by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
In the weeks leading up to the Gator Bowl, Pat Fitzgerald had gotten more than his fair share of questions about the SEC, SEC speed and the thought of playing against a conference that, from the line of questioning, was made to seem invincible. It was pretty clear that by the end of the game, he was sick of them.
So when this question came up in the postgame press conference, Fitzgerald did his best to be diplomatic:
“The SEC is looked at as one of the most talented leagues in the country,” the questioner
stated asked. “How did you prepare (your team) to say, ‘You can compete, you can win this game?’”
After the awkward silence following the question, senior linebacker David Nwabuisi whispered something to Fitzgerald, who responded, “That’s alright, that’s alright, that’s alright.” Then he turned to the questioner:
“We’ve got the utmost respect for the SEC,” he said. “We’ve played them multiple times now. We were unfortunate down in Tampa (playing) against a team that won a National Championship the next year. This year we were 2-0 against them.
“I believe we play in the best football conference in the world, and I’m biased, but I don’t care.”
Yeah, Fitzgerald is a little biased. That "best conference" title belongs to the SEC or the Big 12 this year. However, the narrative that the Big Ten can’t compete with the SEC, the talk of SEC speed and the perception that Mississippi State is a power just because it plays in the SEC are absolutely ridiculous. It’s a stereotype perpetuated by southern and national media members, and one that has no basis in fact, but is somehow universally accepted.
The writers pushed that narrative as much as they could at the Jan. 31 Gator Bowl press conference. One asked Fitzgerald about the challenge of playing the SEC. One asked Nwabuisi about the difference between “the perception of football” in Texas (where Nwabuisi is from) and the Big Ten. One asked a Mississippi State player what he thinks of when he hears about the Big Ten, clearly trying to lead him into an answer about the Big Ten playing “old man football.”
The worst came from a Jacksonville reporter who asked Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen what his 16-2 non-conference record says about “SEC dominance.” Never mind the fact that the Bulldogs played powerhouses Jackson State, Troy, South Alabama and Middle Tennessee this year.
It’s absolutely ridiculous that we allow people to perpetuate the idea that a few good teams make the rest of the conference unstoppable. Alabama’s dominance doesn’t make Mississippi State good. If the Wildcats were playing Alabama, then they’d probably lose, but they weren’t — they were playing Mississippi State. And the Crimson Tide have absolutely no influence on how good the Bulldogs are.
The SEC is top heavy, and in college football, being top heavy is better than being deep when it comes to national perception. In fact, Northwestern had a better SEC win (8-4 Vanderbilt) than Mississippi State did (4-8 Arkansas or 4-8 Tennessee) in the regular season. This MSU team wasn’t a juggernaut that had to earn hard-fought wins en route to an 8-4 record.
But what about speed, you ask? How could NU keep up with the blazing team speed of Mississippi State? After all, the Bulldogs have much better athletes — the recruiting rankings say so!
Well, defensive ends Quentin Williams and Tyler Scott answered that absurd suggestion by running around and through the MSU offensive line, frustrating Bulldogs quarterback Tyler Russell all day.
“I’ll say this about our ballclub: we can run, we’re fast, we’re athletic, we’re physical, we’re tough, we know how to respond,” Fitzgerald said.
It’s ironic, because Mississippi State is actually much worse-equipped for fast-paced games than NU. The Bulldogs play a more traditional style, while the Wildcats are the ones that speed the game up. And when NU was able to push the pace on offense against MSU, it was tough to stop.
Fitzgerald probably had a few choice words that he would have liked to use for the questioner in his postgame press conference, but he let the play on the field speak for itself — a 34-20 drubbing of one of those supposed powers.
To some, this was probably a shocking upset. Somewhere in the South, a journalist with SEC goggles will write something like this: “Northwestern countered its inferior athleticism with smart, disciplined play and took advantage of uncharacteristic Mississippi State mistakes.” Hopefully, these lines end soon.
The SEC is a great conference and it has some outstanding teams. Mississippi State, however, is not one of them. On Tuesday, the faster and more talented team won, and that team was from the Big Ten.
That doesn’t fit the narrative we’re used to, so maybe that means it’s time to change the narrative altogether.