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Wednesday, January 5, 2011
SEC, Pac-10 supremacy on the line

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- In its continuing quest for worldwide domination, the rampaging Southeastern Conference has reached its final frontier.

Hello, Pacific-10. Put up your dukes. Or Ducks.

Urban Meyer
Urban Meyer won national titles in the 2006 and 2008 seasons while at Florida.

In the BCS era, the SEC has won national titles against the Big 12 three times (Oklahoma twice, Texas once), the Big Ten twice (Ohio State times two) and the Atlantic Coast Conference once (Florida State). Because the Big East has been a non-factor at the championship level for many years, that leaves just one big-six league left to conquer.

Monday, when Auburn and Oregon meet in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET), the SEC and Pac-10 finally get their shot at one another.

It's about time.

"I think there's been a lot of interest in and desire for this," said Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott.

"I think it's an exciting opportunity," said SEC commissioner Mike Slive, an assistant commissioner in the Pac-10 from 1979-81.

There was a lot of trash talk between backers of the two leagues earlier this century, when USC was on top of its game and the SEC was pumping out title contenders on a regular basis. When USC and LSU split the 2003 titles -- BCS to the Tigers, AP to the Trojans -- it left both sides salivating for a matchup that settled the argument.

But as sometimes happens in boxing, there was never a unification bout.

Fact is, these two very different conferences have not met in a bowl game since the 1989 Freedom Bowl, a game that no longer exists. History buffs will note that the Pac-10 won that one: Washington 34, Florida 7. Since the Pac-10 (then the Pac-7) formed in 1959, there have been just nine bowl meetings between the two. Scoreboard: SEC 5, Pac-10 4.

Meetings have been similarly scarce and well-balanced in recent regular-season play. There have been only 21 games between the two leagues in the 21st century, with the surfer boys taking home 12 and the southerners winning nine.

Those numbers might provide a bit of a wakeup call for SEC fans drunk with power on their league's current four-year national championship winning streak. They've played some pretty good football over the years on the Left Coast, too.

True, most of it was by USC. But now Oregon has established itself as well, with Stanford as a stellar sidekick this year. (Staying power of the Cardinal is completely contingent upon its ability to keep coach Jim Harbaugh. And if Michigan's athletic director knows what he's talking about, that looks grim.)

"This would be a big moment for the Pac-10 to potentially win a national championship," Scott said, "especially coming out of the years of USC dominance."

The most impressive part of the SEC's ongoing feat is that there has been no single-school dominance. It has been a rotating array of powerhouses beating up on the rest of America. Auburn is attempting to become the fourth school to win a fifth consecutive SEC title, a feat unheard of in the sport's history.

To do it, the Tigers will have to beat a Pac-10 school that has several SEC characteristics: a rabid following that produces a deafening home-field advantage; top-of-the-line facilities thanks in large part to a sugar-daddy booster (Nike kingpin Phil Knight); elite-level speed; and even an athletic director (Rob Mullens) who came to Eugene from SEC member Kentucky.

Autzen Stadium
The atmosphere in Autzen rivals many SEC stadiums on game day.

But beyond those Oregon elements, the edge in clout and commitment has long favored the SEC.

The stadiums are much bigger down south: SEC average listed capacity is 77,614, Pac-10 is 64,330. You can bet the SEC's have been full more often -- sometimes even for spring games.

The exposure has been much greater as well: The SEC television package is an epic deal that guarantees its teams massive nationwide publicity, while the Pac-10 has often been left playing in a virtual vacuum late at night. (Part and parcel of the "East Coast bias" cry that arises regularly from Pac-10 fans.)

That has begun to change, however. In 18 months under Scott, a once-stodgy league has embarked upon a much-needed modernization campaign.

"I think in the past our conference had a reputation for being pretty rigid," he said. "There's a new attitude in our conference to be flexible."

Part of that was Scott's idea to take the Pac-10 show on the road in the summer, flying all the league's coaches to New York and ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., for an East Coast media blitz.

And part of that is a willingness to move games from late-night spots to more viewer-friendly times -- case in point, the Stanford-Oregon game that decided the league title. That was supposed to be a 10:15 p.m. ET kickoff, but the league worked with ESPN/ABC to move it earlier and give both programs wider exposure to viewers.

"As I look back on the season, it played out very, very well," Scott said.

Coincidentally or not, the league has had some tangible advancements this year. At 11-1, Stanford finished ahead of one-loss Big Ten teams Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State in the BCS standings. Oregon's place in the BCS top two was never seriously challenged. And two Pac-10 players -- Oregon's LaMichael James and Stanford's Andrew Luck -- were Heisman Trophy finalists.

The extra exposure sure didn't hurt, and probably helped.

And now Oregon has a chance to win the Pac-10 the ultimate prize, a national title. But it will have to go through the big, bad SEC to do so.

At least they're finally playing each other. Hopefully the game makes the long wait worthwhile.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.