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SEC Bowl Tie-Ins: It's good to be king

As we enter the final three weeks of the regular season, thoughts turn to the holidays and potential bowl destinations across the country.  In the SEC - where we're the best and we know it - everyone in the conference not named Vanderbilt is still in the hunt for bowl eligibility.  And though Mississippi State will need to go 2-1 against Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss to get there, the other ten teams still left in the hunt should all find their way to the six wins necessary to become bowl eligible. 

Five teams are already there, Arkansas should make six when they play Troy on Saturday, and Tennessee and Kentucky can both get there by beating Vanderbilt (among others).  Ole Miss needs just one win against the Vols, LSU or Mississippi State.  The toughest road may belong to Georgia at 5-4, who will host Auburn and Kentucky before traveling to Georgia Tech.  But as John Adams pointed out two weeks ago, nothing strange has to happen for the conference to get ten, the favorites simply need to win.

And if the conference gets two teams in the BCS as expected, the league will have a bowl tie-in ready and waiting for the other eight.  And as we'll see, there's a huge division between the top half of the conference and the bottom when it comes to bowl placement, which will be especially interesting in a crowded middle of the pack this season.  The difference between Shreveport and January could come down to one loss.

Getting ten teams bowl eligible is an incredible accomplishment, and speaks highly in its own right of the conference's strength from top to bottom.  The SEC has sent nine teams to bowls before, including last year, but never ten - only recently could teams like Kentucky be counted on for consistent bowl eligibility, and outside of trusty Vanderbilt you can make the argument that there's really not a bad team in this conference.  

But it's not just the presence of eight bowl tie-ins outside the BCS that makes the SEC special, it's which bowls against which opponents: 

The BCS takes the six major conference champions, plus four at-large bids (with opportunities set aside for a mid-major champion and Notre Dame if they meet the criteria).  When a conference sends a team to the BCS via an at-large bid (which the SEC has done six times in eleven years, and almost certainly will again this year) then what's represented as the #2 conference team in the bowl selection process really becomes the #3 conference team...but you get the idea.

So, take a look at the fate of the second best team in every major conference outside the SEC:

  • ACC #2:  Chick-Fil-A Bowl
  • Big East #2:  Gator Bowl
  • Big 10 #2:  Capital One Bowl
  • Big 12 #2:  Cotton Bowl
  • Pac 10 #2:  Holiday Bowl

That means that three of the five conference runners-up face teams from the SEC in bowls.  No other conference has anything even remotely as prestigious in their bowl tie-ins.  If we go ahead and include both Florida and Alabama in the BCS this year, the SEC's bowl breakdown will look like this:

  • SEC #1:  BCS Championship Game OR Sugar Bowl
  • SEC #2:  Sugar Bowl OR other BCS
  • SEC #3 vs. Big 10 #2 (Capital One)
  • SEC #4a (East) vs. Big 10 #3 (Outback)
  • SEC #4b (West) vs Big 12 #2 (Cotton)
  • SEC #6 vs. ACC #2 (Chick-Fil-A)

Simply put, just being in the top half of SEC teams is equivalent to being the second best team in most of the other conferences in terms of bowl availability.  Playing on the sacred January 1 date - a sure sign of a successful season for the vast majority of college football teams - is an honor bestowed on only the Pac 10 Champion, two teams in the ACC, Big East and Big 12, the three best teams in the Big 10...but the SEC has four autmoatic tie-ins with January 1 (or later), which will become five this season with two in the BCS.

If all things were equal, you would assume the second best team in one conference should handle the sixth best team in another.  But take a look at the SEC's record over the duration of these matchups in the BCS era:

  • SEC Champions in BCS National Championship Games:  5-0
  • SEC Champions in other BCS Bowls:  3-3
  • SEC at-large teams in BCS Bowls:  4-2
  • Capital One Bowl:  4-7
  • Cotton Bowl:  6-5
  • Outback Bowl:  6-5
  • Chick-Fil-A Bowl:  7-4

In the Cotton, Outback and Chick-Fil-A, despite sending teams that finished lower in the SEC Standings than their opponents did in their conferences, the SEC has a winning record.  Having the sixth best team in the SEC go to the same bowl as the second best team from the ACC may not sound fair, but the SEC's sixth best team is getting it done on the field.

The rest of the SEC's bowl breakdown is less attractive, but again, here we're dealing with teams in the lower half of the conference:

  • SEC #7 vs. Conference USA #1 (Liberty)
  • SEC #8 vs. ACC #5 (Music City)
  • SEC #9 vs. Big 12 #7 (Independence)
  • SEC #10 vs. Big East #4 ( Bowl)

This is also about more than just prestige and placement - like most things, it's also about money.  Any BCS qualifier receives a $17 million dollar payout.  Guess what the next four richest bowl bids are?

  • Capital One Bowl:  $4.25 million
  • Outback Bowl:  $3.1 million
  • Chick-Fil-A Bowl:  $3 million
  • Cotton Bowl:  $3 million

If the SEC gets ten teams bowl eligible this season, the conference will pull in over $52 million dollars.  The next closest conference, even if it sent two teams to the BCS and filled all of their bowl allocations, would be the Big Ten at around $47 million, mostly because they share in the Capital One and Outback payouts.  No other conferences even come close.

And the rich are getting richer:  next season, the SEC and the Big Ten will send teams to the Gator Bowl, bumping the ACC and Big East from January 1 and adding to the riches - the Gator Bowl is the most lucrative bowl not currently associated with the SEC at $2.5 million per team.  The fact that this move comes at the expense of the Independence Bowl...well, we're all okay with that.  December and January are - and will continue to be - even more proof that life is good in the SEC, and it's getting better every day.

Complete list of bowl tie-ins - Complete list of bowl payouts