— SEC! SEC! SEC! SEC!
Yeah, probably so.
It’s four consecutive national championships (and counting?) for the Southeastern Conference. Already, the Alabama Crimson Tide is a huge favorite to make it an SEC “five-peat’’ by the end of this season.
Conference superiority used to make for a good argument among college football fans. Now the debate seems non-existent. Everyone else just sighs in resignation when it comes to acknowledging the SEC is the finest league in the land.
But what to do about it? How to find the chink in the SEC’s armor? How to improve and have a fighting chance? Ah, now we’re onto something.
Here’s a blueprint for ending the SEC’s run of dominance, realizing full well it probably won't happen overnight.
Bigger, faster, better
First, let’s get busy on the recruiting trail. It sounds simplistic, but the SEC has better, faster players — particularly on defense.
In the 2006 BCS title game, Ohio State’s massive offensive line had no answers for Florida’s mobile, aggressive defensive front. Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith was pressured into the worst game of his career.
It was a similar story for the 2008 title. Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Sam Bradford, rarely got his uniform dirty that season. But against Florida, the landscape changed. Bradford was on the run. His timing was off. The frustration mounted for the Sooners’ normal point-a-minute offense.
And remember the final college football game last season? It was a jarring hit by Marcell Dareus on Texas' fifth offensive play that knocked quarterback Colt McCoy out of the game and paved the way for Alabama to roll to victory. Dareus clinched MVP honors when he intercepted a shovel pass from backup Garrett Gilbert and rumbled into the end zone for a touchdown right before halftime.
The SEC has great quarterbacks, running backs and receivers.
So does every other league.
The difference is on defense, where blindingly quick SEC units continually impose a hard-edged will upon non-conference opponents.
Coaching ‘em up
Next, a small history lesson.
Six years ago, the nation’s most frustrated college-football fans might have been the ones at Florida and Alabama. The Gators were taking some steps backward under Ron Zook. The Crimson Tide, with Mike Shula as its latest head coach, were running in place.
Both athletic departments eventually made aggressive moves.
In 2004, Florida hired Utah’s Urban Meyer (although many Gators boosters wanted a second crack at Steve Spurrier). In 2007, the Tide plucked Nick "I'm not going to be the Alabama coach" Saban from the NFL. Both moves worked wonderfully and set a tone.
Keeping up with the SEC? The other conferences best keep up with the coaching profession, searching everywhere for the next star. The SEC has been proactive in finding those coaches, paying them well and letting them build championship programs.
And, of course, you’ve got to follow the money.
The SEC’s mega-bucks television deal with CBS (and, more recently, ESPN) has been a financial boon for the league. That means more money for coaches, more money for facilities, more money for recruiting budgets, more money for … well, you get the idea.
The SEC has not felt the need to start its own television network. Meanwhile, the Big Ten Network continues to spread its reach and it is particularly interested in expanding through the South. Well done.
Watch for other leagues, particularly the Pac-10, to at least study the possibility of a conference television network. The Big Ten is best positioned to make gains in finances and exposure.
And if your conference is slow to the draw, go your own route, which mighty Texas just might do.
Conference title games
When the SEC expanded in 1992 and instituted a conference championship game, there were some years when it seemingly did more harm than good. A few powerful SEC teams, on track to play for the national title, were derailed by upset defeats in the league championship game.
But that hasn’t been the case recently.
The last two SEC showdowns — Alabama vs. Florida — were matchups of the nation’s No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams. It was the de facto national title game. Because of the SEC’s sterling national reputation, the conference-title game winner always gets a nice springboard of exposure.
Who can forget the 2006 season? Ohio State had defeated Michigan in another 1 vs. 2 showdown. There was talk of a Buckeyes-Wolverines rematch for the national title. But that idea lost traction with the pollsters when Florida defeated Arkansas in the SEC title game. Meyer pounded his chest and insisted the Gators deserved a BCS title-game bid because of the SEC’s might. Idle Michigan could only watch its dreams go up in smoke.
The conference realignment shell game makes it more likely for all the major leagues — count on the Big 12 getting back in the flow, even after Nebraska and Colorado leave — to stage title games. The Big Ten will debut one in 2011. The Pac-10 probably will do the same. It’s about time. For too many years, college football has operated under a patently unfair structure. It should be title games for all or title games for none.
The SEC has used its title game to full advantage.
Serve a few cupcakes
You’ve got to love games such as Ohio State-Miami and Oklahoma-Florida State.
But if you intend to compete for a national title, those matchups might be your undoing.
For all its success, SEC football is traditionally criticized for lack of quality in non-conference scheduling (although there are nice matchups this season with Alabama-Penn State, Auburn-Clemson, LSU-North Carolina and Tennessee-Oregon).
The SEC's argument is that its teams already play a tough conference schedule. Point noted. But other conferences will also soon be able to claim more difficult set-in-stone slates thanks to the realignment wave.
Florida, particularly, has set a comfortable non-conference pace. The Gators haven’t left their home state for a non-conference game since losing at Syracuse in 1991.
For the record, here are the non-conference schedules for the past four SEC national-championship teams (Florida has played Florida State each season since 1958 and shouldn't be faulted for the Seminoles' recent slide).
So who does this season's favorite play out of conference?
Although Alabama should be credited for welcoming Joe Paterno and Penn State to Tuscaloosa, does anyone think San Jose State, Duke and Georgia State (not to be confused with Georgia or Georgia Tech) will get anything more than a big payday and some bumps and bruises when they meet?
Round up the suspects
OK, full disclosure.
Like just about everyone, I selected Alabama as the preseason No. 1 team. So I’m picking the Crimson Tide to repeat as national champions. It’s easy to visualize the scene: “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer’’ reverberating around the climate controlled walls of the University of Phoenix Stadium at Glendale, Ariz., adding the exclamation point to yet another SEC title in January.
But what if it doesn’t happen?
Even if the steps presented aren't quickly adopted, the SEC’s title run will end one of these seasons. Remember, upsets happen. What if it’s now?
The formula we laid out speaks to long-term solutions to combat SEC dominance. If Alabama or Florida (or someone else?) can’t get it done this season, who are prime candidates to raise the crystal football in Glendale?
My five scenarios (in order of likelihood):
They will all be in the hunt.
But as we have learned, it takes a lot of luck and pluck to rise above the best league in the land.
SEC! SEC! SEC! SEC!
Time will tell.