Commentary

Here's why the SEC keeps winning

Originally Published: January 3, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Hey, you, with the chip on your shoulder about the Southeastern Conference.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Jeff Griffith/US PresswireMark Richt of Georgia is one of four SEC coaches whose winning records have qualified them for the College Football Hall of Fame.

Yeah, you, the one who can't wait to see the Allstate BCS National Championship Game because, for the first time in eight appearances, an SEC team will lose. With No. 1 LSU playing No. 2 Alabama in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Monday, there may be less relief there than you think.

You're frustrated with the system. You're mad that the power in college football has consolidated in one place and you're looking for someone or something to blame. The answer lies below.

But before you can look at the culprit, you're going to need a mirror.

When you dig through the data, when you see that SEC athletic programs have bigger budgets than their counterparts around the country because the SEC fills its bigger stadiums, when you see that the caliber of play and the spectacle of those filled stadiums create the highest TV ratings, all of that speaks to the passion that college football creates among the league's fans. That passion creates those resources, which attracts the top coaches, who, in turn, sign the top players.

Even with the head start of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State ranking 1-2-4 in attendance, the SEC led the nation in 2011, as it has every season since 1998. That's because SEC schools take six positions in the top 11. The revenues generated by that attendance put the SEC at the top of athletic spending, according to a survey by the Sports Business Journal. The median budget of SEC athletic departments in fiscal year 2012 is $90.3 million. The Big Ten is second at $78.8 million. No other conference has a median budget above $62 million.

The money, both in the resources it buys and the salaries it pays, lures the top coaches. Four SEC head coaches -- Mark Richt of Georgia, Steve Spurrier of South Carolina and the two who will be in New Orleans, Les Miles of LSU and Nick Saban of Alabama -- are qualified for the College Football Hall of Fame (10 seasons as a head coach with a career winning percentage of .600).

And the coaches attract the top players. The demographic shift in this country toward the Sun Belt can explain in part the rise of the SEC. More people are living within the conference footprint than ever. But the increased population in and of itself doesn't explain the SEC's rise. If big population made a difference, then Fordham would still rule the East.

If the 2012 ESPNU 150 is any indication, the top recruits from SEC country stay home. While the definition of "home" includes Clemson and Florida State, ACC teams who reside in the SEC footprint, nearly to a man those top recruits aren't leaving for points north.

Nowhere on the field is the SEC's home recruiting advantage more pronounced than at defensive tackle. The Deep South must be the mother lode for 300-plus pound men who retain some speed and quickness, a defensive element that has become more important than ever with the rise of the spread offense. Ask Oregon how important Nick Fairley was to disrupting the Ducks in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game last season.

In the past five NFL drafts -- since the beginning of the BCS championship streak -- 28 defensive tackles have been selected out of the SEC. The Atlantic Coast Conference is second with 14. If you limit it to the first three rounds, the SEC leads with 15 and the Pac-12 is second with eight.

[+] EnlargeJordan-Hare Stadium
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBig crowds at such SEC fields as Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium give conference teams a real home-field advantage.

To the home talent, add the advantage of the home field. The revenues generated by the SEC schools afford them the luxury of tilting their schedules in their favor. In every other BCS conference, programs play nonconference games in their opponents' stadium. In the SEC, programs forego those road trips because, well, they can.

Beginning in 2006, the first year of the BCS championship streak, LSU, Alabama and Auburn each have played a total of two non-neutral, nonconference road games, and that's not the fewest. Arkansas and Ole Miss have played one apiece.

You can make the case that Alabama and LSU have avoided playing on the road without diluting their schedule -- the Tide has played Virginia Tech and Clemson at a neutral site and will open next season against Michigan in Cowboys Stadium, which is where LSU began this season against Oregon.

But the point is, the Tide and the Tigers can play those games on equal terms with their opponents. Alabama and LSU are 3-0 in those games.

Florida plays at Florida State every other year. But the Gators haven't played a nonconference regular-season game outside the state in 20 years. Filling those huge campus stadiums affords SEC schools the luxury of not leaving them. While one well-heeled booster has spent schools such as Oregon (Phil Knight), Stanford (John Arrillaga) and Oklahoma State (T. Boone Pickens) to the top, SEC schools have gotten there by the strength of the masses.

College football is more important to SEC fans. They show it when 90,000-plus arrive at Bryant-Denny Stadium -- for a spring game. They show it in radio talk shows that are filled with college football talk 12 months a year. And judging by the TV ratings, fans outside the SEC recognize the difference, too.

The three top-rated telecasts this season featured No. 1 LSU. The highest-rated game, LSU-Alabama I, drew the biggest rating for a regular-season game in 22 years. When you're through looking yourself in the mirror, take a look at the game.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com