How the SEC Became College Football's Unstoppable Juggernaut

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How the SEC Became College Football's Unstoppable Juggernaut
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

After seven straight national championships it’s difficult to remember when the SEC wasn’t the dominant conference in college football, but did you know that prior to Florida’s title in 2006 that the SEC won only two national championships from 1997 to 2005?

That’s right, as real as the streak is and as mega-successful as the SEC has been since 2006 (no conference has ever won more than three in a row since the AP poll began in 1936), their current reign is, relative to history, still a short-term proposition.

Putting the SEC’s supremacy into historical perspective makes it intriguing to try and trace the origins of the now super-power conference’s rise to unbeatable status.

Indeed, we know that it is real and we know when it started, but how did it happen?

To take a stab at answering this question, the following takes a look back and identifies six key cogs that allowed the SEC’s football machinery to be fine tuned into an unstoppable force.

 

Recruiting

To emphasize how critical recruiting has been to the SEC’s rise to the top, keep in mind that since 2006—when Florida started the streak by winning the BCS title—that no national champion has been led by a senior class that was initially recruited with a group rating below No. 15.

Furthermore, no title winner since 2006 has had a junior class that was signed, again as a group, with a ranking below No. 22.

What’s more difficult to track, due to the lack of recruiting class rankings prior to 2002, is the SEC’s improved efforts in signing talented athletes since the 1990s when Big Eight teams like Nebraska were dominating the championship landscape.

The truth is—according to the historical conference recruiting rankings provided by Scout.com—that the SEC has led the nation in recruiting since 2002.

But, and though they’ve won every conference recruiting title over the last dozen years, it is easy to look back and see how a steady improvement in recruiting dominance has gone hand in hand with the championship streak.

To illustrate, where the SEC averaged signing 27 percent of the Scout.com Top 100 players from 2002 to 2006, the power conference amped this rate up to a whopping 33 percent from 2007 to 2013.

No. 1 overall rated recruit DE Robert Nkemdiche chooses Ole Miss

Furthermore, the gap between what the SEC has managed to do from a recruiting standpoint and what other conferences have done has widened over the last 12 years.

To demonstrate this trend we can look back and see that where the SEC averaged a 140-point total advantage over the No. 2 recruiting conference (as calculated by Scout.com) from 2002 to 2006, the Southern contingency out-signed its nearest league competitor by 564 average points from 2007 to 2013.

This means that as the title streak got kicked off in earnest, the SEC was increasing its influence from a recruiting standpoint.

What’s also intriguing when looking back is how Alabama (the program that has provided the SEC with three of its last four titles) began the last decade completely out of the recruiting race and then sped ahead at an alarming pace as Nick Saban took over in 2007.

Here are the Crimson Tide’s recruiting class rankings, as per Scout.com, since 2002: 2002, No. 37; 2003, No. 45; 2004, No. 19; 2005, No. 16; 2006, No. 18; 2007, No. 22; 200, No. 1; 2009, No. 2; 2010, No. 4; 2011, No. 7; 2012, No. 2; and 2013, No. 3.

Though the evidence makes it crystal clear that the SEC’s title run is fueled, at least in some large part, by recruiting, what’s up for discussion is how it's managed to gain traction in signing talented athletes from across the nation.

While some folks will point to the practice of over-signing recruits or requiring lower academic standards as to how the SEC has gotten it done, the truth is these are methods that have been utilized by successful recruiting programs outside of the SEC.

Otherwise, how did Texas manage top five-rated classes from 2010 through 2012 and similarly, how did USC manage top 10 rankings over the same time period?

What’s perhaps nearer the truth is that, yes, the SEC did employ some of these tactics earlier in the 2000s and, OK, certain member institutions probably still do.

But, the current driving force on the recruiting scene is that the dominance the conference has enjoyed in conjunction with the resulting media attention and associated opportunity at the player level has launched the SEC into a new stratosphere in terms of signing day wins.

And championships.

 

Defense

Isn’t it at least somewhat ironic that in a college football culture where the yard and the score is celebrated—think of who wins the Heisman each year— that the conference that is built on stifling defense has won seven consecutive BCS titles?

Yes, hail RGIII, Johnny Football and the entire West Virginia offense but the crystal football goes to, every season since 2009…the best rushing defense in the SEC.

What?

Yes, the other common thread which conjoins the seven national championship teams, other than big-time recruiting numbers, is a top-ranked, scary-good, defense.

In fact, on average, the seven teams that have scored BCS titles since 2006 allowed a mere 14.6 points per game throughout their respective championship seasons.

To gain some perspective on the SEC’s defensive approach to the game we can take a look at average points scored versus average points allowed for the 2012 season.

Last year the SEC, as a 14-team unit, averaged 30.14 points per game offensively while they allowed, again on average, only 23.28 points per game defensively.

And this number includes Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, each who gave up over 30 points per game in 2012.

South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney Destroys Michigan

To compare these figures with the other power BCS conferences the Pac-12 cumulatively allowed 27.75 points per game last season, the Big 12 gave up 29.48, the Big Ten allowed a very respectable 24.45 and the ACC opened its end zones for an average of 27.17 points per game.

When you hone this number down a level further, the top five defenses in the SEC allowed an average of 15.96 points per game in 2012 while comparatively the top five D's from the Pac-12 gave up 21.58, the upper crust of the Big 12 allowed 24.48, the top five in the Big Ten gave up 19.36 and the ACC top tier allowed 22.72.

This defensive advantage, which has resulted in seven straight championships, also has a lot to say about who does win, and who doesn’t win the Heisman.

Indeed, how can your conference win seven consecutive BCS titles but only have two SEC Heisman trophy winners from the string of championship teams?

Beyond that, the only SEC Heisman winner since 2006 who wasn’t on a national-title-winning team was Tim Tebow from Florida in 2007, meaning that the SEC has three of seven bronze statuettes but seven of seven crystal footballs.

It’s simple, defense wins championships but it doesn’t win Heismans.

 

The BCS Era

Though this angle may be harder to concretely link to the SEC’s championship run, it’s difficult to deny that the dawning of the BCS era hasn’t at least nudged the league’s unprecedented string of successes.

Think about it this way: in the 15 seasons since the BCS came of age in 1998 the SEC has won nine national titles while in the 15 years prior to 1998 they won two.

Wow.

So, what inherent advantage does the BCS give the SEC that other conferences can’t compete with?

Well, it starts with the nature of the BCS system itself and its computer and human-generated polls.

In a nutshell, both the machines and the people have consistently rewarded the SEC for being, top to bottom, the most difficult league in the game.

The way the BCS rankings are set up, schools from weaker conferences have struggled to garner the computer points and human votes necessary to make the title game.

Yes, they make a BCS bowl, but, they are by and large left out of the championship equation.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The perfect example of this scenario comes via conferences like the Big East which pumped out national titles with wild abandonment from the early '80s until the BCS era but have but all but fallen off the charts since the early 2000s.

To illustrate, from the Big East, Miami (Fla.) won the big enchilada four times from 1983 to 1997, but then only captured the title once after the BCS kicked off in 1998.

Of course the Hurricanes moved on to the ACC in 2004, but either way the Big East hasn’t made a BCS title game appearance since Miami lost to Ohio State in the 2002-03 championship game.

And we all know that even if a Big East team where to go 12-0 this upcoming season, it would be left out of the title game, by the BCS computers, even if the top-ranked team from the SEC and Big Ten each had one-loss.

From yet another angle, the SEC’s move to a divisional format in 1992 certainly didn’t hurt its power ranking with the BCS basically being ahead of the pack in terms of making its title game seem like the gateway to something bigger than the just the Sugar Bowl.

Whether the dominance of the SEC is perceived, media-generated or the real deal, it’s almost impossible to deny that the current BCS scheme doesn’t do the conference a great service when it comes to winning national titles.

It’s simple; the BCS computers and human voters like the SEC better and they believe, wholeheartedly, in the theory of the SEC’s strength of schedule carrying the highest level of difficulty.

 

Coaching

Another way to explain the SEC’s rise to championship dominance is by looking at the type of coaching talent that the conference has been able to attract over the last decade or so.

When the BCS era kicked off back in 1998, the SEC coaching ranks looked nowhere near as prestigious, decorated or wealthy as the list looks today.

The roll call 15 years ago was as follows: Mike Dubose at Alabama, Houston Nutt at Arkansas, Bill Oliver at Auburn, Gerry DiNardo at LSU, Tommy Tuberville and David Cutcliffe at Ole Miss, Jackie Sherrill at Mississippi State, Steve Spurrier at Florida, Jim Donnan at Georgia, Hal Mumme at Kentucky, Lou Holtz at South Carolina, Woody Widenhofer at Vanderbilt and Philip Fulmer at Kentucky.

In the same way that the SEC’s recruiting success was built on the momentum earned early in the BCS era, the league began to attract more accomplished coaches as prestige and then money started rolling into the southeast corridor.

LSU football was revived by Nick Saban a couple of years into the BCS era, a job that was continued by Les Miles who was picked up from Oklahoma State.

Urban Meyer took over, after a short and painful delay, at Florida where Spurrier left off and Mark Richt at Georgia and Tommy Tuberville at Auburn both enjoyed long, successful runs at their respective institutions.

Doug Benc/Getty Images

The one big-time program that hasn’t rebounded from a coaching standpoint, and probably would have pumped out more championships given the chance, is Tennessee, which has never recovered from the dismissal of Phillip Fulmer, who led the Vols to the first-ever BCS title in 1998.

The current head coaching rolls in the SEC and their respective salaries, which as per USAToday.com accounted for four of the top eight highest paid head coaches in the FBS ranks in 2012, make it crystal clear that the SEC is a destination conference in terms of career aspirations.

And this leadership element, where the best coaches in the land coach up the best players, is every bit as critical to the SEC championship run as winning on signing day.

Proof of this assertion comes easily by looking at both Texas and USC’s recruiting numbers over the past several seasons and stacking them up against results in terms of wins and championships.

 

Conference Realignment

Another development that has spurred on the SEC’s run of titles is the unprecedented run of conference alignment that has been slowly bubbling over the last decade.

The first key move that helped the SEC gain power was Miami (Fla.)’s move from the Big East to the ACC for the 2004 season.

Though this might not have seemed like a big deal beyond signaling the beginning of the end for the Big East in terms of being a viable football powerhouse, the truth is that increased level of competition eventually sank the Hurricanes’ long string of titles.

Before joining the ACC  Miami had won the Big East four consecutive times (2000 through 2003), had captured the 2001 BCS national championship and fell just short, in double OT, to Ohio State in the 2002-03 BCS title game.

Since joining the ACC, Miami hasn’t won a single title—not even a divisional crown—it hasn’t won more than nine games in a single season and it has only finished the season ranked in the Top 25 twice (No. 17 in 2005 and No. 19 in 2009).

The Hurricanes’ drop off the map basically left open a spot at the top of the game that was initially filled by LSU and then by programs like USC, Texas and Florida.

Basically, Miami’s move to the ACC signaled the end of a worthy competitor up top (in terms of championships and recruiting) and the natural knock-on effect was a reshuffle at the top.

Other conference moves that have aided the SEC’s historic rise have involved the forming of the Big 12 and the divisional split of the Big Ten.

The Big 10 Divisional Format is Announced in 2010

When parts of the Southwest Conference and Big Eight melded into the Big 12 in 1996, it upped the ante for teams like Nebraska and Oklahoma which had an easier road to the top of the charts without Texas and Texas A&M standing in the way.

Even though Oklahoma wound up winning seven Big 12 title games from 1996 until 2010, the level of league competition meant that going undefeated and making the national championship game was all that more difficult.

In terms of the Big Ten divisional split for the 2011 season the new championship game means that a shared title is impossible, and that, similar to the Big 12, going undefeated is all that more difficult given the extra game against a high-quality opponent.

The same argument could be used for the Pac-12 which also expanded and split into a divisional format in 2011.

The bottom line here is that as programs have moved to face stiffer in-league opponents and conferences have been made more difficult, the national championship game has become trickier for non-SEC teams to achieve.

And this, in turn, leaves the SEC in the proverbial cat bird’s seat.

 

The Pete Carroll and Bobby Bowden Effect

Other than Miami’s pre-ACC run and the occasional title appearance by Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio State, the only real threat to the SEC in the BCS era has been USC and Florida State.

The Seminoles dominated the early BCS and participated in the first three title games while USC rose to the occasion in both the 2004-05 and 2005-06 championship games and technically split LSU’s title in 2003-04.

This all leads to what may be one of the biggest underplayed reasons the SEC has enjoyed its seven-game run since 2006the fact that both FSU and USC faced huge coaching changes just as the SEC streak was gathering steam.

In the case of Florida State, legendary coach Bobby Bowden didn’t actually leave the building until after the 2009 season but after going 10-3 in 2003 the ‘Noles began to fall off as Bowden’s effectiveness faded as the end of his career neared.

Basically, as Bowden faced the inevitability of age, the SEC rose.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Switching gears to USC, the Trojans' unreal run under Pete Carroll ended with a huge thud as the highly productive coach left Troy amid a cloud of scandal after a dubious 9-4 finish in 2011.

Carroll was 83-19 at USC and captured seven consecutive Pac-10 titles and two BCS national championships from 2001 to 2009 and when he left, the glory for the Trojans left as well.

Again, as USC fell from national dominance, the SEC rose in its place.

Though when you think “SEC dominance,” you might not immediately think “Bobby Bowden” and “Pete Carroll” and that might be a huge mistake.

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