Print and Go Back ESPN.com: College Football [Print without images]

Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Updated: December 5, 8:55 AM ET
No limits to the SEC's power

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

Six consecutive national championships are not enough. An Alabama team on the verge of dynasty can't slake the Southeastern Conference's thirst. Not only is the conference everyone loves to hate in full command of college football, but it has decided to cherry-pick the best coaches other leagues have to offer.

Bret Bielema
The SEC was able to lure one of the Big Ten's best coaches.

The chase of Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide just got a lot more serious.

Bret Bielema, the coach of the three-time Big Ten champion, Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin Badgers, is now the coach at Arkansas.

Gus Malzahn, the coach of the Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State Red Wolves, has returned to Auburn, where as offensive coordinator he harnessed the talent of Cam Newton.

And sources tell ESPN.com that Charlie Strong, the coach of the Big East champion, Sugar Bowl-bound Louisville Cardinals, is being wooed by Tennessee.

It's the greatest assertion of power since Michael Corleone ordered the assassination of the heads of the rest of the Five Families. As long as we're using Academy Award metaphors, the SEC didn't just drink the Big Ten's milkshake. The SEC ate its bratwurst, too.

The coach of the Big Ten champion just left for an SEC team that went 4-8. If the reverse were true, Saban would have held a news conference at the Hayden Fry Center in Iowa City. That sounds downright absurd, which also describes the notion of Bielema leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas before early Tuesday afternoon. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, Bielema's mentor, issued a statement calling Bielema's decision to leave "very surprising."

Not only did Bielema lead the Badgers to the Rose Bowl, but he led them to their third consecutive Rose Bowl. No coach had done that since Bo Schembechler took Michigan to Pasadena from 1976 to '78. After the 1981 season, Schembechler thought about leaving Michigan for Texas A&M but didn't. Why would he? He coached the best team in the Big Ten.

Three decades later, that wouldn't be enough to keep Bielema at Wisconsin. And quibble if you like, Buckeyes fans, that Wisconsin isn't the Big Ten's best team this season. The Badgers are the Big Ten champion, and the symbolism of Bielema's departure is clear.

The BCS rules allow only two SEC teams in the five bowl games. But the rules say nothing about coaches. The Alvarez I know would bring back Don Morton before he allowed Bielema on the Rose Bowl sideline. And if the Wisconsin athletic director allowed it, the commissioner Jim Delany I know would forbid it anyway.

But the point is, of the 10 teams in the BCS bowls, three of the coaches who got them there are in the SEC and a fourth is in the offing.

Bielema has a record of 68-24 (.739), ninth among Football Bowl Subdivision coaches with at least five years of experience -- and, it should be pointed out, second among SEC coaches behind only Mark Richt of Georgia (.745). Malzahn went 9-3 and led Arkansas State to the Sun Belt championship in his first season as coach. Strong has gone 24-14 (.632) in three seasons at Louisville, including the 10-2 record this season.

Now that they have signed up for the SEC, the question that will hang over them is whether they can win at the same level as they did outside. After all, there are only so many wins to go around in the league (James Franklin, you're on the clock).

Gus Malzahn
Gus Malzahn returns to Auburn, a place where he helped Cam Newton realize his potential.

Bielema coaches a physical, downhill running game that will feel at home in the league. The question will be whether a Midwestern farm boy can recruit in the Deep South. Bielema can recruit in Florida, if 11 current Badgers are any measure. More important, he can recruit in Texas, a traditionally rich ground for the Razorbacks. Four Badgers are from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and a fifth is from Texarkana.

Malzahn is an inexperienced head coach but takes over a roster filled with players more suited to his offense than the one in which they floundered this season. They signed with Auburn to play in Malzahn's offense.

Strong is the kind of defensive-minded coach Tennessee needs. He also can bring the recruiting touch the Volunteers have lacked since they veered off the road to success a decade or so ago. If Strong decides to leave Louisville and return to the SEC, where he coordinated the defense at Florida and South Carolina, the league will be that much stronger and its competitors will be that much weaker.

Has anyone got the number of the Justice Department? It might be time to call the trustbusters. Monopolies are still illegal in this country. But just when you thought the SEC couldn't get any stronger, it pulled this maneuver.

It's not personal, college football. It's strictly business.