Statistical analysts are fond of using the expression "regression to the mean."
If a mean exists in SEC football, it is regressing.
The average level of performance -- the average identity of an SEC team from 1 to 14 -- is decreasing. These 14 teams are being ranked and evaluated each week. Any attempt to rank them involves assigning a (1) to the best team and a (14) to the worst. Yet, a strong league would make teams 5-9 generally good teams. A weak league would make those teams bad, and 10-14 several degrees worse.
Guess which scenario we have? One doesn't need to be a rocket scientist or Nick Saban to figure it out.
As the regular season enters its final few weeks, three teams are playing for high stakes, but teams 4-14 -- with one or two possible exceptions -- are declining instead of improving.
Consider the point through this lens: Whenever a conference is highly balanced, particularly in its middle and lower sections, familiar notions emerge. The positive spin is regularly something to the effect of, "This conference is beating itself up." The league is so good that few teams can get out alive with an impressive record which will make a New Year's Six bowl possible.
The negative spin: Teams simply aren't good enough to rise above the muddled cluster.
These talking points are impossible to repress for fans of each respective conference. When the wheel spins each year and lands on a different conference, the apologists and the naysayers will conveniently adjust their positions to fit the situation, but the substance of the talking points remains the same... much like American politics.
Any honest attempt to assess conferences must go beyond those talking points and simply evaluate the quality of play in games.
One can give very high marks to Alabama and Georgia -- and withhold a verdict on No. 3 Auburn before its moment-of-truth battle with UGA this weekend -- but for teams 4-14, it is becoming much harder to view the vast SEC underclass as an imposing gauntlet. It's much easier to view it as a bowl of thin porridge.
It is worth saying that the struggles of the vast majority of the SEC -- while not painting the whole league in a positive light -- are conducive to the tantalizing, exciting possibility of landing two teams in the College Football Playoff. The humiliations endured by several proud programs this season could enable the SEC to make college football history AND stage a box-office blockbuster in Atlanta on December 2. Nevertheless, the SEC is far removed -- and, one could argue, moving farther away from -- its 2013 gold standard marrying top-end quality with league-wide depth. The regression OF the mean -- not to it -- will be unpacked in this latest edition of the Stock Exchange, below:
NOTE: This time, we won't go through the two divisions in separate progressions, but will rank the league 1-14:
1 and 2: ALABAMA and GEORGIA: These teams just scored twin 24-10 home wins over limited offenses led by unimaginative head coaches. South Carolina might be the second-best team in the SEC East, and if Auburn gets destroyed by both Georgia and Alabama, LSU will probably wind up as the second-best team in the SEC West -- if not by record, then in terms of the quality of its bowl bid. If South Carolina and LSU are No. 2 teams in SEC divisions THIS season, that's a searing indictment of the quality of football being played in the SEC in 2017.
Should either Alabama or Georgia be worried that they couldn't win by much larger margins? Not at all.
Plenty of people inside and beyond the SEC thought at the time that Texas A&M showed something impressive by playing Alabama to a 27-19 final. The game was not a laugher, and since A&M was an underdog of more than three touchdowns, some people were impressed by the Aggies, even though they trailed by 15 points with one minute left before adding a cosmetic score.
We have subsequently been able to see that A&M wasn't anything special.
The inconvenient but profound truth? Alabama always plays at least one particularly mediocre game per year -- if not two -- and gets away with it. The Tide are not exempt from ho-hum performances, but when one side of the ball is a mess, the other side (sometimes helped by special teams) saves the day. It is extremely hard to play at the same high level every week. Alabama is not immune to the struggles of other college football teams, but the key insight is that the defense is almost always good enough to have the offense's back. This is what Clemson lacked in last year's loss to Pitt and this year's loss to Syracuse.
Georgia and Bama were coasting this past week. Both teams know they have bigger battles ahead, and they played like it. Auburn and Mississippi State are games in which Georgia and Alabama can't score 24 and feel entirely comfortable (even though it might work out for them).
3: AUBURN - This is it.
The Tigers handled Texas A&M, which does a lot to increase the odds that Gus Malzahn will make it through yet another season, but even though Gus might be safe heading into 2018 (a likelihood, but not a guarantee, either), the coming weeks might represent his last best chance to win the respect and trust of his fan base.
Coincidentally, the last time Gus won universal praise from his team was the Georgia-Alabama double stack at home in Jordan-Hare Stadium... in 2013. Those two wins turned Auburn from "pretty good team with a chance to make something of its season" into SEC West champions. When given the chance to play for the SEC title, Auburn made the most of its opportunity against Missouri and reached the BCS National Championship Game.
Malzahn has done nothing since that particular autumn to return Auburn to the top tier of the SEC.
Now we'll find out if Auburn belongs at the top of the heap or is merely "not as bad as most" in the conference. There is a wide gulf between those two identities. No more foreplay, no more preliminaries, for the Tigers.
This is it.
4: MISSISSIPPI STATE -- This is subject to change, but the fact that MSU -- a blowout loser to Georgia and Auburn -- is very reasonably identified as the fourth-best team in the SEC in November, heading into Week 11, shows how the league is generally down... and declining as the weeks go by. Moreover, to emphasize the point about the SEC's mean regressing, Mississippi State's place in these rankings is much more likely to change in a downward direction than an upward direction. I would much more readily bet that LSU will move up to this slot after an MSU blowout loss to Alabama than on the other possibility: namely, that the Bulldogs will ambush Bama and displace Auburn at No. 3.
5 and 6: LSU and SOUTH CAROLINA -- "We're not bad!"
That's not an inspiring rallying cry, but there were times earlier this season when the Tigers and Gamecocks could have been viewed as bad teams. LSU, after the losses to Mississippi State and Troy, stared at the possibility of a 6-6 season. South Carolina, after the home loss to Kentucky, might have sweated bullets. Both have risen above those worst-case scenarios and should feel good about their displays of resilience. Yet, compared to the vintage Les Miles and Steve Spurrier teams from the early part off this decade, the 2017 Bayou Bengals and Gamecocks don't come remotely close.
More perspective: If LSU goes 9-3 this season, it will mark a very good response to a horrible situation. However, Auburn is a road game next year, and Florida could get the right coach. Alabama will still be a headache to play, even though that game will be in Baton Rouge. Arkansas and Texas A&M could hire smart coaches, too. LSU's outlook could become worse in the next six weeks, even with a 9-3 finish. Assuming that the Bayou Bengals fail to make a New Year's Six bowl, the Troy loss -- which has been overcome on several levels -- might still cost LSU a great deal by the time 2017 ends.
As for South Carolina: The injury to Deebo Samuel makes this season slightly better than the overall collection of results would indicate. Will Muschamp has generally exceeded expectations through two seasons -- that might not be an unassailable opinion, but it would almost certainly rate as a strong majority opinion throughout the SEC. Yet, similar to LSU, South Carolina is looking at Florida and Tennessee and hoping those schools don't make enlightened hires. If the Gators and Vols hit triples (if not home runs), the margin for error in Columbia immediately shrinks, and for all of Muschamp's relative achievements, he will have to do a better job just to maintain the status he has established this season.
7: TEXAS A&M -- The team in the dead middle of the SEC was a very good team in 2013. The team in the dead middle of the SEC in 2017 is not a good team. The Aggies are nothing more than average, after getting whacked by Auburn at home. Kevin Sumlin will finish this season with only one SEC home-field win, and he will finish his past four seasons in College Station with one (!) SEC West home win. That's not mediocre; that's below-average, an apt way of underscoring the point that the balance of the SEC exists at a much lower level than it used to, and at a low level (on an absolute scale) in 2017.
8: KENTUCKY -- The Wildcats were blown out by Mississippi State, but this past weekend's loss at home to Ole Miss was in many ways more representative of their season. Kentucky kept playing on the edge, kept playing with fire, and finally got burned in a game that went down to the final seconds. Teams generally pay the price when they do that, even good teams such as Penn State the past two weeks.
Kentucky's best win and performance of the season was a 23-13 win at South Carolina, the game in which Deebo Samuel got injured in the first half. Kentucky has very rarely played like a good team. The Wildcats are mediocre, but the soft, mushy quality of the SEC East plus a very manageable non-conference schedule have assured Big Blue of a bowl bid.
9: MISSOURI - Did anyone think that Missouri could possibly be one of the SEC's 10 best teams (or, to spin it another way, free from the bottom four in the conference) at any point in 2017? This is more a product of the implosions of Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida, but nevertheless, it remains that Missouri's offense makes the Tigers a "less bad" team compared to the Vols, Hogs and Gators. It's jarring, but it's real.
10: VANDERBILT -- Are the Commodores mediocre or bad? I don't know. The next three games -- Kentucky, Mizzou, Tennessee -- will answer that question. Thus, the Dores deserve this in-between ranking, above the bottom four. They will get a chance to improve or tank their ranking in the coming weeks.
11: OLE MISS -- Though losing to Arkansas after owning a 31-7 lead will remain a severe on-field blot on this team's season, winning at Kentucky and not giving up the ship say a lot about a group of young men which could have mailed in this season from the start. Matt Luke has done an admirable job in an interim role.
12: ARKANSAS -- Imagine: There are two teams worse than this Arkansas disaster.
13: FLORIDA -- Imagine: There is an SEC team in worse shape than the cratering, dysfunctional, hopelessly lost Gators.
14: TENNESSEE -- If Florida gets a high-quality coach before the Vols do, Vol fans will never let John Currie forget that he didn't fire Butch Jones at a much earlier point in time, enabling Tennessee to fully launch the process of finding its next coach. Currie is inviting a lot more scrutiny -- and a much shorter tenure as athletic director -- if he wants until after Game 12 to fire Butch and then fails to land a good candidate.