August 08, 2011
Kicking off SEC Week.
Five years into the SEC's mostly self-proclaimed reign over college football, its lofty national reputation still boils down to one word: Parity. Where the rest of the country has toiled in the shadow of a handful of perennial conference overlords, the top half of the SEC remains the one place in college football where every new year really could be The Year for anyone, because no one is very far removed from the last one.
Virginia Tech has four conference championships in seven years since joining the ACC, and has finished as the league's highest-ranked team all seven years. Ohio State's taken at least of share of six straight titles in the Big Ten. In the Big 12, Oklahoma and Texas have combined to win nine of the last eleven. USC took seven straight Pac-10 titles from 2002-09, at which point Oregon picked up the torch with two in a row. Outside of the heavy-hitting leagues, the Big East (Cincinnati), MAC (Central Michigan), Mountain West (TCU) and WAC (Boise State) have all been subjugated by a repeat champion in the last three years.
The last repeat champion in the SEC? Tennessee in 1997-98, the first behind the right arm of one Peyton Manning. In the meantime, five different schools have taken the conference title, under 10 different head coaches. All five (Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and LSU) have won it at least twice; none have won more than three. Four other schools have played in at least one SEC championship game. And all 12 schools have fired at least one head coach for too many losses when the cycle of success doesn't return soon enough.
Over time, the balance has been so extreme that even the respective divisions have alternated the crown on a regular basis — neither East nor West has taken more than two titles in a row since the late '90s, either. For more than a decade, the pendulum remained firmly in the middle, practically unwavering, like a compass that always points North — at least, right up until last fall, when a gust suddenly blew the needle sharply toward the West.
The West's domination of the East in 2010 was total. Aside from a 35-21 upset by South Carolina over then-No. 1 Alabama, the "Big Five" teams in the West — Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State — were 15-0 against the East, usually by double digits. Before Arkansas' loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, the Tide's trip to Columbia was the only blemish on any of those five teams' records outside of the division. Usually middling MSU upset East Division powerhouses Georgia and Florida, the latter in the Swamp. Alabama handed Tennessee the most lopsided beating in the history of the series. Arkansas crushed the eventual East champ, South Carolina, by three touchdowns on the road that wasn't even as close as the final score, less than a month before Auburn incinerated the same Gamecocks in the biggest blowout ever administered in the SEC title game.
At year's end, the SEC West owned three spots in the top 10 and five in the top 15 of the final AP poll in January, including the No. 1 slot for the second year in a row. The East had zero teams in the top 20 and only one team, South Carolina, that even received votes for the poll at all.
So, given the backward-looking nature of the beast, it was probably inevitable that the preseason polls would forecast more of the same in 2011: In most of the summer magazines and last week's coaches' poll, the "Big Five" in the West all land in the top 20, again, only encroached upon from the East by South Carolina. What else could they say? Florida is undergoing wholesale transition on the sidelines and most of the depth chart on the heels of its worst season in 20 years; Georgia isn't offering any bold solutions after a 6-7 campaign that featured losses to Colorado and Central Florida; Tennessee is still digging its way out of a five-year hole with a whole lot of sophomores in key roles. No one who watched the East Division's descent into mediocrity last year has any reason to believe a sudden turnaround is about to roar into view on the horizon, or that it can retake any of the ground it lost to the West even if it tried.
Then again, at this time last year, no one saw the East about to fold in on itself, either. Man for man, Florida and Georgia still stack up athletically ageist to just about anyone in the country. South Carolina has the two best individual talents in the conference, Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery, with more than half a dozen other future draft picks, at least. Any of their success this fall makes a lot more sense now than Mississippi State's sudden rise would have a year ago. But until one of them manages to unseat Alabama, LSU or any of the others in the upper reaches of the polls — which means unseating them in Atlanta after back-to-back embarrassments in the SEC title game, naturally — it's safe to say this conference has officially gone West.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.