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Column: It’s easy to argue that the Southeastern Conference remains top dog in college football — even if you don’t like it

Mecole Hardman
Georgia wide receiver Mecole Hardman hoists the winner’s trophy after the Bulldogs beat the Oklahoma Sooners, 54-48, in the Rose Bowl.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Now that they have regained the spotlight, the fine people of the Southeastern Conference would like to deliver a simple, heartfelt message.

Don’t hate us because we’re good.

In a season marked by upsets and turmoil, the SEC has once again emerged as top dog, with two teams — Alabama and Georgia — in Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship game.

That guarantees a ninth title in 12 years for the SEC and a second in the CFP’s four-year history.

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Think of it as more fuel for a part of the country that likes to boast about having the best athletes, the savviest coaches and the most ardent fans. As the conference’s recent advertising campaign declared: “It just means more.”

“I think sometimes people try to put a little hate on the SEC because of the success that we have,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “And I don’t think that is really fair.”

This was supposed to be a down year down South and, it’s true, the conference’s overall 4-5 record in bowl appearances was something less than stellar. Six of 14 member schools made coaching changes in recent weeks.

Still, the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs ultimately claimed the victories that counted most.

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“I’d put our conference up against anybody’s,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “And I’m not doing that braggingly, I just believe in that.”

By contrast, the Pac-12 staggered through a disconcerting bowl season, losing in eight of nine games.

There were mitigating circumstances as injuries forced UCLA and Washington State to play without their starting quarterbacks. Oregon faced a difficult scenario, going against Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl after coach Willie Taggart bolted for Florida State.

Still, one for nine is dismal considering that several of the losses involved listless performances and blowout scores.

It was a sadly fitting capper to a season in which the Pac-12 once again struggled to market its in-house network, publicly sparred with ESPN and suffered through internal strife over the scheduling of weeknight games.

After Washington lost to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl, Huskies coach Chris Petersen acknowledged that the conference’s postseason record was “nothing that we’re excited about, for sure.”

Arguments about East Coast bias and intraleague parity — Pac-12 teams beating up on each other during the regular season — have lost steam in the years since USC won the Associated Press national championship in 2004. Yet Petersen tried to inject perspective.

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“Sometimes you have those years and everybody says ‘That’s a bad conference,’” the coach said. “And I don’t really think that.”

The Big 12, supposedly on the ropes last season, placed Oklahoma in a CFP semifinal at the Rose Bowl.

Back in 2008-09, Big Ten teams went 1-6 in bowl games. This season, they were 7-1 and might have run the table if coach Jim Harbaugh hadn’t continued to struggle in big games, his Michigan team blowing a 16-point lead against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

As for questions surrounding the SEC, the conference was coming off a mediocre 2016-17 bowl season that ended with Alabama losing to Clemson in the title game. Though the Tide rebounded to spend most of this season atop the polls, Alabama was a controversial choice to make the playoffs.

The problem was, the Tide lost their regular-season finale to Auburn and didn’t even qualify for the conference title game. Some people thought that Big Ten champion Ohio State was more deserving of the CFP’s final slot.

That perception shifted Monday night.

After Georgia upset Oklahoma at the Rose Bowl, chants of “SEC, SEC” echoed through the Superdome where Alabama was taking command of its semifinal rematch against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.

“Couldn’t have scripted it better in some ways,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey told the Associated Press.

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Pending the final accounting, Sankey can point to three teams in top 10 and two more in the top 25. The early signing period provided more good news with Alabama, Georgia, Auburn and Florida among the programs with the highest-rated recruits.

The Crimson Tide now head to the title game as a 3 1/2-point favorite, having reasserted themselves as the scariest defensive team in the country. If the offense remains conservative, sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts is clearly a year steadier.

Georgia holds at least one edge in this matchup: the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta is only 72 miles from campus.

The Bulldogs are no slouch on defense, only five spots below No. 1 Alabama in yards allowed per game. Their rushing offense ranks No. 8 and freshman Jake Fromm is the fourth-most efficient passer in the nation.

“We both are very physical football teams,” Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith said. “Both protect the ball on the offensive side of the ball and play stingy defense.”

And both, it seems, have bolstered claims of SEC supremacy.

“Regardless of what’s been said, I think everything happened the way it was supposed to happen,” Hurts said, adding: “I don’t think this league is ever down.”

Hard to argue his point. Even if you don’t like it.

david.wharton@latimes.com

Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter


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