Football was a real drag on the Southeastern Conference in the just-concluded 2016-2017 sports cycle, which began in late summer and carried through the recently completed College World Series.
Wait -- that's a real sentence? Yes. It's not meant to be alarmist, even though it might sound like it. It is a relatively simple statement which might be nibbled at on the edges, but is unassailable at its core.
While the Big Ten put four teams in the New Year's Six last season, the SEC gained only two... and only because of the contractual tie-in to the Sugar Bowl. Alabama is the only SEC program which is winning at a consistently high level. As great a coach as Nick Saban is, it's very hard -- and becoming harder with each year -- to ignore the weak coaching competition in the league, especially the SEC West, as a big source of his dominance.
Alabama did well last season, but it fell short against Clemson in the national championship game. Meanwhile, South Carolina (women's basketball) and Florida (baseball) won national championships. Moreover, those two championships were won in games or series against SEC opponents. South Carolina beat UConn-slaying Mississippi State for its trophy, while Florida beat LSU in Omaha to capture its first College World Series. The SEC staged a men's NCAA Tournament regional final between South Carolina and Florida and put three teams in the Elite Eight, more than any other conference. With Texas A&M making the College World Series, the SEC had three of the eight CWS teams in Omaha, also more than any other conference.
Baseball, men's hoops, and women's hoops all offered better performances from the league if measured by a combination or group of schools. Had Alabama beaten Clemson, it would have enabled SEC football to collect another national title, but without that brass ring, the other high-profile sports -- with more and deeper representation in big events -- truly achieved more this past cycle.
Moreover, it seems that in men's basketball, the SEC is moving in the right direction. New hires at Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, and -- most recently -- LSU are improving the quality of coaching in the conference. Moreover, stagnant situations involving Bruce Pearl and the University of Missouri could soon turn into much more productive programs. The energy of men's basketball is healthy. Baseball programs are thriving, with Kentucky making a national splash this past spring.
Football -- yeah, you, over there in the corner -- is not expanding the league's sense of possibility and potential.
Alabama is still Alabama, but after that, where will the New Year's Six bowl berths come from in 2017? The two best bets are Auburn and Georgia... and they have to play each other, meaning that a two-game NY6 haul seems more like a ceiling than a floor this season. Florida (another NY6 contender) and Auburn both play difficult non-conference games in the early weeks of the season -- the Gators against Michigan and Auburn against the defending champions from Clemson. Losses in those two games will put a major squeeze on the SEC's high-end postseason aspirations before the official arrival of autumn.
The SEC, as a whole, has much to be proud of as a conference in 2017. Football, though, needs to pick up the pace.
The sentence is dissonant and jarring... but is it wrong, after a 2016 season in which 13 member schools all lost at least four games before the bowls arrived?
Get with the program, SEC football. Baseball and (gasp!) basketball think you need to do better.