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A Retort in Support of the S.E.C., Offered in Six Parts

Part I: The Criticism

Yesterday, And the Valley Shook called our attention to a comment thread over at College Football Resource, in which C.F.R. offered the following observation:

Tennessee 31, Air Force 30

Same old Tennessee.

There's something about an SEC team playing a well-regarded Pac-10 team or WAC that just boils their blood and has them play WELL over their heads.

If a team comes in lightly such as Oregon State/LSU, ASU/LSU or Air Force/Tennessee, they look very very average.

Part II: The Disclaimer

Before proceeding further, I should add (as A.T.V.S. quite properly did) that I enjoy C.F.R.'s weblog and I respect his work.

While he and I disagree frequently, our clashes have been respectful, as C.F.R. has acknowledged. (Indeed, in our last exchange, C.F.R. argued that Georgia would be good because of Matthew Stafford and I argued that Georgia would be good because of solid defensive play . . . and it turns out that we both may have been right!)

I should also note that I have defended the Pac-10 and other Western teams as much as any self-confessed S.E.C. homer. I picked Cal to beat Tennessee earlier in the season and, in this weekend's matchups, I expect Oregon and Southern California to win handily.

Last year, I showed a great deal of respect to Boise State. This summer, I called attention to non-B.C.S. conference schools and key games. I worked with Bruins Nation's Nestor to reach a consensus on the East Coast bias.

Part III: The Defense of the Maligned Team

That having been said, C.F.R.'s comment regarding Tennessee (and, by extension, the entire S.E.C.) smacks of West Coast bias.

"Same old Tennessee"? Would that be the same old Tennessee that beat Cal 35-18 to open the season? The same Tennessee that beat Fresno State 24-6 in 2003? The one that beat U.C.L.A. by margins of 24-6 in 1989, 30-16 in 1991, 35-20 in 1996, and 30-24 in 1997?

Ah, but those are "well-regarded" Western squads. How would the Vols fare against the lesser lights of the region? Like, say, Wyoming? (The Big Orange beat the Cowboys 42-17 in 1999 and 47-7 in 2002.) Or, perhaps, U.N.L.V.? (Tennessee defeated the Running Rebels by scores of 62-3 in 1996 and 42-17 in 2004.)

Sure, the Vols only beat Washington State by a single point in 1994 . . . but, then again, that Cougar team matched Tennessee's records, overall (8-4) and in conference play (5-3), and both won late December bowl games.

While I am no defender of the Tennessee Volunteers, there is only so much that should be read into last Saturday's close call against Air Force. As noted by Paul Westerdawg:

In 2004, UGA gave up 294 yards rushing and 28 points to Div I-AA Georgia Southern. UGA finished the season with the #15 ranked run defense in the nation. GSU was running the wishbone, just like Air Force was. It's a system you see once every 3-5 years. It's hard to prepare for.

Indeed, C.F.R. has cited approvingly the effectiveness of the wishbone offense and noted the importance of familiarity in preparing to face a particular offense.

Furthermore, the Vols were due for a letdown after their big win over Cal and three key players---running back Arian Foster, defensive tackle Justin Harrell, and cornerback Inky Johnson---left the game with injuries.

Part IV: The Defense of the Slighted Conference

Even if the Volunteers' poor performance against the Falcons cast legitimate doubts upon Tennessee's talent, though, it is unreasonable to cast aspersions upon the entire Southeastern Conference upon the basis of that one game.

To be fair, C.F.R. cites not one, but three games: Tennessee's 31-30 victory over Air Force last Saturday, which I have addressed already; L.S.U.'s 35-31 victory over Arizona State in 2005; and L.S.U.'s 22-21 victory over Oregon State in 2004.

Please note that, in those "very very average" performances, all three S.E.C. squads won . . . and two of those victories came against teams that would finish 7-5 and win the Insight Bowl. Let us examine these games in greater detail, however.

C.F.R. accuses S.E.C. squads facing "a well-regarded Pac-10 team" of playing "WELL over their heads." Why shouldn't Pac-10 teams be subject to the same criticism?

Oregon State, fresh off of an eight-win season and a bowl victory in 2003, arrived on the bayou for the 2004 season opener against the defending national champion Tigers, who had won the B.C.S. title game from which U.S.C. had been excluded. Surely it is not so difficult to suppose that the Beavers thought they had something to prove and, consequently, played perhaps their best game ever against a Southeastern Conference opponent.

The circumstances surrounding the 2005 clash between the Bayou Bengals and the Sun Devils were even more unusual. As alluded to by A.T.V.S., last autumn's game was scheduled to be played in Baton Rouge, but the contest had to be moved to Tempe because the Pelican State had been decimated by Hurricane Katrina.

In the aftermath of the greatest natural disaster in American history, L.S.U. went out and won despite the extraordinary disruptions that tragedy produced. The Tigers' victory was a testament to resilience, strength of character, and heart, not a show of weakness. (To his considerable credit, C.F.R. was extremely active in the post-Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, so he was aware of the magnitude of the situation and did his very best to aid the afflicted.)

Part V: The Identification of the Underlying Disingenuousness

C.F.R.'s argument is a clever example of counterfactual reasoning employing circular logic to underscore a conclusion at which he has already arrived without recourse to reality; it is, in short, an effort to fit the square peg of the truth into the round hole of his prejudices.

Before last season, C.F.R. advised his readers: "Tune into Boise State/UGA. No questions, just answers."

Needless to say, C.F.R. put his faith in the Broncos' scheme. Once again to his credit, he admitted afterwards that he was wrong, but he slyly added that readers should "be very careful to give blanket dismissal of the arguments made" leading up to the contest, drawing a sharp rebuke from The Lawgiver.

Now, C.F.R. takes a different, and much shrewder, approach. In 2005, he made the mistake of making assertions that could be proven wrong by actual events . . . as came to pass when Georgia's 48-13 win over Boise State confirmed what most of the rest of us thought when Dan Hawkins's Bronco squads lost 32-13 to South Carolina in 2001 and lost 41-14 to Arkansas in 2002. Those blowouts couldn't be explained away, no matter how hard C.F.R. tried.

Now, though, any outcome is easily explicable. If Georgia blows out Boise State or Tennessee steamrolls Cal, well, that was just because the Western opponent was "well-regarded," causing the S.E.C. folks to "play WELL over their heads." In other words, any time a big-time Southern school beats a big-time Western school badly, it only proves how good the big-time Western school really is.

If, however, Arizona State or Oregon State puts a scare into L.S.U., that means the S.E.C. is "very very average." Not so average that the Bayou Bengals actually lost to a bowl-bound Pac-10 team, mind you, but average, nonetheless.

I am no detractor of Western teams. My most recent Maxwell Pundit ballot ranked a Pac-10 quarterback and a W.A.C. tailback first and second, respectively. My latest BlogPoll ballot ranks two Pac-10 teams in the top six. I have been an advocate of more aggressive non-conference scheduling with Western teams and I am glad Oregon is on the Bulldogs' schedule.

I am by no means closed-minded where the Pac-10 is concerned, yet I have to defend my region from charges of bias against the West Coast. Why, then, are Pac-10 boosters not similarly called to account for making such preposterous and obviously contrived animadversions upon the S.E.C.?

Part VI: The Identification of the Underlying Ignorance

Toward the very end of the comment thread quoted at the outset of this posting, C.F.R. was pointing out the games remaining for the various contenders and he offered the following observation:

Auburn has LSU, Alabama, Georgia (I think?) and a possible SEC title game.

"I think?" Georgia and Auburn have been permanent interdivisional rivals since the S.E.C. expanded in 1992; they do not rotate on and off of one another's schedules, but instead play one another annually.

This arrangement was set up because the Bulldogs and the Plainsmen take part in the Deep South's oldest college football rivalry. The Red and Black first met the Orange and Blue in 1892, in Auburn's first intercollegiate gridiron game and Georgia's second. Neither team appeared on the other's 1893 slate, but the 'Dawgs and the Tigers faced off in 1894, 1895, and 1896.

After taking a year off in 1897, the two teams resumed their series in 1898 . . . and, since that time, it has quite literally taken a World War to keep Georgia and Auburn from playing one another. The only three seasons in which the Bulldogs failed to play the Plainsmen came in 1917, 1918, and 1943. Georgia did not field a football team during the two World War I years and Auburn did not field a football team during the middle year of World War II.

I don't expect C.F.R. to know every detail of S.E.C. football; I am sure there are many minutiae of Pac-10 football that have escaped my notice. However, anyone who doesn't know enough to know that Georgia and Auburn play every single year doesn't know enough to comment knowledgeably on Southeastern Conference football . . . and certainly doesn't know enough to disparage it.

Go 'Dawgs!