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VOL. 7 | NO. 34 | Saturday, August 16, 2014

Bigger, Better, Louder

The SEC makes no apologies and takes no prisoners

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“When it comes to college football, the South has no equal, because the Southeastern Conference has no equal. Find me a conference with a better commissioner, better players, better head coaches, better staffs, better game-day atmospheres, better-looking coeds – better anything.”

– Paul Finebaum, “My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football”

So there you have it. Before the first game of the first season with a true playoff for determining college football’s national champion, the SEC has won again. They have won again not just because ESPN’s Paul Finebaum says so – though his voice carries clout – but because ESPN and the SEC are more than just an item.

This month, they gave birth to the ESPN-controlled SEC Network and the chanting of “SEC! SEC! SEC!” is on a loop. The arrangement took a while, but eventually even DirecTV and Comcast knuckled under. Now, presumably the only place the SEC Network will not be available is in remotest Siberia or the living room of Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.

While it is true the SEC did not win the most recent national championship – Florida State defeated Auburn – the league had won seven straight and came mighty close to an eighth in a row. As SEC czar Mike Slive has said more than once, “The game was just a minute too long.”

So, in the grand scheme of things, nothing much changed. In fact, when Bill Hancock, director of the College Football Playoff, appeared at this summer’s SEC Media Days every sample scenario of how the new four-team playoff would work included two SEC teams. On one level, this is called playing to your base. On another level, it might just be as inevitable as it is prophetic.

No one knows exactly what Hancock’s committee, which will select and seed the four playoff teams, will do. But the stated criteria are as follows: “body of work, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, comparison of result against common opponents, championships won and other factors.”

The SEC grades out very high in all categories, including the nebulous “other factors.” Nick Saban and Alabama dominate recruiting only partly because they are Nick Saban and Alabama; they also dominate because they are who they are in the SEC.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has had his fun with Saban – poking at him for having more top-ranked recruiting classes at Alabama than national championships – but it really just further proves the point that Saban is the best coach in the best conference.

“Our conference is a conference of choice,” said LSU coach Les Miles. “You look at a high school athlete, ‘you want to play against the very best?’ We can make that argument in the SEC.”

And usually win it. There are, after all, multiple ways to impress the league’s future stars.

The SEC’s stadiums have names like Bryant-Denny and Neyland, and Faurot and Kyle fields. More than anything, they are cathedrals of commerce. Places of football worship combined with a vertical arms race as the stadiums reach higher into the sky and university fundraisers go deeper into the pockets of big boosters.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the 2013 College Station, Texas, population at 100,050. The capacity at Kyle Field (above): 106,000. That’s further proof of the SEC’s power. And the conference, which draws hundreds of thousands of fans each week, now has its own TV network.

(Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the 2013 College Station, Texas, population at 100,050. Kyle Field’s capacity: 106,000.

“Now the stadium has been one phase,” said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. “I think underneath the stadium is where our student-athletes currently and future prospects have started to notice (a difference) with the addition of new locker rooms, a new athletic training facility, new meeting rooms, things that bring us up to par and really set us aside from where we were facility-wise and put us on a level playing field with the best programs in the country.”

And just so there is no confusion: best in the country translates to the SEC, which Texas A&M joined for the 2012 season. Likewise, Missouri came into the league in 2012. The Aggies, under the banner of departed quarterback Johnny Manziel, and the Tigers with their unexpected run to the SEC title game in 2013, have proven they belong on the same fields as the SEC’s elite.

But if Missouri can go from 5-7 in 2012 to 12-2 in 2013, it’s also true that the swing can go the other direction. Suffice to say, whatever level of paranoia about creeping complacency guided Missouri coach Gary Pinkel in the Big 12, it has been heightened in the SEC.

“I always tell our alumni, if you drive by and don’t see cranes up, then something is wrong,” Pinkel said. “In this league you better be building, making yourself better all the time. If you’re not committed to investing, don’t get in this league because it will swallow you up.”

Even if a program is committed – or believes that it is committed – it can soon enough find itself prey in a conference full of predators. Florida won the national title as recently as 2008. Yet the Gators went just 4-8 last season – their first losing season since 1979 – and fourth-year coach Will Muschamp begins this season coaching for his job. Things got so bad during the Gators’ season-ending seven game losing streak, they lost in The Swamp to Georgia Southern 26-20.

“We definitely can’t forget about it,” said Florida defensive end Dante Fowler. “It’s in the record books.”

Said Muschamp: “There will be a lot of chatter about hot-seat business. That’s part of it. The way you combat that is winning football games.”

Yes, winning football games is the common cure in the best football league in all the land. Auburn went from 3-9 and 0-8 in the SEC in the last year under Gene Chizik to 12-2, an SEC title and a place in the national championship game under Gus Malzahn. Along the way, the Tigers won six games by eight points or less, including the 34-28 upset of Alabama in the Iron Bowl when Chris Davis caught a 57-yard field goal attempt nine yards deep in the end zone and returned it for the game-winning touchdown.

“I watch the whole thing every time it comes on,” Alabama wide receiver Christion Jones said. “It’s motivation. It lets us know anyone can be beat in our league.”

Even Malzahn can look at the entirety of what his team did last year and admit, “We snuck up on a lot of people.”

If there is to be a new Auburn this season it is yet unknown. Likewise, the league begins the 2014 season with its biggest star its own network and not a quarterback known as Johnny Football.

Alabama may have won back-to-back national titles in 2011 and 2012, and another in 2009, but the air of invincibility isn’t quite as thick. In fact, to hear Saban poor-mouth is to believe he is practically overseeing a rebuilding project.

SABAN

“We’re basically an unproven team in some areas,” he said. “We’re a team that has a lot of question marks.”

No one else is buying what Saban’s selling, but it is true he has to replace quarterback A.J. McCarron. And at least early in camp, Saban was being all CIA-secretive with reporters, not even referring to the presumptive top two candidates – senior Blake Sims and Florida State transfer Jacob Coker – by name.

Thus, the outside perception is that the SEC West is more wide open than it has been in years.

“I think there’s seven coaches in the SEC West that expect to find a way to get to Atlanta and win our side of the league,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “I really do. That’s not coach talk.”

Of course it’s coach talk. Meantime, if you follow the Finebaum theory that the SEC has the best of everything, then give Arkansas’s Bret Bielema props for having the prettiest coach’s wife in college football. It still doesn’t mean Razorback fans will forgive a second straight season of going 0-for-8 in the SEC.

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, coming off two straight bowls and in his third season in Oxford, has proclaimed his program “ahead of schedule.” But now the faithful wants more than lower-level bowl games and good times in The Grove.

“Why not us?” said Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace. “Why can’t we be a team to come out of the West and make some noise?”

USA Today Coaches’ Poll College Football Preseason Top 25

  

1. Florida State
2. Alabama
3. Oklahoma
4. Oregon
5. Auburn
6. Ohio State
7. UCLA
8. Michigan State
9. South Carolina
10. Baylor
11. Stanford
12. Georgia
13. LSU
14. Wisconsin
15. USC
16. Clemson
17. Notre Dame
18. Arizona State
19. Ole Miss
20. Texas A&M
21. Kansas State
22. Nebraska
23. North Carolina
24. Texas
25. Washington

  

Note: SEC teams in bold. The SEC placed seven teams in the Top 25 preseason poll, more than any other conference. If the poll extended to 28 teams, SEC members Missouri, Florida, and Mississippi State would be ranked 26th, 27th, and 28th, respectively.

In the East, Vanderbilt established itself as a noisemaker by going to three consecutive bowls under James Franklin. Now Derek Mason is in charge and the outside expectation is that the league’s designated brainiac school will deviate toward its historical football norm and lose more games than it wins.

South Carolina and Georgia are the favorites to win the East, but both finished behind Alabama and Auburn in the preseason SEC Media Days poll. Of course, the media has correctly picked the SEC champion just four times in the last 22 years.

“I’d have us first,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said when asked about his team being picked second in the East.

Spurrier dubbed the whole thing “talking season.” Which is as good a description of life before kickoff as any. Unfortunately for Tennessee, there hasn’t even been much to talk about after enduring three straight 5-7 seasons, the last one the first year under coach Butch Jones. It’s enough to make one wonder how the color orange could be so easy to overlook.

“We’ve obviously been in the background the past couple of years,” said Vols offensive lineman Mack Crowder. “We are all really looking forward to going out there and showing what we have.”

And yes, even in the SEC, which Pinkel says is “like being in the NFL,” fortune can change and miracles do happen. Maybe the biggest and most often easily forgotten of the last 10 years: Kentucky’s five-year bowl run from 2006-2010.

One thing, however, does not change in the SEC: bigger is better. Be it a left tackle or a stadium, which are roughly the same size. LSU is expanding Tiger Stadium’s capacity to 102,321. Imagine that sound on a Saturday night after a long day of well-oiled preparation.

“If you thought we were loud before,” Miles said, “we just got louder.”

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