I've never been able to wrap my mind around the conference superiority debate in college football. It seems to be a phenomenon of the last several years in that every victory and defeat by a given team is also a win or a loss for their given conference, their rivals, and that entire region of the country. I honestly have never been able to understand it. When I hear friends and family tell me they're rooting for Big Ten teams come bowl time, I would always shake my head and wonder how an Ohio State fan could root for Michigan or Northwestern or Michigan State on January 1 when rooting against them for the other 364 days of the year.
Furthermore, it seems to be a phenomenon exclusive to college football. How many fans were chanting "SEC! SEC! SEC!" when Kentucky won the national championship in April? How many columns are being written right now about the dominance of the Big Ten at the top of the college hoops rankings? Go to baseball or soccer or any other sport and this regionalized turf war doesn't exist the way it does in college football.
What's the root cause of the need for conference superiority in football? Maybe with the SEC's string of national championships there is a rise in regional pride (although living in the Midwest I don't remember a day of mourning or flags being lowered to half staff after the Big Ten's abysmal New Year's Day performance). Maybe it's the thrust of conference realignment and the arms and money and power race in college football. Maybe it's the increased passion and popularity of the sport. Maybe it's because I live in the North instead of the South.
I honestly don't know where it came from. When Miami humiliated Nebraska in the early 2000's it wasn't seen as a watershed
ACC Big East moment or an embarrassment for the Big XII. And yet, these days nearly every non-conference matchup is reflected upon that league as a whole as if Vanderbilt or Kentucky actually gain anything tangible from fans in the Georgia Dome spelling the letters of their conference.
That's why it struck me as kinda funny when Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas this week. The major storyline to emerge from the move wasn't one about the successful coach moving onto a new challenge. It wasn't about Arkansas AD Jeff Long making a great hire after a year in the wilderness with John L. Smith and the Bobby Petrino disaster. No, everywhere you looked, from some of the top college football writers in the country, Bret Bielema leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas was a hammer blow to the Big Ten Conference...
Andy Staples, Sports Illustrated
"Bielema's exit has to feel like a giant middle finger to the Big Ten. In terms of pay, facilities, ease of winning the league and access to elite recruits (the most important criterion), Arkansas is behind Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M and probably even with Auburn and Tennessee. So Bielema, the winner of three consecutive Big Ten titles, left that league to take what is at best the sixth-best job in the SEC. What does that say about the Big Ten? (Other than the probability that Meyer and Ohio State are about to steamroll everyone for the foreseeable future.)"
Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
"Wisconsin will find a new coach and continue on. The league still has good people and good programs. There's plenty of potential, plenty of momentum at some places. And, at least for national relevance, it can be thankful that Urban Meyer is at Ohio State, where the road to more undefeated seasons just became even easier.
But both the Badgers and the league were better with Bielema. He was supposed to be a Big Ten lifer, a quality coach at a quality program helping add depth to a league in desperate need of anything positive.
Instead he becomes a real-time, real-life example of the pecking order of college football."
Brian Bennett, ESPN.com
"Except for a two-year stint at Kansas State as co-defensive coordinator, Bielema spent his entire career in the Big Ten and was groomed by Barry Alvarez to take over Wisconsin. In February, after he objected to some of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer's aggressive recruiting tactics, Bielema said this: “We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC -- in any way, shape or form.”
Now, less than a year later, Bielema is leaving for a middle-of-the-pack SEC job at Arkansas. And that's a bitter pill to swallow not only for Badgers fans, but for the entire Big Ten."
Below is a selection of all the columns I could find discussing Charlie Strong staying at Louisville and turning down Tennessee as a "blow to the SEC" or a "win for the ACC/Big East."
How about Butch Jones finally taking the Tennessee job? Was that a hammer blow to the Big East or another sign of the SEC's superiority?
Was it an insult to the Pac 12 as a whole that Jones turned down Colorado? No, evidently the only person emerging from that flirtation harmed was Woody Paige.
It struck me that the only coaching move that furthers the entire conference superiority debate is a Big Ten coach leaving for the SEC... unless there's a widespread panic amongst Sun Belt fans about how the league will move on without Gus Malzahn, that is.
It shows the selectivity of this conference superiority debate. We pull it out when it's convenient and when it will create buzz and inflame the passions of certain fanbases. We pull out those storylines that make for great media fodder. At the moment, kicking the Big Ten when they're down and painting the Bielema hire as a "win for the SEC" is a topic that's sure to draw e-mails and pageviews from college football fanatics on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. There is no Pac 12-Big East feud at the moment.
Maybe the conference superiority debate that exists between the Big Ten and the SEC and the rest of college football is something that I'll never fully grasp. Bret Bielema leaving a Wisconsin team that finished third in their division this year for Arkansas doesn't strike me as another step in marching the Big Ten ever closer to its inevitable doom. Arkansas will become a Top 25 program once again and Wisconsin will likely be just fine. But when Nick Saban and Les Miles get tired of mere football victories and lead their men to capture West Lafayette, Indiana in 2016, I can't say I wasn't warned.
I think the conference superiority debate only exists in college football because you only play 4-5 non-conference games (Including bowl game), and 2-3 of those games are meaningless 'scrimmage' games. So fans need their conference to do well in bowl games to validate their in-season success, or failures. In other sports, you play more non-conference games, and then you have a tournament to ultimately decide it. So the superior teams sort themselves out in games, and not on human driven polls. If the B1G goes undefeated in bowls, then the fans can say 'See, we're great, we just beat each other.'
Some of this surely can be traced back to the Bowl Challenge Cup that ESPN has hyped for years. And, of course, in basketball there's now the ACC-Big Ten and SEC-Big East challenges (again, ESPN hyped) to juice up early-season matches to attract eyeballs before February.
Although the SEC dominating the national championship over the BCS era hasn't gone unnoticed by fans; the S-E-C chants that started spontaneously in the NCG few years back, at least, can't be blamed on the ESPN behemoth.
This whole conference superiority thing is just a scheme perpetuated by networks to place importance on games that shouldn't matter. Should a Penn State fan care if Northwestern beats Vanderbilt in the second game of the season? No. But these conference VS conference records have been seeded in the minds of fans and viewers everywhere, and now people care about games that they normally never would.
"When Miami humiliated Nebraska in the early 2000's it wasn't seen as a watershed ACC moment or an embarrassment for the Big XII."
Wasn't Miami still in the Big East when that happened?