Across the South: Was this a Down Year for the SEC?

Every Wednesday right here you can read Across the South, where we’ll get into a different topic on the SEC, break down the biggest matchups of the previous week, preview the coming week’s slate, and talk about where things stand in the best conference in the land!

In this week’s edition, with the first national championship since the 2014 season featuring no teams from the Southeastern Conference, was this a down year for the SEC?

The point had been made a lot throughout the season:

“The SEC isn’t as strong this year”
“It’s Georgia and everyone else”
“An SEC schedule doesn’t mean what it usually does this year”
Etc etc.

If you didn’t hear this, you probably weren’t listening close enough. But now that we can reflect on the season with every team from the SEC eliminated, a national champion not from the conference being crowned this Monday for the first time since 2018, and no national championship teams at all for the first time since 2015, were the arguments valid?

The answer is a complicated one. You’d be foolish to argue that Georgia was not one of the “four best” teams in the country, but the way things shook out this season, there simply wasn’t a spot for them. The Dawgs being shut out of the playoff after a 3-point loss to Alabama said more about the state of college football this season as a whole and the amount of deserving teams than it did about the SEC.

Then there’s Alabama, who despite its own flaws, was able to rattle off 11 straight victories including the upset over Georgia that put it in the CFP. When facing one of the best teams in the country from the Big 10, however, the Tide’s offensive flaws were on full display.

LSU, who was considered by many to be a championship contender headed into the year, largely disappointed on the back of what was a dreadful defense. A 9-3 season is nothing to scoff at, but for a team entering year two with a new coach coming off an SEC West title, expectations were higher.

In a similar vein, you could say that Tennessee, who was trying to ride the magic of last season into the Joe Milton era, had a largely disappointing 8-4 season as well. Both Tennessee and LSU won their bowl games, but it’s not where each team wanted to be.

But for every LSU and Tennessee, there’s an Ole Miss and a Missouri as well. For Missouri, given a preseason win total of just six, Eli Drinkwitz led the Tigers to double digit wins, a Cotton Bowl victory over Ohio State, and one of the best seasons in program history. Not to mention giving Georgia one of its toughest tests of the year in Athens in a game nobody gave them a shot.

It was a marvelous season in Oxford as well, ending the regular season 10-2 with the only losses on the road to Alabama and Georgia and a Peach Bowl victory over Penn State for Lane Kiffin and the Rebels. That momentum has carried over to the offseason as well, with Kiffin bringing in an outstanding portal class that will have his team competing for an SEC title in 2024.

But when trying to figure out if it was a “down” year for the SEC, the answer seems to be that it was a different year. Those expected to be major players (outside of Georgia and Alabama) were not and two teams that not many saw coming had huge seasons and ended in New Year’s Six victories.

As we move next season to a 12-team playoff format, it will be fascinating to see how many teams the conference gets in.

But for now, it’s an SEC-less championship game on Monday night.