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The Growing Feud Between Jim Harbaugh and the SEC Is Great for College Football

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterFebruary 10, 2016

Jan 1, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh looks at his players before the 2016 Citrus Bowl against the Florida Gators at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Aside from the typical drama that often accompanies national signing day, it's been a relatively quiet month for college football since the 2015 season officially came to an end.

Unlike a year ago, there haven't been any surprise returnees like Cardale Jones, any juicy graduate transfer speculation as there was with Everett Golson and Braxton Miller or even any new head coaches making a significant splash by generating publicity at their new schools. Even national signing day was relatively quiet, with the usual suspects of schools—Alabama, Florida State, LSU and Ohio State—winding up with the nation's top-ranked classes.

But if you've been following college football for the past 13 months, you knew it wouldn't be long before Jim Harbaugh made some noise.

While the Michigan head coach's name has certainly stayed in the headlines thanks to his usual antics, nothing this offseason has built a buzz like the news of Harbaugh's intentions of holding the first week of the Wolverines' spring practice in Florida.

"Our plans for spring football are to go to Florida our first week while the university here is on spring break," Harbaugh revealed on national signing day. "We'll go to Florida and have four practices down there. We're going to work hard, but we'll have fun doing it."

That news, in and of itself, was noteworthy—the revelation of an unprecedented tactic, clearly aimed at gaining a recruiting advantage in the talent-rich Sunshine State.

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But while Harbaugh's spring practice plans are surely exciting for his players, they aren't as highly thought of in the SEC, where the conference has already made an attempt to block Michigan's trip to Florida from ever happening.

According to CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd, the SEC has asked the NCAA to prevent any program from holding its spring practice during spring break. Logistically, it would likely be impossible for the Wolverines to hold their spring practice anywhere except for Ann Arbor if they were forced to do so while class is in session.

"Our primary reaction [is] that, in the face of the time-demand conversations, we've got one program taking what has been 'free time' away," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said, per Dodd. "Let's draw a line and say, ‘That's not appropriate.' "

Jan 1, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh (left) and Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain meet at midfield before the 2016 Citrus Bowl at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It's not the first time Harbaugh has ruffled feathers in the South, and it likely won't be the last.

A year ago, it was the then first-year Michigan head coach's well-publicized tour of satellite camps—which included stops in Alabama, Florida and Texas—that drew the ire of the SEC's coaches. Nick Saban, Kevin Sumlin, Gus Malzahn and Dan Mullen were among those to speak out against the practice of satellite camps, which SEC teams weren't permitted to hold on their own until last spring.

Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze went as far as to admit that his stance—like that of his conference counterparts—was a selfish one, meant to protect his program's own interests and little more. If the league was worried about Harbaugh's tactics opening up the floodgates, it was with good reason, as Ohio State went on to hold a satellite camp of its own in Florida later in the summer.

And while it was actually Penn State's James Franklin who first brought the practice to prominence in 2014, Harbaugh was on the front lines of the matter a year ago, defending his right to host camps away from his home campus as if it was a constitutional freedom.

"In my America, you're allowed to cross the state borders," Harbaugh said last summer, per USA Today's George Schroeder. "That's the America I know."

With the Wolverines' big summer helping them attract the nation's fifth-ranked recruiting class, it was Harbaugh 1, SEC 0—and that was before Michigan beat Florida by a score of 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl to close the 2015 season.

David Goldman/Associated Press

But while Harbaugh won his first go-round with college football's top conference, this offseason's battle might not be so successful for him, at least not in the long term. According to Dodd, a "high-ranking" source anticipates that while the Wolverines will be allowed to carry on with their plans for spring this year, "an effort similar to Michigan's will most likely be prohibited in the near future."

It makes sense. Holding mandatory practices when all other students are on vacation seems to go against the spirit of being a "student-athlete"—even if that's not what this is really about for either the Wolverines or the SEC.

For Michigan, holding a week of spring practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, is likely intended to build the brand of the program on fertile recruiting ground while creating maximum exposure—which would fall right in line with Harbaugh's recruiting strategy with the Wolverines over the past year.

From last year's satellite camps to his extravagant, celebrity-aided signing day celebration, Harbaugh has had no issue keeping Michigan in the spotlight since arriving at his alma mater.

"I think it gives us a chance to win on a lot of different levels," Harbaugh said of his spring practice plans.

For the SEC, it's about preventing a rising threat from doing that in its own territory, adding a second chapter to one of college football's most unique feuds.

Regardless of which side of the argument you fall on, it'd be tough to argue that these offseason spats aren't good for college football, keeping the sport in the headlines during dead periods like the current one between signing day and spring practice.

Harbaugh will always find a way to create headlines; it's in his nature. But roping coaches like Saban, Sumlin, Mullen and Freeze into the discussion only ups the ante.

ANN ARBOR, MI - FEBRUARY  3:  Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines speaks during the Michigan Signing of the Stars event at Hill Auditorium on February 3, 2016 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

When it comes to the Big Ten and the SEC, a rivalry will always be natural, given their respective histories and geographical differences. For the past few years, it's been Urban Meyer and not many others manning the battle for the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes head coach has found an unlikely—and unspoken—ally in his chief rival in Ann Arbor.

Much of it may just be fodder that leads to little or no tangible results on the field, but even that can be good for the sport this time of year. Just ask the NFL how beneficial becoming a 365-day news generator can be.

College football's not quite there yet, but Harbaugh is doing his best to change that, from innovative recruiting tactics to timely offseason tweets.

Add the SEC to the mix, and it takes the attention received to a whole new level for what is growing into college football's favorite offseason rivalry.

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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