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Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Conference supremacy is debatable

By Mark Schlabach and Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

The SEC's string of four consecutive national titles will be on the line when No. 1 Auburn and No. 2 Oregon play in the Jan. 10 Tostitos BCS National Championship Game in Glendale, Ariz.

Gene Chizik
Will Gene Chizik be the latest SEC coach to win a BCS championship?

SEC teams have long been known for their running backs and rugged defenses. Pac-10 teams are perhaps best known for their quarterbacks and pass-happy offenses.

ESPN college football columnists Ivan Maisel, a Stanford graduate, and Mark Schlabach, a Georgia graduate, debate the strengths and weaknesses of the Ducks, Tigers and their respective conferences.

Schlabach: College football fans who don't live south of the Mason-Dixon Line or east of the Mississippi River are tired of hearing about it (and probably are tired of me writing about it), but the SEC has been the best conference in the country for much of the past decade. In fact, Auburn's playing for the thumb, after SEC teams won the BCS championship in each of the past four seasons: each of the past four BCS National Championship Games: Florida in 2006, LSU in '07, Florida in '08 and Alabama in '09. Auburn could have easily played for the national championship in 2004, when it finished 12-0 under coach Tommy Tuberville, but was left out of the national championship game. Unlike the Pac-10, where USC had been the only team which could scratch the national championship race, the SEC has produced three different national champs and might be on the verge of a fourth.

Maisel: Nice try, my Georgia friend. But the assignment is to debate the Pac-10 versus the SEC this season, not since 2004. And the team playing the best SEC-type football this season won the Orange Bowl on Monday night. The Pac-10 has the best team playing pitch and catch, Oregon, and the best team playing bust-you-in-the-mouth-don't-come-in-this-gap-again football. Stanford beat Virginia Tech, 40-12, with four second-half touchdowns, and it became clear by the end of the game that the Hokies didn't want to get hit anymore. The Cardinal are a team after Bear Bryant's heart.

Schlabach: I didn't know beating a team that lost to FCS foe James Madison at home carried so much weight nowadays. This isn't Shug Jordan's Auburn team, either. These Tigers actually know how to pitch and catch, too. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, not Stanford's Andrew Luck, led the country in pass efficiency and won the Heisman Trophy. The Tigers averaged nearly 500 yards of offense and six touchdowns per game. This is hardly "three yards and a cloud of dust." It's more like "three seconds and a cloud of exhaust."

Maisel: You are not going to drag me into justifying the legitimacy of a four-touchdown win over the Hokies. That's silly. You get no argument from me about the Auburn offense or about Newton. My point is that the SEC prides itself on speed and physicality. Oregon and Stanford can match Auburn on both accounts. By the way, you ended the paragraph before you got to the Tigers' defense. I can't wait to hear about it.

Schlabach: Auburn's defense isn't great on paper, but it's pretty good when it has to be. Only once this season -- against Arkansas, the other SEC team that played in a BCS bowl game -- have the Tigers allowed more points in the second half than the first half. The Tigers blasted the Hogs 65-43. Alabama, the reigning BCS national champion, scored 21 points in the first quarter against Auburn, but kicked only two field goals the rest of the way in a 28-27 defeat. Georgia had a 21-0 lead after one quarter against the Tigers, but found the end zone only once more in a 49-31 loss. I guess that West Coast education made you soft. I thought any Alabama native would know the best defense is played in the SEC, regardless of what the stats say.

Chip Kelly
Chip Kelly has had five weeks to come up with an offensive attack for the title game.

Maisel: Thanks for keeping me posted on when you plan to argue with stats (see first paragraph) and without (see last). It makes it easier for all of us to keep up. I'm not going to expose the Auburn defense. Heaven knows so many offenses already have. Besides, if I started with Auburn's defensive numbers, you could learn how to spell L-u-t-z-e-n-k-i-r-c-h-e-n before I would finish. And Oregon head coach Chip Kelly, who may possess the only offensive mind quicker than the one between Gus Malzahn's ears, has had five weeks to cook up something for the Ducks to spring upon the Tigers. By the way, when are you going to spellbind all of us with the brilliance that is the SEC East?

Schlabach: Haven't you watched any bowl games this season? Fans from Alabama and Mississippi State were chanting "SEC West! SEC West!" after their teams demolished Michigan State and Michigan, respectively. I'll make you a deal: You don't count the SEC East and I won't count the two Pac-10 schools in Los Angeles. Auburn plays in the SEC West, anyhow. It was the toughest division in college football. Alabama, the defending BCS national champion (if you missed it the first time) and the best team I saw on New Year's Day, finished fourth in the SEC West. The Pac-10 had only four teams in bowl games.

Maisel: I watched the bowls long enough to see a .500 team from the Pac-10 beat the Big 12 North champion. I also recall, without naming alma maters, seeing a .500 team from the SEC lose to the Conference USA champion. You're too smart to play the four-bowl card, Mark. For one thing, USC is on probation, which is something that an SEC alum can appreciate. For another, Pac-10 teams beat up on each other. Arizona State, Cal and Oregon State missed the bowls by the margin of a conference loss. What would happen if the SEC played nine conference games, besides the financial collapse of the Sun Belt Conference? To borrow a phrase from the Sugar Bowl, by playing nine league games, the Pac-10 is looking out for the integrity of the game.

Schlabach: At least you didn't bring up one of the Pac-10's incoming members beating a certain SEC school this season. Why don't you consult former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli about playing in the SEC? He was an absolute superstar in the Pac-10 last season, leading the Ducks to the Rose Bowl. He was Brent Schaeffer in the SEC. Auburn played twice the schedule that Oregon faced this season, beating Mississippi State, Clemson, South Carolina (twice), Kentucky, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama, all of which are bowling.

Maisel: I think Eli Manning could have returned to Oxford and looked like Masoli this season. He arrived in August and didn't have a whole lot of help. But since you bring up schedule, Oregon arrived in Tennessee and beat the Vols, 48-13, their worst loss in Neyland Stadium. Oregon also beat No. 4 Stanford by three touchdowns, a team that, you may recall, is the best SEC-style team in the nation. Let me leave you with this fact: The top two teams in the Pac-10 will finish among the top four teams in the nation.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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.