B1G Debate: Who had the better bowl season, Big Ten or SEC?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s topic: Who had the better bowl season, Big Ten or SEC?
RYAN: Bowl season is technically over, though we still have the national championship on Monday, so let’s take stock of the 2 conferences we cover with this company, the Big Ten and SEC. The B1G went 3-1, while the SEC went 6-2 to finish with an identical winning percentage of .750. The Big Ten and SEC went 1-1 against each other (Northwestern beat Auburn, while Ole Miss beat Indiana). So which conference was more impressive?
This isn’t me being a Big Ten homer, but I truly believe the B1G outperformed the SEC this bowl season — albeit slightly. And if Alabama beats Ohio State in Monday’s national championship, I’d give a slight edge to the SEC. But as it stands right now, it’s the Big Ten.
For one, the Big Ten dominated its bowl opponents with all 3 wins coming by at least 2 touchdowns, while the SEC skated by with 4 wins coming by 6 points or less. The Big Ten’s average point differential is 11.3, while the SEC’s is -0.9. That’s right, the SEC was outscored in its bowl games despite going 6-2. Thanks, Florida. And ironically enough, the Big Ten’s biggest spread was Iowa being a 2-TD favorite over Missouri in the Music City Bowl, and that game didn’t even get played because of COVID, so this could’ve been a lot worse.
The necessary context, of course, is that the Big Ten was set up to succeed this bowl season and the SEC was set up to fail (and did pretty well to eke out 6 wins). Indiana was the B1G’s second-best team and faced the SEC’s eighth-best team. Northwestern was the B1G’s third-best team and faced the SEC’s fifth-best team. Iowa was the B1G’s fourth-best team and was slated to face the SEC’s sixth-best team. I get it. But it’s also proper context to mention that Indiana was without its star QB Michael Penix Jr. and that his backup, Jack Tuttle, hurt his shoulder during the game and showed up to the postgame Zoom in a sling. It doesn’t excuse Indiana losing, but credit to Ole Miss — this was the SEC’s best performance. (Runner-up: My hometown Kentucky Wildcats beating No. 23 N.C. State.)
That’s because the rest of the SEC slate was so uninspiring. I’m sorry, but Georgia somehow beating an AAC team on a last-second field goal isn’t the kind of performance I expected from a top-10 SEC team, even if Cincinnati was really good this year. An SEC team (even one that struggled like Mississippi State) escaping with a win against an AAC team doesn’t excite me. Texas A&M rallying to beat a North Carolina team without its record-setting RB duo and top wideout doesn’t excite me. I know the broadcast didn’t make a big deal of it, but Northwestern was without its NFL-bound cornerback, sack leader, No. 2 wideout and 2 of its top 3 RBs — and still beat Auburn by 16.
Con, please defend your conference and also answer the burning question on the minds of college football fans everywhere: Will Alabama be motivated enough in the national championship against Ohio State?
CONNOR: Serious question. Who besides David Pollack actually claims that the SEC isn’t motivated in these bowl games? I feel like that’s been a bit overblown by those who like piling on the SEC if it loses a bowl game. By the way, there were only 2 such instances.
I already went on record saying that Florida at full strength probably doesn’t beat Oklahoma. With 60 scholarship players, motivation had nothing to do with that. Kyle Trask not having his top 4 receivers was a death sentence, and the SEC started off bowl season with a rare ugly New Year’s 6 Bowl loss.
But after that? The league went 6-1 with the lone loss coming via an Auburn team who wasn’t very good to begin with. The conference that is “always overrated” had 3 unranked teams beat ranked teams in bowl games. One of those, of course, was Ole Miss against Indiana. Ya think Indiana had enough motivation? You know, with the whole “no B1G patch and getting screwed out of a New Year’s 6 Bowl” thing. Yet against an Ole Miss team missing 75% of its receiving production, a middle-of-the-pack SEC team beat the B1G’s No. 2 team. Doesn’t that say a lot?
The SEC beat 4 top-15 teams in bowl games. That includes a Georgia team that beat a legitimate top-10 Cincinnati team. That’s still a win. It wasn’t like Georgia was favored by 20. That was the SEC’s No. 3 or No. 4 team. I’m sorry for the Joel Klatts of the world who only tweet when the SEC is losing, but this narrative that the SEC got “exposed” in bowl season is absurd. Florida got whipped. Auburn got whipped. Still, the argument sells itself.
The B1G had a solid bowl season, but it didn’t have 4 wins against top-15 teams. And if Alabama beats Ohio State, well, this debate is all but over.
(This is the part where I mention that Tennessee, South Carolina and Arkansas not playing in bowl games was actually a blessing in disguise for the league. Auburn should’ve canceled, too.)
RYAN: Whew, you SEC folks are a little sensitive. That was just a joke! But surely you’ve heard that one over the years from people other than Pollack. Heck, Dan Mullen basically said that game didn’t count and that it wasn’t part of the 2020 season.
To respond to a few of your points:
- I don’t think the SEC got exposed, and any analyst who says that is being dishonest (or confusing the SEC with the ACC). I think the SEC had a very good bowl season, in fact — just not as good as the Big Ten.
- Of course Indiana was motivated. No one is suggesting they weren’t because that wouldn’t make sense. Ole Miss played a heck of a game. I can see why that fan base is very excited for 2021.
- How can Georgia, with all of the resources in the world and all of the talent in the world (No. 1, in fact, on 247’s Talent Composite), feel good about needing a last-minute drive to beat a Group of Five school? If Cincinnati’s All-Conference left tackle doesn’t get ejected for targeting — causing the Bearcats to bring in a sophomore who had played 45 snaps all season and got repeatedly burned — then Georgia loses. If Cincinnati just runs the ball on 3rd-and-2 to waste 40 more seconds, Georgia wouldn’t have had enough time to kick a 53-yard field goal with 12 seconds left. Georgia won, but it was hardly convincing.
- Did you say Auburn wasn’t very good to begin with? Am I misremembering, or was Auburn all season cited as a quality win for those propping up Texas A&M and Georgia?
- The Big Ten doesn’t have 4 wins against top-15 teams because it didn’t have a chance! I would’ve loved to see Indiana, Northwestern or Iowa get a shot at Oklahoma, because clearly Florida didn’t care.
I think it’s also worth mentioning the best win in bowl season was by Ohio State — and I don’t think there’s an argument. To take on mighty Clemson and mighty Trevor Lawrence and go up 28 in the fourth quarter, well, that’s as good as it gets right there.
Indiana game aside, the Big Ten won emphatically. The SEC, meanwhile, just skated by and was a play away from losing in 4 games.
CONNOR: Ok, that came off a bit too sensitive. But yes, I have been hearing about this the last 4 years, so you hit a nerve. I’m never really a big fan of bowls justifying a conference’s regular season. Having a goose egg like the ACC certainly hurt, though.
For what it’s worth, I’m not saying Georgia showed the world it was a top-5 team by beating Cincinnati. But if we’re gonna talk about the left tackle getting ejected, does it not matter that Georgia was without arguably 3 of its 4-5 best defensive players (Monty Rice, Eric Stokes and Richard LeCounte)? That’s the problem I have. Both teams had significant absences. I don’t think it’s a negative when the No. 3 or No. 4 team in a conference wins against a top-10 team. Also, the SEC was a play away from losing 3 games, unless we’re counting Tom Allen’s failed timeout attempt as another game-changing play. But that’s neither here nor there.
I banged the drum for Indiana, Northwestern and Iowa as quality teams all year, but give me that late-season version of Oklahoma against all of those. It’s too bad we don’t have a system that’ll allow us to see those types of matchups. Too bad.
Bowl season was always going to be magnified because we didn’t get a non-conference season. Here’s hoping we can get back to some normalcy next year and get mad about conference strength in September like the good old days.