Florida, Alabama Prove That College Football Is a One-Conference Sport
For the fourth time in as many years, the Southeastern Conference champion hoisted the AFCA National Championship Trophy (would someone please rename this thing!).
For the fourth time in four years, it was a double digit win for the SEC (although this one got really close for about five minutes before Alabama pulled away).
If that wasn’t enough, the SEC runner up blasted the Big East back to the FCS in the Sugar Bowl with a 51–24 performance that was roughly twice as bad as the score indicates. To put it bluntly, the SEC absolutely owns college football right now.
This is not a simple “SEC is great!” rah–rah piece though. I don’t really buy into all of that conference stuff.
I will argue that there is no conference as interesting as the SEC because I find that absolutely true, but I won’t argue the SEC teams not named the Gators or Tide are better than Good Team A from the Whatever Conference right now.
Why? Because it’s not true, and also some SEC teams kind of really suck.
Not Florida or Alabama though. They are the top two teams in the nation right now. Don’t run off and tell me Florida is about to suck. I already know that, and I’m about three seconds from pulling an Artie Lange just from thinking of the fall from grace (waaaaay too soon jokes!!!).
Seriously though, in the past four years, the SEC is 7–1 in BCS games (Florida 3–0, LSU 2–0, Georgia 1–0, Alabama 1–1).
The Big Ten (11) is the only other conference to appear in eight BCS bowl games in the last four years. Its record? 2–6. In fact, no other conference has more than three BCS bowl wins during that period.
I could extend it out for the naysayers who think I’m picking a convenient period. The SEC is 6–0 all–time in BCS championships and 14–5 overall in BCS games. No other conference is close. Clearly, something is different down South.
Conferences don’t win championships, but after a while you have to wonder what is causing the success. If it were one school, you could chalk it up to a dynasty, but this is the third school in four years.
Personally, I feel it has to do with a few factors. I’ll be diving into each one separately so it will work itself out into a nifty little list (I like lists).
Reason for Ungodly Success No. 1: The SEC’s Money Machine
Like I said earlier, the SEC is the most interesting conference in football (for me that includes both the AFC and the NFC). The reason for this is in its marketing.
The SEC markets itself as a pro–lite league featuring NFL ready athletes at most positions. It also has a bit of WWE flair thrown in with all of the coaching drama.
Pair that with the smartest location–based, school–selection logic and the best conference championship, and you have a recipe for football passion (all schools are literally in the South! What a fun concept!).
That passion drives fans to sell out ridiculously large stadiums across the conference, travel to away games to spend more money, and to buy all sorts of goofy paraphernalia to represent their teams.
Ultimately, the SEC pulls in absurd amounts of money because of its fan base. In fact, the conference distributes close to $100,000,000 a year in shared revenue alone thanks to the football machine.
The bulk of that money goes directly back into the schools’ athletics programs, which means the rich get richer. The schools can then build the best facilities and hire the top coaches. You’re probably asking “Why doesn’t this work across the board for the SEC, (aka why do some teams still suck)?”
It’s not fail–proof partially because not everyone can win, and partially because you can’t always buy championships (Yankees factor). The SEC has eight coaches making $2 million per year and all of the coaches make at least $1 million per year. Someone’s going to be overpaid.
The three highest paid coaches are Nick Saban (No. 3 overall), Les Miles (No. 5 overall), and Urban Meyer (No. 7 overall), the three most recent national champs’ coaches. The SEC also rounds out the top 10 with a two–way tie between Mark Richt and Bobby Petrino. While you could argue that Petrino’s overpaid, Richt has coached in three BCS bowls, most recently in 2007, winning two of the three.
There’s more to the dominance than just a lot of money though. The Big Teneven and the Big 12 have tons of money and the SEC has absolutely owned those conferences.
Reason for Ungodly Success No. 2: The South Has the Best High School Football on the Planet
While your blue–chippers may come from anywhere and it’s the job of your high paid coach to go poach them from other schools’ areas, the bread and butter of the SEC recruits, the three and four star guys, come locally.
The Florida Gators are at a distinct advantage here because the best players overall come from the state of Florida, because that’s where the best football is played, but I digress.
For example, the Gators’ 2006 recruiting class has been called one of the best classes in SEC history. Eighteen players came from the state of Florida, four came from Georgia, two came from Texas, two came from North Carolina, and one came from Virginia (his name was Percy Harvin).
Not a single player came from north of the Mason-Dixon Line or west of Dallas. While that’s not necessarily standard (usually a few get pulled from somewhere up North or out West), the bulk of the talent is home grown.
In case you’re wondering, California is the only non–Southern state to boast a similar level of across–the–board, high school football talent (shut up, Ohio. Your players are slow and nobody likes them).
We’ve eliminated much of the college football landscape with just two justifications, but part of a major conference is still looming large. I’m talking, of course, about the SEC elite’s latest chew–toy, the Big 12.
The Big 12 has serious money-makers in Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State. The rest of the conference spends big too, just like the SEC. They also recruit the South like the SEC (less heavily in the football Mecca of Florida, but still in the South).
However, the SEC has prevailed in the BCS era, winning all three national championships against the Big 12. This probably boils down to a stylistic advantage, the final area upon which I’ll be touching.
Reason for Ungodly Success No. 3: SEC Speed!
This is probably the most overrated argument in college football. If SEC team A is playing Other Conference’s Team Y, no doubt some analyst will allude to Team Y having to slow down the SEC’s speed defensively.
Are the players really that much faster than everyone else? Is the SEC secretly a track conference that happens to put on pads for fun? No and no.
The truth is the SEC isn’t that much faster in many positions than any good team in college football. It’s just that the top SEC teams are faster in certain areas…well, their faster in every area over the Big Teneven, but that conference is full of fat people (except for Penn State. They are secretly fast, but nobody knows it because nobody watches Penn State play football).
The SEC’s speed boils down to necessity. The defenses had to get fast to compete. The roots of SEC speed lie in the '90s where Steve Spurrier killed the SEC by recruiting speedy play makers for his high octane Fun n’ Gun offense. However, the current crop can be attributed to Saban and Meyer.
Saban’s players are mostly NFL–type athletes with size and speed, but his defense is built to handle the spread offense.
His linebackers are small with the exception of McClain, but they can handle receivers and running backs outside better than most teams. His massive line negates the loss of major run support from his linebackers leaving the Tide with probably the fastest, fattest defense in college football.
I doubt it is a deliberate reaction to Meyer, but Saban probably saw the way college football was trending and chose an anti–spread defense. Offensively, he’s not doing anything special. He’s just recruiting well. His defense can handle the Big 12 spread though.
Meyer’s team is far more finesse, but equally suited for shutting down the spread passing attack. His defense is flat out fast and can tackle from every position, especially in the secondary. In fact, Meyer’s secondary is probably the best secondary in the nation.
Over the last two years, the Gators' defense ran a high risk three-three-five with exotic blitzes and ran it successfully thanks to the sure tackling of DBs Joe Haden, Major Wright, Ahmad Black, and Will Hill (JJ is not a sure tackler).
This defense flustered Sam Bradford and Tony Pike in two consecutive BCS bowl games and makes the edges of the field and non–power running completely useless.
Pass heavy spreads like Oklahoma’s or Cincinnati’s play right into the Gators’ hands where the Gators can get receivers flustered early leading to receiver mistakes later in the game.
Offensively, the Gators’ attack was unique thanks to Tim Tebow. There’s really not an answer for him at the college level other than luck. Alabama “contained” him to 300 yards of total offense. The best you can do is keep him out of the endzone and hope for a rare mistake.
Right now there’s not an answer for the SEC elite that doesn’t reside inside of the conference. The Pac 10’s best are schizophrenic and couldn’t play four quarters of error-free ball against Florida or Alabama.
The Big East and ACC couldn’t even last three series against the SEC’s elite, and I doubt the Big Teneven could either (Ricky Stanzi’s all–natural American–ness notwithstanding).
The Big 12 has tried for two consecutive years and failed twice, although it did give Florida and Bama good games. Right now, it’s time to accept the SEC as unparalleled champions of college football. Nobody can match the level of its best in big games.
Give Urban a month to prepare and his teams can rip you to shreds. Give Saban a month to prepare and he really does have a decided schematic advantage.
As long as the atmosphere surrounding the SEC remains the same and the conference continues producing champions with records worthy of BCS title inclusion the current streak could extend for quite a while.
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