As November beckons, the always enjoyable conversation which unfolds when you start ranking conferences goes something like this: the SEC is still the best, but not as good as before. There is no undefeated Alabama juggernaut, the team claiming victory over the Tide lost to Memphis, and only a single SEC East team is ranked. The S&P+ rankings allude to this idea, with the SEC holding off the ACC as the nation's best league.
Throughout the SEC's decade of dominance we've been waiting for a year when cannibalism emerged as the dominant theme. It was last seen in 2007, but ignored because it wasn't unique (and the SEC still won the BCS title). Quick, name the only power conference team to lose only one game in 2007. Time's up, it's Kansas. Remember Kansas?
That year both divisions were won by 6-2 teams. Since then 6-2 has only been good enough to win a division once, when South Carolina did it at 5-3 in 2010. The league has been marked by not only national champions and BCS championship/playoff participants, but several elite also-rans: 2008 Alabama and 2009 Florida, a Georgia team that almost beat Alabama in 2012 and a Missouri squad doing likewise with Auburn in 2013.
The noise started last January when the SEC West took a dive in bowl games. And, as always, scoreboard is king: if you're Oklahoma or Toledo, you get your say right now. But as the overall conversation veers toward the ditch of "they ain't no good," perhaps there's another way to look at it.
Maybe the league isn't as strong at the top because it's gotten stronger everywhere else. Sure, right now Missouri, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina aren't doing the league a lot of favors. But you know who they aren't? 2014 Vanderbilt, 2013 Arkansas, 2013 Kentucky, 2012 Kentucky, 2012 Auburn, or 2011 Ole Miss. Those six teams all went 0-8 in league play, which means 2015 will be the first time in five years we don't have a winless SEC squad. And we got there in mid-October.
The top coming down and the bottom going up means we're all more likely to meet in the middle. This shows up in a number of ways this year. 16 of 31 (51.6%) SEC games so far this year have been one possession affairs, up from last year's 44.6%.
And you can definitely see it in average point differential in SEC games every year since expansion:
Halfway into the 2015 season, the best team in the SEC is winning games by half as much as the best team in the league three years ago. Likewise the worst team in the league is getting beat by half as much as the worst team in the league three years ago. Nine teams are averaging a one possession game every time they step on the field in SEC play, up from just five in 2012.
It remains to be seen how many truly great teams the SEC has this season. But the number of truly terrible teams has evaporated. In the middle you find a bunch of teams trying to get from average to good to great.
The real question here is if this increased parity is good or bad for the league. If this trend and this season are any indication, we could be headed toward an NFL-lite reality where any given Saturday isn't just a saying but a dangerous fact. There may be too many millions going around for a division to continually field three 6-2 teams instead of a clear top (and bottom) and have coaches keep their jobs.
For Tennessee, consider the way we're already thinking about next year. In the 90s two losses in the regular season were barely acceptable. Now, with almost a decade of hope and anticipation for when the Vols get back in the championship conversation, two losses seems reasonable. This isn't the SEC many of us grew up with where you circle Alabama and/or Florida and then check off the rest. We don't appear to be going back there.
Instead it's a much more competitive reality at the top, but also in the middle. Tennessee and Kentucky will meet tomorrow, both young, improved, and eager to get out of the middle. The same could have been said for Florida and Arkansas when we met them this year. The Vols may get to finally stretch their legs against the Cats (and I think they will), but coming in Tennessee has found itself in a one possession line in every SEC game it's played this year other than Alabama, when a two touchdown line was the smallest we'd seen in eight years and the Vols almost beat them for the first time in nine. The Vols are clearly better, but so are a lot of teams. And the overall health of almost every program in the league is better than it was when Missouri and Texas A&M came into our midst.
I don't know if this is all good or bad for the SEC. But I know it's making every game more compelling.