How much do bowl results matter when measuring the relative strength of one conference against another? It depends.
The “my conference could beat up your conference” debate is an annual fixture in college football more so than almost any other sport. There are a couple reasons why this is true.
One is that there are relatively few inter-conference games to provide data points. Professional baseball teams play every other team in their league and a handful of teams in the other league. Professional basketball and hockey teams play every other organization in the league. Professional football teams play more than half of their conference and a handful of teams in the other.
In college football, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the regular season is made up of intra-conference games. In most cases, two of the other three, or three of the other four regular season games a team plays are against a team from a non-power conference. That leaves just one – or in some cases zero – samples of a power conference team playing one from another power league.
In 2018, the Buckeyes played only TCU from the Big 12 and Oregon State from the Pac-12. In 2016 and 2017, they faced the Big 12’s Oklahoma. They played the ACC’s Virginia Tech in 2014 and 2015. In 2012 and 2013, it was Cal from the Pac-12.
OSU schedules as aggressively out of conference as almost any major national power, but hasn’t played a regular season game against an active member of the SEC since facing LSU in 1988.
Penn State hasn’t played an SEC team during the regular season since a home-and-home with Alabama in 2010 and 2011. Before that, they faced the Crimson Tide in 1990 when the Nittany Lions were still an independent.
Michigan has played a pair of one-off neutral site games against Florida (2017) and Alabama (2012), and one home game against Vanderbilt (2006) since the mid-1980s.
In 2019, the Big Ten and SEC played exactly one regular season game against each other: Purdue 42, Vanderbilt 24 in week two.
This lack of hard information matters because unlike in a lot of those other sports, the perception of the strength or weakness of a conference can make or break a college football team’s season.
When the College Football Playoff committee is weighing the resumes of the nation’s top teams, they have to decide the relative worth of a pair of resumes with basically no overlapping data.
If Team A and B are both 11-1, then a potential shot at the national title could come down to which team has piled up more impressive wins in their conference. Without a lot of results to measure the two leagues head-to-head, it becomes something of a guessing game.
Everyone has their opinions, of course, and data to back them up. But it’s largely a subjective, theoretical exercise all the way through college football’s Selection Sunday.
Then come the bowl games. The Big Ten and SEC clash in multiple games, ranging from the Citrus Bowl and Outback Bowl to the Gator Bowl. Sometimes they meet in higher profile matchups such as the New Year’s Six (or earlier, in the BCS), or even the College Football Playoff.
The results of these games all provide more information than we had before about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the teams and leagues.
But how much do those really matter? Some teams are more motivated than others to play. Some have star players sitting out to protect their draft status. Some have lost their coaches and are playing under interim staffs. Bowl season can generate some weird and unpredictable results.
So do a strong set of bowl results conclusively prove that one league is better than another? ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit seems to think so. He tweeted this out on Tuesday, after LSU’s national title win gave the SEC a 9-2 record.
Well the “overrated” @sec is at it again-Finished 9-2 in post season play & won the Natty. Thank goodness the officials, opposing coaches/players & somehow even announcers helped them pull off this feat. It’s now up to the @nfl draft to keep the bias going in April. ? #Sarcasm
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) January 14, 2020
Herbstreit, of course, has maintained for a number of years that the SEC is clearly the strongest league in the nation. He lobbied for the SEC to get multiple teams in during several seasons, including 2018 conference title game loser Georgia.
UGA you go play Bama.
Ohio St you go play Northwestern
OU you go play Texas.
Seriously, you think that’s even?? UGA was up 28-14 about to go up 35-14-outplayed Bama for 50 of the 60 minutes and went in to the weekend #3!
Losses like that aren’t equal to others. https://t.co/fSeKBgedTH
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) December 30, 2018
To Herbstreit, the SEC’s 9-2 record in this year’s bowl games was all the proof necessary to prove his point about the league’s superiority.
But what about when bowl results suggest something else? In 2017, Herbstreit felt the SEC deserved to get two teams in the Playoff over the Big Ten Champion Buckeyes.
That bowl season, the Big Ten went 7-1. The SEC went 4-5. Here was Herbstreit’s reaction at the time.
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) December 31, 2017
Here’s a list of all of his tweets from December 29 through January 4 of that bowl season.
What’s interesting is what isn’t there. There are plenty of tweets congratulating Big Ten teams on their wins, but nothing about any broader meaning these results might have.
Herbstreit’s partner in the broadcast booth, Chris Fowler, also took note of the league’s success that postseason. So did fellow Gameday contributor David Pollack.
More #BigTen bowl flexing.. huge reversal from dismal 3-7 last season (with Ls on biggest stages).. meanwhile, it’s hard to find a parallel for #Pac12 meltdown: 1-8 in bowls. (First losing mark for the league since 2011.)
— Chris Fowler (@cbfowler) December 31, 2017
How do we not give the big 10 mad props for going 7-0 in the bowl season? I don’t care who you played or where, going 7-0 is pretty dang awesome.
— David Pollack (@davidpollack47) December 31, 2017
So what did that dominant season mean in the big picture?
“Talking point” would be that it was a poor post season for SEC after a subpar regular season. That latter fact doesn’t change. Bowl records not the best indicator of conf power IMO. Less so now than ever.
— Chris Fowler (@cbfowler) January 2, 2018
For me the best way to measure who is the best conference is out of conference games early in the season. Who wins the games that matter most when everyone is at full strength?
— David Pollack (@davidpollack47) December 31, 2017
One year earlier, in 2016, the Big Ten had been in the conversation as the best league in the nation. They then went 3-7 in bowl games. Pollack’s analysis?
Regardless of what happens in the RoseBowl, I was def wrong about the big 10 being the best conference in CFB. No best this year.
— David Pollack (@davidpollack47) January 2, 2017
Two years before that, Pollack felt “January Bowl Games Beginning with 2007 Rose Bowl” was the best metric to determine conference strength.
Since several of you guys need some stats to prove how good the SEC has been. Here you go! pic.twitter.com/Xj8lYeaTQg
— David Pollack (@davidpollack47) December 27, 2014
Five years before that, bowls were once again not a good indicator of conference strength.
@cincybuck In my option bowls r not a good indicator of conference strength. Some folks check out and get ready for the league.
— David Pollack (@davidpollack47) November 29, 2009
When a conference loses bowl games, they have something to prove, and have to prove it in bowl games.
Well when the B1G is 3-9 against the SEC since 2015 it does have something to prove. And despite what you clowns may think I pull for the B1G in every game. But don’t let facts get in the way of your tired narrative. https://t.co/YQjhel8hde
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) January 1, 2020
So, you think the SEC is overvalued?Since 06 Bowls vs Top 10 non conf opp. SEC 20-9, Pac12 8-17, Big12 4-11, B1G 4-20, Big E 2-10, ACC 5-29
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) October 21, 2013
I'm kidding about coaches bias. They're just voting like it is. Find it amusing that people think there's a SEC bias. Just facts folks.
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) August 1, 2013
Wanna change it. Beat em! That's the only way that changes. And I don't just mean the NC. Beat em consistently in bowl games and it changes
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) August 1, 2013
When the Big Ten went 0-5 on New Year’s Day 2011, Fowler definitely noticed.
If you ever wonder what Rock Bottom feels like… Ask a Big 10 fan about 1/11/11…
0-5, with a couple of complete beat downs.
— Chris Fowler (@cbfowler) January 2, 2011
Herbstreit, Pollack, and Fowler are different people, of course. Despite sharing a common broadcast booth, they’re entitled to have different opinions. But it’s also reasonable for fans of Big Ten teams to wonder why their league’s bowl wins don’t ever seem to count quite the same way the SEC’s do.
Herbstreit has long mocked the idea that ESPN was propping up the SEC.
it's a conspiracy! The #SEC hasn't dominated for years….ESPN creates their dominance! Ha. What does ESPN have to gain by pimping SEC?
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) September 4, 2012
A search of his tweets, Fowler’s, Pollack’s, and Rece Davis’ did not turn up any indication that strong Big Ten bowl results were ever treated as evidence of the league’s supremacy in the college football landscape over the past decade. On the other hand, it’s remarkable simple to find examples of the opposite – either a weak Big Ten bowl record being used as evidence of the league’s struggles, or a strong SEC bowl season being used as conclusive proof of that league’s superiority.
This is generally treated as proof that ESPN is biased toward the SEC for financial reasons. While it’s a popular theory on Twitter, the idea gets pretty significant pushback from personnel at the network.
That’s a tired take. CBS is the network of the SEC anyway. I don’t speak for studio shows any more, but Kirk and I rarely get to call SEC games anyway. No deal with abc. Hope u enjoy the game.
— Chris Fowler (@cbfowler) January 2, 2018
Ohio State is one of the most-watched teams in the nation, and as Herbstreit, Fowler, and others have pointed out, TV ratings are usually better with the Buckeyes in a game.
It’s far more likely that confirmation bias is at work. If you haven’t taken a psychology class recently, confirmation bias is a subconscious process in which someone seeks out and evaluates information in a way that reinforces their previously held beliefs.
This is an almost universal issue, and has been for centuries. The 17th-century philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.”
Bacon died 276 years before the first bowl game, a 49-0 Michigan win over Stanford in 1902, but he also did a pretty good job of breaking down the college football postseason zeitgeist.
When you’ve spent the month of December 2018 thinking that Georgia should have been included in the College Football Playoff, a loss to Texas in the 2019 Sugar Bowl doesn’t prove anything, even if they were behind 28-7 in the fourth quarter.
Before the bowls were played absolutely still think UGA should have been in top 4. They got beat. It happens. Doesn’t change my thoughts pre bowls. Give Texas credit played very well. Big win for them. https://t.co/1bomTuhzAp
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) January 2, 2019
When you’ve spent the whole season thinking that the SEC is the best conference in the nation in 2019, then a 9-2 record in the bowl game just proves it.
And when you’ve spent the whole season thinking that the SEC is the best conference in the nation in 2017, then the Big Ten’s 7-1 record in that year’s bowl games doesn’t mean as much as you’d think.
This isn’t a conscious choice. So when Herbstreit mocks the idea that he’s intentionally boosting one conference for financial reasons, he’s probably right.
But when fans of Big Ten schools say their successes are treated differently than the SEC’s, there’s also clearly some truth to what they’re saying.
The personalities highlighted above aren’t unique in this.
If you entered the 2019 Fiesta Bowl thinking that Ohio State was a better team than Clemson, then you very likely came out of the game with the same opinion.
It was just the stupid refs. If only this one play had gone differently. If only this player hadn’t been hurt. Of course they were the better team – no matter what the scoreboard said.
If you entered the 2019 Fiesta Bowl thinking that Clemson was a better team than Ohio State, then you very likely came out of the game with the same opinion.
They had a postgame win expectancy of better than 60 percent. They closed the game on a 29-7 run. They held the Buckeyes to just 95 yards rushing in the final three quarters. Of course they were the better team – just look at the scoreboard.
This same concept carries over to all facets of life. Maybe you have been exceptionally loyal to one car brand, even though it’s not always the best-rated.
Or perhaps it’s some aspect of raising your children: What time should they go to bed? How much TV can they watch? When should they start playing travel sports? There’s plenty of research, some of it conflicting. Do you change? Or do you throw up your hands, assume you’re right, and move on?
You can feel free to mentally insert your own political equivalent here (but not in the comments!).
Changing your mind means recognizing that you were wrong about something. Keeping your opinion the same means you clearly must have been right all along. It’s more fun to be right then wrong, especially when you’ve had people screaming at you about that opinion for months or years.
Being wrong means being somewhat humbled. Being right means getting to shove it right back into their stupid faces.
This is something that can happen to everyone.
It’s not a sign of moral weakness. But it’s something that can happen to everyone, and without them necessarily realizing it.
Herbstreit and his colleagues would do well to understand that.
People on Twitter would do well to understand the second part of it, as well.