By Eddie Pells / The Associated Press
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — OK, we get it.
There’s no conference like the SEC.
They land the best recruits, hire the sharpest coaches, build the biggest stadiums.
Their players are faster, bigger and stronger.
And they win. Or, to be more specific, they win the games that really count. As in, the BCS title game. Southeastern Conference teams have won that one four years in a row. The top-ranked Auburn Tigers will try to make it five on Monday when they play No. 2 Oregon of the Pac-10, a conference that will be expanding next season and is in the midst of a big push for more recognition.
But really, in the face of the SEC, aren’t they all?
“I’m sure fans are getting worn out,” said ESPN GameDay host Chris Fowler. “I think one conference dominating the championship for as long as the SEC has, it’s probably not the best thing for it.”
Fact is, regardless of who wins Monday, all the conferences are playing catch-up with the SEC — have been seemingly forever and will be for a while longer. The advantages have been built in for years, starting with the fact that there’s a dense population base in the South full of strong, fast kids who love football. (Exhibit A: 12 of the 22 players in Auburn’s starting lineup come from within 200 miles of the campus. At Oregon, that number is one.)
Two or three decades ago, a greater percentage of those Southern kids would get lured up to Notre Dame, Michigan and other northern locales — one of the big selling points being that those teams traditionally found themselves on TV more than the Southern schools.
Cable has taken care of that.
The SEC cemented its advantage when it became the first of the major conferences to come up with the idea of expansion to 12 teams and playing a conference title game.
That was back in 1992. Longtime SEC beat writer and broadcaster Tony Barnhart remembers running into then-Alabama coach Gene Stallings in the hotel in Destin, Fla., the day that decision was made at the SEC meetings.
“He pulled me to the side and said, ‘Tony, this is a bad idea. The SEC will never win another national championship,’” Barnhart recalls, restating the commonly held belief, back then, that an extra game would add an unnegotiable hurdle to the title quest. “Well, that year, he won it, and the SEC has been winning national championships ever since. That experiment only served to make the SEC stronger. It was out front and had a nationally televised big game.”
That big game led to the first of several fat TV contracts, which have helped make the SEC the richest of the conferences. That leads to bigger stadiums, better scoreboards and weight rooms and more money available to hire the best coaches.
No big irony then, that in 2010, a year of massive realignment — Colorado and Utah to the Pac-10, Nebraska to the Big Ten, the near disintegration of the Big 12 — the SEC stood pat.
“When everyone was losing their mind this summer when it came to conference expansion, the SEC was saying, ‘We have a pretty good hand and hopefully, we won’t have to,’” Barnhart said. “But they made it clear that if someone went to 16 teams, they would do it too, and they would do it as well as anyone else.”
Of course they would.
The SEC is 6-0 in the national title game since the start of the BCS era. It has three wins over the Big 12, two against the Big Ten and one against the Atlantic Coast Conference, with the first meeting against the Pac-10 coming up Monday.
The SEC is “a tough conference,” Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said. “When you have people telling you it’s the closest thing to the NFL, it means that it’s, by far, the best conference in college football. And it’s for a reason, because each and every game, there’s never a sure win. You have to go out there and take it.”
Trying to take it this time will be Oregon, a team with a go-go offense and a legitimate NFL prospect in LaMichael James. Coach Chip Kelly said he’s been studying Auburn on the game tapes — not really thinking much about conferences.
“I don’t get into ‘what’s this league about, what’s that league about,’” he said.
But what else is he supposed to say?
He’s got the nation’s top-ranked scoring offense, its best running back in James and the financial backing of multibillionaire Phil Knight of Nike fame going for him.
Skeptics say the Ducks piled up most of those points against opponents in the Pac-10, which, outside of Oregon and Stanford, doesn’t have a single team in the top 25. (Oregon beat Stanford 52-31 in the regular season, by the way.)
Auburn, meanwhile, has Heisman Trophy winner in Cam Newton and the sixth-ranked offense in the country.
But for SEC-haters out there, there are glimmers of hope.
The SEC East was down this year, and Florida — the winner of two of the last four national titles — was decidedly average. And even with Alabama’s 49-7 win over Michigan State and Mississippi State’s 52-14 blowout over Michigan, the SEC headed into the title game with a pedestrian 4-5 bowl record.
Meanwhile, where the SEC teams that have preceded the Tigers have dominated with defense, Auburn’s has been remarkably average. Despite the presence of top-10 draft prospect Nick Fairley on the defensive line, Auburn ranked eighth in the SEC in scoring defense and ninth in points allowed.
The question then becomes, is this defense truly “average,” or is the low ranking simply another manifestation of the greatness of the big, bad SEC?
“That, to me, is the interesting conference angle,” Fowler said. “We know Auburn’s going to score points. But if their defense comes out and smothers Oregon’s offense, it’s a very, very powerful statement about where that league is defensively.”
Barnhart says that as he travels the country, he does hear complaints about so-called “SEC fatigue” from time to time.
“It’s human nature. It’s how people felt about the Yankees when they were winning everything. People naturally want to see something else,” he said.
The answer to it, he says, is simple: “Play ‘em in a bowl game. Beat ‘em. Then, that discussion goes away.”
Easier said than done.