SEC rules the football roost


Alabama coach Nick Saban holds up the trophy after defeating Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS Championship game on Jan. 7. (Photo by Michelle Lepianka Carter/Tuscaloosa News)

Published: Saturday, July 27, 2013 at 5:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 27, 2013 at 5:52 p.m.

Media Days have given way to preparation for training camps all over the country as college football season is now quickly reeled into view. There will soon be a million answers for a million questions, but the one thing that has evolved into an annual gimme remains that the sport — with all its bells and whistles — belongs to the Southeastern Conference, while everyone else has been playing for second. Which conference has a shot at tackling the mighty SEC during the final season of the BCS Era? Depending on the odd bounces of a pointed ball, it could be almost any of them. But here's how they stack up heading into the new season.

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Alabama coach Nick Saban holds up the trophy after defeating Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS Championship game on Jan. 7. (Photo by Michelle Lepianka Carter/Tuscaloosa News)

SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE

WHY THE TOP SPOT: Why not? Four league teams have combined to win the past seven national championships, and last season ended with six of the top 10 included in the BCS rankings, headed into the bowl games, and the final AP poll included five still among the top 10.

MOST IMPRESSIVE: Detractors will call the SEC top-heavy, but from one year to the next, it's difficult to determine who's on top and who's near the bottom. Last season, for instance, traditional SEC doormat Vanderbilt enjoyed a nine-win season and final AP Top 25 ranking, Mississippi State came out of the chute at 7-0, and Ole Miss built on a strong, bowl-winning season with its best recruiting class in history. In order for such feats to occur in a yin-and-yang universe, or simply in mathematics, somebody has to pay. In this case, past powers Tennessee and Auburn (each owner of a BCS title) as well as Arkansas were pinned with unthinkably bad records. If anyone believes those three are going to stay down for the long term, they're nuts.

MORE IMPRESSIVE FEATS: SEC schools set an NFL Draft record by having 63 players chosen in April's New York showcase, including 12 in the first round. That number is more than double the selections from any other conference. ... In today's climate of instant news and fast reviews, SEC schools have been working ahead of the curve and its member programs have been reaping the rewards of unprecedented coverage of college football, piling success stories on top of success stories while a facilities arms race is providing a certain WOW-factor for blue chip national recruits who are flocking to the conference like never before.

PARTING THOUGHT: The last bowl season resulted in a 6-3 record for the SEC against a variety of other leagues. Four of those wins came over all-time powerhouses Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Michigan. And it was considered only a so-so bowl season.

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No. 2 — Atlantic Coast Conference

WHAT'S GREAT? The expansion in the ACC from a Tobacco Road operation to the dominant face of Eastern football was a mix of genius and exceptional timing every step of the way, from Florida State's Godzilla entrance in 1992, to this century's additions of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, and now Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Northeastern media markets are not the most gung-ho in terms of college football, but it's better to miss amongst untold millions of television sets than to miss on a market like Boise, Idaho. Louisville is next to take the plunge, and Notre Dame has offered a toe in the pool that will make future ACC scheduling simultaneously strong and weird. The ACC has always produced its share of NFL greats, with 31 more players drafted in April, and will continue to do that with a league planted on fertile recruiting ground. FSU's win in the Orange Bowl and wins by Clemson and Georgia Tech over LSU and Southern Cal, respectively, provided offseason momentum for some of the ACC's bigger-name programs.

WHAT'S WORRISOME? One of the ACC's all-time staples, Maryland, was poached by the Big Ten. On the surface, the loss of Terrapins football might seem like no big deal, but the whole episode made the conference appear vulnerable, and forced ACC bosses to react with heavy financial penalties to any other program that intends to jump ship in this evolving time of college football.

No. 3 — Pac-12

WHAT'S GREAT? Like the ACC, the Pac-12 provided bits of heady expansion with the recent additions of Colorado and Utah, two flagship state universities, and is on firm footing heading into the future. Despite USC's implosion from preseason No. 1 to a 7-6 team that lost the Sun Bowl, there are plenty of contending programs in the conference, including USC. Oregon has been on the brink of greatness for years, and now Stanford appears to be an annual obstacle in a conference that is also measuring improvement from UCLA, Arizona, Oregon State and Arizona State. The Pac-12 to the NFL pipeline is alive and well with 28 more new players drafted during April's event.

WHAT'S WORRISOME? The league is still new to the whole conference championship game concept, and appears to be in mid-fumble every time the game is awarded to one program's home stadium late in the season. There would likely be more league unity if a permanent site, or series of rotating sites, could be settled from a group including San Francisco, Las Vegas or Phoenix, allowing for improved travel planning to a more fan-friendly neutral site.

No. 4 — Big Ten

WHAT'S GREAT? The conference's region has provided a uniquely wonderful blend of fanaticism toward both college football and the NFL, unlike most other areas of the country which tend to lean strongly in favor of one or the other. Tradition and purpose run deep at almost every program, and there's no better football weather anywhere in September and October during Big Ten afternoons. The league's track record for Heisman winners and Pro Football Hall of Fame players keeps Midwestern pride stoked and its Big Ten Network has been one of the bigger cash cows in the country over the past decade.

WHAT'S WORRISOME? If we weren't certain before, the Bret Bielema move from a Wisconsin program that had practically planted roots in the Rose Bowl in recent years to the SEC's Arkansas Razorbacks showed us college football's pecking order. The Big Ten's lack of participation in recent BCS Championship games is glaring, as was the lopsided nature of Ohio State's losses to Florida and LSU in its last two tries. At least Nebraska's and Penn State's national championships, all won before entering the Big Ten, look good on the league's resume when trying to sway young minds.

No. 5 — Big 12

WHAT'S GREAT? The ridiculous offensive skill and overall flair of this league keeps the Xbox generation excited and older fans happy as no lead seems safe anymore. And where Oklahoma and Texas reside, respect will always be built in. The Big 12 was harmed more than anybody this side of the old Big East by recent waves of conference expansion, but TCU and West Virginia are solid programs that belong, and alleviate some of the sting associated with the losses of Texas A&M, Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado. Bill Snyder's resurgence at Kansas State has been nothing short of phenomenal.

WHAT'S WORRISOME? The week-in, week-out 7-on-7 feel of the pass-happy games is great for highlights and ratings, but an overall lack of defensive emphasis throughout most of the league rears its ugly head in the worst way during bowl season. That's when the teams accustomed to scoring 45 points a game find that total chopped in half while enemy offenses are busy feasting on defenses that seldom have had to value every set of downs in a football game.

No. 6 — American Athletic Conference

WHAT'S GREAT? Louisville. Not much else in what remains of the old Big East.

WHAT'S WORRISOME? The psyche of a league that has been plundered by the ACC for the second time in a decade. This time, it was left as an unrecognizable mess with Louisville standing in the on-deck circle for ACC flight. If the Cardinals and Teddy Bridgewater whiff on a perfect season and national championship shot, that will be the last you hear of this league on a national stage in a long, looong time.

The Others:

7. Mid-American Conference — The league isn't glamorous and the networks never beat its doors down, but it knows what it is and its teams fight back when perceived as early-season cupcakes. The MAC's list of NFL legends and coaching alumni will boggle your mind.

8. Mountain West — The Boise State yo-yo stayed here, where it belongs, where the only frightening bumps in the night come from Nevada.

9. Conference USA — Hey, didn't you used to be the Sun Belt?

10. Sun Belt — Only Louisiana-Monroe's win at Arkansas and overtime loss at Auburn a week later prevent Division I-AA jokes right now.

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