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Thursday, January 10, 2013
What's the cost of SEC hegemony?

By Ted Miller
ESPN.com

The sea of blue-clad fans inside Twitter Stadium on San Francisco Bay erupts. Brent Musburger, 86 years old but miraculously looking younger than he did 20 years before, intones, "And your 2025 national champions -- the Kentucky Wildcats!"

Alabama Fan Sign
Even if it's not Alabama, it'd be a shock if the SEC wasn't represented in next year's BCS title game.

To which Kirk Herbstreit adds, "That's 18 of 20 for the SEC, and this is the most unlikely champion from the SEC era, a program that really found itself under the leadership of coach Tim Tebow."

This, of course, is hokey and contrived, but please allow yourself a charitable laugh, for the premise is sound.

When Florida crushed Ohio State on Jan. 8, 2007, to claim the BCS national championship, no one imagined that would be the first of seven consecutive titles for the SEC. While the SEC was widely viewed even then as the nation's best conference, most considered the wide world of college football as too laden with regional powers dotting the landscape for one league to take over in the BCS era.

USC wouldn't let that happen, nor would Texas or Oklahoma. If those powers weren't up to it, there were Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State and Miami. And, really, Notre Dame will eventually awaken the echoes, right?

Well, we saw a reawakened, top-ranked and unbeaten Notre Dame get TKO'd 42-14 by Alabama on Monday night in the BCS championship game, a performance so dominant that all intrigue was over early in the second quarter. It was the Crimson Tide's second consecutive title and third in four years.

And, as noted, the seventh in a row for the SEC.

Great for the SEC. Not so great for the 106 other Football Bowl Subdivision programs, most particularly the supposedly privileged programs in the other major conferences: the Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten and ACC.

"I don't think there's any question it would be better for college football if the national championship moved around a little bit," said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, echoing sentiments expressed by everyone in college football outside the SEC.

Please, SEC friends, don't take this wrong. This isn't an anti-SEC screed. This isn't a questioning of the subjective system that often seems to work in your favor. No, the question is whether college football -- the sport itself -- can endure and thrive during a prolonged period of SEC dominance, one that could permanently concentrate the sport's power in a lone region of the country.

The easy answer is that of course it can. Major League Baseball survived the New York Yankees winning 10 of their 13 World Series appearances from 1947 to 1962. The NBA is doing fine today despite the Boston Celtics winning 11 championships in 13 seasons from 1957 to 1969.

You want dominance from a league, not a team? The NFC won 15 of the 16 Super Bowls over the AFC from 1982 to 1997.

That's the pros, you say. Well, UCLA won seven consecutive basketball titles from 1967-1973. Or what about North Carolina women's soccer, which won 16 NCAA championships from 1982 to 2000. As a conference, the Pac-12 picked up 21 of the 24 women's softball championships from 1988 to 2011.

The popular reply to hand-wringing over SEC dominance is, "It's cyclical," and that college football will be fine.

Maybe. But the SEC's rise to dominance in college football is different than other dynasties, which are often attached to a singular coach or a unique collection of talented stars.

The explanations for the SEC's surge have been noted many times before. Start with passion and money.

The SEC has led college football in attendance throughout the BCS era. The SEC has long had the best TV and bowl contracts. The SEC pays its head coaches and assistant coaches more. College football television ratings are highest in the SEC footprint. Heck, SEC attendance for spring games exceeds what many schools get during the regular season.

Then there's demographics. The Southeast is the fastest growing part of the country, and that growth has come at the expense of the Northeast and Midwest. Further, that booming population is feeding an area that already loves football in every form. High school games often draw tens of thousands of fans in the Southeast.

A strong football culture is meaningful. It creates an environment where an athletic, 6-foot-5 15-year-old who chooses basketball over football in Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles or Seattle is lining up on the defensive line in Atlanta, Birmingham, Miami or Baton Rouge. He's even more likely to do that after watching the SEC win a seventh consecutive title.

Moreover, the cumulative effect of the previous four paragraphs, a regurgitation of what you've read before, fosters a self-fulfilling prophecy -- as in, the tie goes to the SEC. The conference, first among so-called equals, always gets the benefit of the doubt. The process of making distinctions among one-loss teams used to be controversial. Now it's seemingly accepted that the SEC team is first in line among teams with the same number of defeats -- and not without justification.

That's the power of the brand. Folks who don't actively follow college football know about the SEC's dominance of the sport. When LeBron James is tweeting about SEC dominance, you know the brand is powerful. When the coach of Big Ten power Wisconsin, Bret Bielema, is actively soliciting a job at Arkansas while leading his team to a third consecutive Rose Bowl, you know the brand is powerful. Who thought Arkansas was a better job than Wisconsin before Bielema told us it was?

Mike Silve
The new playoff format doesn't figure to slow down the SEC's BCS championship momentum. No wonder commissioner Mike Slive is smiling.

As college football moves forward, the SEC will be favored to win an eighth consecutive title next fall, the final season of the BCS system. In 2014, a four-team playoff will be adopted. There's a reason SEC commissioner Mike Slive was eager for that to happen and fought hard to make sure a conference championship wasn't a prerequisite for inclusion.

The SEC is almost certain to benefit the most from the new format. For one, ESPN's Brett McMurphy reported in December that the SEC "at least in 2014, will be rewarded for its past on-field success. … The SEC should receive more playoff revenue in 2014 than any other league."

Not only can we expect the SEC champion to receive essentially an automatic berth in the semifinals, odds are high that most years two SEC teams will be selected. The selection committee won't be prevented from picking three or even four teams from a single conference -- read: SEC.

SEC folks don't think a four-team playoff will reduce their dominance. They think it will increase it. College football fans can expect an SEC versus SEC final, which inspired much consternation in 2011, to no longer be a look-there's-an-evil-unicorn aberration.

If you roll all this together, it's not so far-fetched to imagine Musburger and Herbstreit calling the action of the SEC's 18th title in 20 years. How could that not change the game as we know it today?

Unprecedented regional dominance in college football could reduce fan enthusiasm in other areas of the country. You remove the eyeballs, you remove the revenue, and we all know that it's all about the money in college football.

College football is in the midst of seismic change that is entirely based on conferences trying to increase their footprints in order to maximize their revenues. The head-spinning process of conference realignment is contracting the sport's elite. A sport that had long leaned on the consistency of its traditions is now one where the only certainty is change.

Yet one thing hasn't changed since the 2006 season -- the SEC finishing No. 1.

"You can't possibly deny the domination of the SEC," Bowlsby said. "On the other hand, history tells us that domination doesn't sit in one location forever."

Perhaps.

But as Shakespeare noted in his play, "Nick Saban": "There is a Crimson Tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune."

The SEC's dominance might not last forever, but from our present perspective of seven consecutive national titles, it sort of feels like it might.