Gridiron grandeur: SEC makes its case for No. 1

Published 9:23 pm Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Let the rest of the country brag about its ivy-covered traditions and its cultural superiority. Down in Dixie, it’s all about trotting out the nation’s top college football teams on any given Saturday.

We’re talking Southeastern Conference, which long ago proclaimed itself the best in the land. End of discussion.

It’s a glory road of the gridiron that starts in Florida, winds its way up through Georgia and Tennessee, then curves back into Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana, an unrivaled path of pigskin prestige.

Since the powers that run college football created the Bowl Championship Series a decade ago, SEC teams have won the national title four times. No other conference has won more than twice.

Florida could make it five national titles — and three in a row — when the Gators meet the Big 12’s Oklahoma in the BCS championship game Thursday night.

Given its long-standing success, it’s easy to see why the SEC has become the league everyone else loves to hate. These guys don’t mind tooting their own horn, either, which only adds to the hard feelings emanating from the rest of the country.

“They have a golden spoon in their mouth,” said Glenn Rhea, a 33-year-old fan and graduate of Big 12 school Texas Tech. “They always think they’re better than everybody else.”

And why not?

The last conference to take three straight Associated Press titles? That would be the SEC, which did it some three decades ago with Alabama (1978-79) and Georgia (1980).

In this updated version of the Civil War, the Big 12 is just an annoyance (granted, they did have four pretty good teams this year), the Big Ten is a bunch of slow-footed, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dusters, the Pac-10 is nothing more than USC and the Nine Dwarfs. What about the Atlantic Coast Conference? C’mon, that’s a basketball league. The Big East? Puh-lease.

“When you do it three years in a row,” said Florida right end Tate Casey, “some people are going to start resenting you. I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

But this dynamic runs a bit deeper.

College football is the undisputed king of Southern sports, unencumbered by the loyalties reserved for pro teams (latecomers to the region) and a source of pride to those who still remember the struggles of integration and the civil rights movement.

The first major league franchise to settle in the Deep South was baseball’s Atlanta Braves, which arrived from Milwaukee in 1966. The New York Yankees already had won 20 World Series titles before the South got a crack at its first.

While plenty of pro teams have arrived on the scene since the Braves, they’ve mainly concentrated in Atlanta and around fast-growing Florida. Five of the nine states represented in the SEC — Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina — have no major professional teams to divert attention from the two main seasons in this neck of the woods, football and spring football practice.

In another interesting twist, black athletes once barred from the SEC by Jim Crow have become a dominant force on the football field, providing a rich source of homegrown talent and an enticing way out for those growing up on poverty-plagued backroads.

It’s been said that Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama coach, did more to integrate the South than any troops or judges or protesters when he scheduled a game against Southern Cal in 1970. The Trojans’ star running back, Sam Cunningham, was black. After he ran all over the Crimson Tide in a 42-21 victory, the recalcitrant segregationists in the Heart of Dixie decided it might be a good idea to have some African-Americans on their team.

Now, it’s impossible to envision Southern football without stars such as Percy Harvin or Knowshon Moreno. Heck, they’re leading the cheers for schools that once shunned them.

Michael Oher, an African-American lineman at Mississippi, played the Cotton Bowl with “SEC” written in the blackened shade under his eyes. The Rebels backed up his bravado with a resounding 47-34 victory over Texas Tech.

“We had to represent,” Oher explained afterward. “There was a lot of talk of the Big 12 being better. It’s not true. We had to show ’em.”

Even those natives who don’t consider themselves SEC fans have to give the conference its due. Just listen to David Franklin, a civil engineering student at Georgia Tech (an ACC member) who’s got family ties to the Big 12.

“Depth-wise, the SEC is the best football conference in the country — and my brother plays for the University of Oklahoma,” the 20-year-old junior said. “Even though the Big 12 is strong this year, I still think you have to go with the SEC top to bottom.”

And Franklin spoke before his school was wiped out 38-3 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl by LSU, an SEC powerhouse that won the national championship a year ago but was a bit down this season.

The truth be told, there’s probably not that much difference between the SEC and the other top conferences, national titles notwithstanding.

During the regular season, SEC teams went 37-11 in non-conference games, but only 6-9 in games against opponents from other BCS conferences. The Big 12, by comparison, went 8-8 against other elite-level leagues and 38-10 overall outside the conference.

In the still-to-be-completed bowl season, the SEC holds an impressive 5-2 mark with that one big game remaining, but the Big 12 (4-2) is right on its heels and the Pac-10 bested them both with a perfect 5-0 mark.

Still, not a week goes by without some player or coach from the SEC talking about how demanding it is to win consistently in a league where half the members have at least one AP national championship in their trophy case. Just ask Phillip Fulmer, who guided Tennessee to No. 1 a decade ago. Or Tommy Tuberville, who led Auburn to a perfect season just five years ago. Both were forced out after disappointing seasons.

“If you look at the statistics and the toughness of the schedules and bowl results, there’s a lot of difference. That’s reality,” said Casey, the Gators’ tight end. “There aren’t any gimmes in the SEC. There are some in other conferences.”

So, let the rest of the country call them rubes. Just be prepared to pay the price on the football field.