near the bottom in several statistical categories, coming in at 27th in passing yards, 27th in rushing defense and dead last in rushing yards with a meager 72.5 per game.
Generally, the first thought that comes to mind when college vs. NFL debates get started is the ridiculousness of it all. The premise itself is pretty far-fetched; NFL teams are made up exclusively of the best that college has to offer, so even the “weak points” of a professional roster would stand out on a college team. It’s the nature of the process.
However, football may be the sport in which the impact of that talent discrepancy is most muted. This isn’t basketball, where roster sizes are minuscule and depth would be exposed almost immediately. Talent and depth are major factors in football, but familiarity and continuity are as critical to success as any one player. Given that football players have to wait a few years to jump to the pros as opposed to the NBA’s “one-and-done” rule, there’s more time for NCAA football teams to develop the necessary camaraderie to compete with the big boys.
Talent still matters, of course, and luckily the SEC has plenty of it. Right now, the teams that play within the conference have a pedigree to offer that outstrips every other major conference – you get to play the best possible competition here. For players looking to eventually hit the pro circuit, getting maximum reps against top opponents is a major draw, which means that guys who want to win and grow into better players down the line, the SEC is the only destination you need to look at.
Their national championship reign was interrupted by a certain group of Seminoles last season, but that hasn’t derailed the amount of five-star recruits heading to SEC country. Schools like Alabama, LSU, Auburn, and Florida maintain a steady stream of top prospects every year, adding to the collection of talent already on board, and this year Missouri made the league title game, showcasing how deep the conference is. Nine schools got committals from five-star recruits in 2014, a pool of just 15 total players, according to ESPN’s rankings. Five of the nine were SEC schools, with a whopping 10 of the 15 players heading (or staying) south for school.
That type of recruiting dominance has made the SEC look like a different level of football in comparison to their supposed peers. Players are bigger, faster, and stronger than any other amateur conference. There’s a reason why two SEC teams – even after each added a loss to their name – have consistently been at the top of the new playoff rankings. When you win seven consecutive national championships and continuously bus in top recruits that maintain a level of excellence, people tend to give you some respect.
This year is a particularly strong one for the SEC. Missouri was a very, very good football team this year and in yesterday’s conference championship, ‘Bama ran right through them for a 42-13 win. And consider this: Ole Miss, currently sitting in third place of the SEC West – yes, third place in the division – has a point differential of plus-199. That’s not a misprint, or even an outlier. Then, 9-3 Georgia is plus-245, and Alabama clocks in at a ridiculous plus-266. The teams at the top of the SEC don’t just beat their competition; they make them wish they never played the game of football to begin with.
Sure, some of that differential is due to cupcake schedules that teams play out of conference, but that’s nowhere near enough to account for all of it. These teams dominate week in, week out. You can only play the teams that your university has scheduled for it, and in comparison to the competition other conferences deal with week-to-week, SEC schools are forgiven for playing a soft opponent to kick things off.
Who among them is fit to stand toe-to-toe with an NFL team? That answer is a bit complicated. Having a shocking amount of depth in conference is great for overall reputation, but perhaps not the best for figuring out who is the “true” best team in the group. (Although the Crimson Tide did their best yesterday to shut up any arguments.) Because the one-and-done nature of football scheduling rarely allows for rematches, there’s no way of knowing if one team is truly superior or if they just so happened to take advantage of a perfect storm.
The answer might simply be Alabama, emerging yesterday from the SEC bloodbath to reign as champs. The NFL’s Raiders have their fair share of talent on board, but the instability of their organization has made it tough for them to develop any sense of consistency. They’re led by rookies, cast-offs, and the misfit toys that nobody wanted, while the best of the SEC are powered by hand-picked recruits, envisioned to have a job in mind from the moment scouts and coaches plucked them out of their hometowns.
Since NFL rosters are increasingly dominated by the conference’s products, it’s not like they’d be too far out of their element. While they ultimately might not be able to top the NFL’s worst – and may in fact get blown out – the SEC’s best at least has some credibility in believing they could deal with the big boys. Instead of a national championship, lets have the SEC’s best play Oakland to settle the debate once and for all.
Follow Kyle on Twitter at @kyleneubeck