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SEC Media Bias

In the 2006 National Championship Game, Florida took a 34-14 halftime lead en route to a 41-14 win over a favored Ohio State team that had been the consensus #1 team all season. Wikipedia says the following about the effect of that game on national perception:

In retrospect, the 2007 BCS National Championship Game was arguably a turning point in the history of college football, ushering in an era of dominance for the SEC and the Southeast, in general. 

From that point all the way up to today, two schools of thought have permeated the college football universe. One is that the best football is played in the Southeastern Conference. The other is that ESPN, CBS, and the systemic controlling interests in college football conspire to elevate the SEC above the other conferences for monetary gain.

Which one is true?

Of course, everyone involved in college football has some sort of bias. The Eliteness system here is great for sniffing out even the most subtle biases. Is there a disparity between teams being ranked in the Top 5 of the Final AP Poll and actually beating Elite Teams on the field? Are there any programs consistently being given an Elite ranking without actually defeating other Elite Teams?

I looked at all the games Elite Teams played against each other from 2006 through 2023. Below and to the left are the teams that finished in the AP Top 5 without defeating another Elite Team. Below and to the right are the same results organized by conference affiliation.

The data doesn’t show SEC bias. It does show that one specific program has clearly been rewarded more than all the others. Ohio State did not need to beat an Elite Team to be ranked in the top 5 far more than any other program. They have been given this distinction 5 times more than the next most rewarded program. In fact, in 39% of all seasons, they were given an Elite ranking without beating an Elite Team. On the surface, this jumps off the screen as being unjust.

However, this fact alone doesn’t prove bias. There could be a very good reason for this. Perhaps the entire SEC conference is so artificially elevated that the SEC teams’ Elite wins are actually just them beating members of their own conference. Therefore, the journalists voting in the AP Poll are just correcting an artificial elevation of SEC teams. Let’s dig deeper and find out if that is the case.

Let’s remove all Elite Team wins from the same conference and only look at out-of-conference Elite Team wins. That will show what actually happened on the field between conferences at the Elite level. Below is the record of all out-of-conference Elite Team matchups from 2006-2023. Below that are the conference records over the same time period.

As you can see, only Alabama and Clemson have more wins on the Elite level in the past 16 years than Ohio State. At the same time, no team has lost more games on the Elite level than Ohio State and they sport an overall losing record at 5-7.

The SEC is a ridiculous 27-13 against out-of-conference Elite Teams over that same time period. Of the teams that have played at least 2 OOC Elite Teams, 5 SEC teams have a winning record and only 3 teams from outside the SEC (Clemson, TCU, and UCF) have a winning record. This shows that teams that have emerged from the SEC to become Elite have been consistently better than the Elites from another conference.

If you remove Clemson, every conference has a losing record on the Elite Level except for the SEC. By winning over 2/3 of their matchups, they have relegated every other Power 5 conference to being a loser on the Elite Level.

Wait a minute though…

There is an argument out there for even this. This argument is encapsulated at the link below by a Tik Tocker named “Rico Knows.” I encourage you to watch his video and to follow Rico. Rico is a very knowledgeable guy, but he is also incorrect in this case. To paraphrase his argument in a single sentence, it boils down to:

“The SEC gets the best recruits because ESPN and the CFP committee propagandized recruits into believing the SEC was the best conference just to line their own pockets”

RicoKnows (@ricoknows) | TikTok

This, of course, is inaccurate. Rico has this backwards and I’ll show you why below.

First, he has his dates wrong. We all make mistakes. I certainly make them, but this is a big one because it’s the difference between aligning with a winner and creating one. Florida beat Ohio State in 2006 and the SEC signed the TV deal in 2008 AFTER the SEC had won 2 straight Nattys in blowout fashion. The SEC/ESPN deal happened AFTER the SEC established they were the most dominant conference.

Secondly, when Florida beat Ohio State in 2006, they were already out-recruiting Ohio State. The media assertion that Florida was “not on Ohio State and Michigan’s level” was the media propaganda that needed correcting. LSU’s blowout of Ohio State the next year solidified the narrative of SEC superiority and made them a hot commodity to ESPN.

Here’s what we know:

  1. The south is where the best high school players are. 2) College Football is cyclical. 3) There are more Elite level matchups today than there ever were in the past. 4) The “Synergistic Trend” is available to all FBS programs allowing 75 programs to make it to the Elite Level. 5) Great coaching is important. 6) Colleges that make a large monetary commitment to their football program will often hire the best coaches.

Nobody denies that top recruits are in abundance in the southeast (which is the SEC footprint), especially in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. All those players have to do is stay in close proximity to give the SEC a competitive advantage. They don’t need a reason to stay. They need a reason to leave. Was there a media bias problem when some of the best southern recruits signed with the Penn States and Notre Dames of the world in the 80s and 90s?

Remember, college football was largely a regional sport from 1936-1997. AP voters exercised “regional courtesy” when ranking teams. In other words, they would rank a team from another region based on their record alone, regardless of their level of competition. This is how BYU won the Natty in 1984.

This is what fans wanted to get rid of. They wanted the Elite Teams to play each other and find out who is the best. This outcry led to the BCS and then eventually the 4-team playoff. 25 years later, the results are in. The SEC is superior and Rico is saying THIS is the media creation as opposed to the era prior to that when Elites didn’t play each other as much and the media actually picked a National Champion. That’s backwards logic and historically inaccurate.

More opportunity exists now than ever before due to these Elite matchups. Clemson and Oregon were #30 and #32 in recruiting in 2006. Today they are #6 and #12. Did the media flip recruits to them too?

It takes overachievement beyond talent level to start the Synergistic Trend and become more attractive to recruits. Today, recruits are able to see more Elite level results on the field that shape their opinion. When the 12-team playoff starts, they’ll have even more results to absorb. Other conferences will have more opportunity than ever to beat the SEC on the field and give southern recruits a reason to leave.

If the CFP committee wanted the SEC to dominate, they could have done that under the 4-team playoff system by having two or three SEC teams in the CFP every year instead of intentionally creating opportunity for other conferences like they did. Rico argues that just having one SEC team in the CFP in 2023 is proof of CFP committee bias.

Lastly, the money motivation for SEC bias doesn’t hold up either. The NFL has shown all the media conglomerates and the CFP Committee that a sense of parity creates hope within more fans and earns more revenue than just a few teams dominating. Therefore, ESPN and the rest of the media will just do what they always do. They will bid against each other to align themselves with the most marketable programs. When the SEC gets passed on the field or there’s further realignment, ESPN will just hitch their wagon to the next big thing.


The SEC is very far ahead of the other conferences in win total and winning percentage on the Elite level since 2006. Their record on the field shows they are actually deserving of being given more credit than they have routinely been given in the CFP selections of the past decade. With only 2.3% of all games each season being out-of-conference FBS games, it made logical sense for a journalist or CFP committee member to assume that the top of the SEC is better than the top of any other conference.

Based on the 18-year track record of the SEC, it would be logical to have the two best SEC teams in every 4-team CFB playoff and have them face the two best opponents from other conferences. If the trends from the past 18 years held, the 2 SEC teams would play each other in the Natty a whopping 67.5% of the time with an SEC Natty winner 73% of the time. This explains why a team outside of the SEC has won the Natty just 27.7% of the time in the past 18 years.

Based on being 3rd in Elite Wins in the past 17 years, it is logical that Ohio State would be considered a Top 5 team in years where they are at the top of the Big Ten conference. When evaluating Clemson and Ohio St. vs. other teams outside the SEC, it makes logical sense for a journalist or CFP committee member to assume that they would be the programs most worthy of an opportunity to face SEC teams as a one loss or undefeated team.

Effects of the 12 Team Playoff and Conference Realignment

With the dissolution of the Pac-12 and Oklahoma and Texas’ defection from the Big 12, conference realignment heading into 2024 is pretty massive. However, on the highest level of the sport, perceptions remain largely unaffected by the latest expansion. The programs that are being added to the Big 10, SEC, Big 12, and ACC, are a combined 12-18 on the Elite Level out of conference.

There will be more opportunity for other programs to defeat SEC teams, but the SEC will likely be given more opportunity as well.

A team like Georgia 2023, who was ranked #1 prior to the last CFP poll, would be in the playoff and favored against the vast majority of other playoff teams. A team like Ole Miss 2023 wouldn’t be blocked from selection based on a loss to a Bama or Georgia, but would instead, get their shot against the top dogs of the Big 10, Big 12, and ACC. In other words, if the pattern of SEC success from the past 18 years holds, we are likely to have a higher number of SEC teams in the final 4 than the CFP Committee had been selecting.

If that were to happen in the coming years, we may not be looking at a 64-team super-conference. We may be looking at a group of programs half that size breaking away and some sort of relegation model. Therefore, it is possible that the CFP committee chooses parity (and money) to prevent further power concentration. The committee may have the SEC teams play each other in the first round to assure that other conferences’ teams can move on to the next round. It will be interesting to see how they seed these teams next year and if there is any controversy from it.

Note: I could show the Elite Wins and Losses updated with the 2024 conference affiliations, but without teams running the gauntlet of their new conferences, those numbers are pretty useless. We do know that when the new B10/SEC teams make the playoff, they will be more vetted and better prepared for Elite competition than they were in previous years. That is one thing realignment is consistently giving us.