HOOVER, Ala. – There is no effort at denial. Nor should there be or could there be. Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive began his annual address at football media days by mentioning his “annual brag bag” and then spilled the entire contents while barely taking a breath:
“In the sport of football, the SEC won its seventh straight BCS national championship, finished the regular season with six teams ranked in the top 10 – the first conference to accomplish the feat in the history of college football – set a record with 63 NFL draft picks, more than double that of any other conference, and an SEC football player was awarded the Heisman Trophy for the fourth time in the last six years.”
And with that, the tone was set.
Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive talks with reporters during the SEC football Media Days in Hoover, Ala. Slive opened with his “annual brag bag” – a roundup of conference accomplishments.
(AP Photo/Dave Martin)
While there might be a few holdouts debating whether coach Nick Saban and Alabama have a dynasty going with three national championships in the last four years, there is no debate that Slive presides over the most dominant football conference in the land.
“The SEC is definitely No. 1; no disrespect to any other conference,” said Missouri wide receiver L’Damian Washington, whose Tigers stumbled through a 2-6 conference season last year after moving from the Big 12. “The SEC has proven it with so many championships in a row.”
The league’s fans are known for chanting “SEC, SEC, SEC!” And not just at the end of the national title game, but as other bowl games won by SEC teams are winding down. There is a pride that hangs in the air that’s as thick as cotton and as automatic as Sabanmetrics (focus plus process, minus distractions and smiles, equals championships).
“I was rooting for Alabama in the national championship game,” admitted Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel.
One important distinction: Neither the Florida quarterback nor any other coach or player from a rival SEC school is saying he is ready to root for Alabama in the next national title game. No one is ceding anything. Not yet.
What coaches are trying to do, even before the calendar flips to August, is position their prospects for success within the boundaries of reality – especially if their teams share the SEC West with Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU.
In his first year as head coach at Ole Miss, Hugh Freeze oversaw a 7-6 season that ended with an Egg Bowl victory over Mississippi State and a BBVA Compass Bowl win over Pittsburgh. But it was a season in which the same five offensive linemen started every game. The receivers and defensive linemen stayed healthy, too. Fortune was mostly a friend.
“The expectations that are coming now with our program, I’m very careful,” Freeze said. “I told every group that I went to this spring, I tell our team quite often, that unrealistic expectations, they always produce frustration.”
A league-wide frustration: trying to block South Carolina’s 6-4, 274-pound Jadeveon Clowney, 2012 Hendricks Award winner as the nation’s top defensive end, and author of the “The Hit” last season vs. Michigan. Although it was just one play, it was a play that crystallized the tough, physical style that sets the SEC apart from the annually disappointing Big Ten and every other league.
Quarterbacks aside, Clowney could be the best league’s best player. His coach, Steve Spurrier, describes him as a “disruptive player” for opponents. But that’s about like calling a hurricane a disruptive weather pattern. Despite his size, Clowney has run a 4.46 40-yard dash. Gamecocks wide receiver Bruce Ellington’s best time is a 4.34.
“I look at him as a pit bull chasing you,” Ellington said. “You gotta get away from him.”
That’s also not a bad description of those expectations that Freeze mentioned, for they are always nipping at the heels. Four coaches are starting their first season at the helm: Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Gus Malzahn at Auburn, Mark Stoops at Kentucky and Butch Jones at Tennessee. A year ago, those schools went a combined 3-29 in the SEC.
But that doesn’t mean they get a free pass in 2013. The Vols, for instance, have lost eight straight to Florida and have not beaten Alabama since 2006. Once, these were games for Vol Nation to anticipate and not dread.
“In order for us to make those rivalry games, we have to get back to being relevant and winning those football games,” Jones said.
Not that the outside college football world will be waiting. The focus always lands on the seven straight national championships. Mark Stoops’ brother, Bob, long-time Oklahoma coach, was asked about the widening gap between the national-title winning SEC and everyone else at a Sooners fan function.
“So you’re listening to a lot of propaganda that gets fed out to you …” the OU coach said, flexing his defensive muscles.
Call it what you will, but the rest of college football is very concerned about Slive’s aching back. They’re past ready to lighten the load of his annual brag bag.