The nation at large now sees what the Footprint has long known - SEC Football is dominant and truly in its own league.
Despite the hue and cry against it, the BCS has allowed sports fans to see top teams, by and large, go against each other on the field. Since that has happened, SEC teams have been largely dominant. All it took was overlooking Auburn's 13-0 team in favor of an overmatched Oklahoma squad a few years back, and pollsters have since given the benfit of the doubt to the SEC. Florida and LSU made good on that privilege the last two years.
Today, the SEC has multiple BCS champions and the only two time champion in LSU. They also have the only champion with two losses (LSU) which shows the respect the conference gets.
The SEC also has the most lucrative TV and media deal of any college conference as of two weeks ago.
There are many reasons for all of this success. The SEC has tradition. It sits in a growing market, etc, etc.
The main reason may be its collection of top level football programs.
Over the last decade or so, an evolution has occured. Teams and programs have either "evolved" or been left in the dust.
Watching Michigan's new coach, Rich Rodriguez, holding a multi-million dollar deal well above what predecessor Lloyd Carr ever got demonstrates how college football has changed. UCLA's hiring of Rick Neuheisel was predicated on USC's success over the last decade. Both Michigan and UCLA used to see themselves as "above" this kind of emphasis on sports vs. academics. Their administration knows that times have changed.
Starting with Notre Dame's NBC deal to the BCS, the necessary "evolving" factors that must be in place are the following:
1. Top facilities
2. Dominance of local/in state recruiting
3. A strong presence in national recruiting
4. Top coaches that serve as CEOs of their program
5. Significant financial support from alumni/boosters
Anyone can probably name some of these programs like Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, USC, Penn State, but in a recent Forbes study of the Top 20 most valuable college football programs only one conference dominated - the SEC.
Georgia (#3), Florida (#5), LSU (#6), Tennessee (#7), Auburn (#8) and Alabama (#9) were all in the Top 10. South Carolina (#12) and Arkansas (#15) were the two other SEC in the Top 20. So, eight of the twelve SEC teams have Top 20 values in college football. Almost half of the Top 20 are SEC teams.
The Big Ten has 5 teams (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn St, Michigan St, and Wisconsin) in the Top 20. The Big 12 has three teams (Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas A&M). The Pac 10 has two teams (USC and Washington). Add in Notre Dame at the top and there's your 20. (For the record, the Big Ten was the only other conference that put more than one team in the top 10 with Michigan and Ohio State.)
Let's state a couple of obvious points - neither the ACC or Big East put teams on this list. The significance of this can't be overlooked. The schools in these conference also don't meet our five point test above either.
With the SEC having two-thirds of their conference in the top 20, they have a pretty massive head start. In addition to those top eight, Kentucky and Mississippi State have shown recent improvement by going to bowl games, and Vanderbilt and Ole Miss seem to have found good coaches. The new TV money will further help these programs build on their recent success.
So, besides a few programs here and there, what other conference can come close to fielding a legion of top level programs.
The Big Ten has the numbers, but only one top 5 school (Michigan). Ohio State lies at #10 and the other three are further down. Maybe the Big Ten Network will start helping out the other schools, but there are simple logistics of money and population that work against additional Big Ten teams stepping up to the big time.
The Big 12 could step up, but their conference has been saddled by uneven revenue splits between schools. $2 million dollar gaps in funding between Big 12 schools cannot be overcome easily.
Until the ACC and the Big East dedicate themselves to football, these conferences will remain a step behind. (Watching Alabama destroy Clemson made for a good microcosm of the gap between the SEC and the ACC.)
Perhaps only the Pac 10 could make the SEC's jump. USC remains a power. Washington should be. UCLA has begun the process. Oregon has Nike money to throw around. It's only too bad that West Coasters don't have the same passion for sports like we do in the Footprint.
The SEC makes the most money and spends the most money. They split their revenues evenly so that all of their schools have a chance to be competitive.
That's why we call the SEC "College Football 2.0". They have upgraded, and the benefits of that upgrade are paying off on the field and off.
Now that they've shown the way, which conference will next follow their lead?
PS I will be looking forward to tonight's South Carolina/Vandy game. The Gamecocks have all the basics in place to be a major player, but their stumble at home against the Dores last year put their season in a tailspin.
PPS Phil Fulmer finds himself officially on notice. Losing to UCLA has not made SEC loyalists happy. Like South Carolina, Tennessee never seems to be as good as they can be.
- Jim Markel