SEC beast roars to fourth straight title

PASADENA, Calif. – The Grand Slam was imminent when the chant started. No matter which Southeastern Conference team wins the BCS national championship, the fan base always pays homage.

“SEC! SEC! SEC!” they said, from the houndstooth-wearing lady who later professed her love for Alabama coach Nick Saban to the frat boys with ‘Bama bangs who made the trip to California to watch their boys bring home a title. The Crimson Tide obliged, brushing aside a late Texas run for a 37-21 victory Thursday night at the Rose Bowl to give the school its 13th claimed national championship and first BCS title.

For the SEC, its fourth straight crystal ball only reinforced what the rest of the college football world knows: There is the SEC, and there is everyone else. Florida won in the Orange Bowl last year, LSU at the Superdome the year before, Florida in Phoenix the season prior to that, and Alabama finished out the quartet to outfit conference commissioner Mike Slive with a fat ring for each finger, his naked thumb the only impediment to a full fist of gold and jewels.

Nick Saban is soaked with Gatorade during the fourth quarter. Alabama defeated Texas 37-21.
(AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

How the SEC has grown into such a powerhouse is a triumph of which Slive beams with pride, and rightfully so: He took a regionally based conference and turned it into a cash-spitting ATM with a following north, south, east, west and everywhere in between.

To enjoy the same sort of dessert for four straight years – an ice-and-confetti parfait, the former coming from dumped-out Gatorade buckets and the latter from pop guns that shower the field in the winning team’s colors – is unprecedented in college football history and speaks to the conference’s true, sustained dominance. This is no fluke. The Big Ten and Big 12 and Pac 10 and Big East and ACC and, sure, even the Mountain West and WAC pool their 59 teams every year and emerge beaten by a 12-team Goliath.

“I don’t think anybody can compete with the SEC,” Alabama running back Roy Upchurch said. “This league is the closest thing to the NFL. We have more talent, and it shows.”

Not just the talent. The SEC has more of everything. More passionate fans. More pageantry. More television exposure. More proximity to talent. And plenty of money to build the facilities and hire the coaches to lure it.

Such a combination is a righteous blow to the Big Ten, which outdoes the SEC in television money but can’t compete with its locations, and the Big 12, which should own the player-rich state of Texas but doesn’t match the SEC’s ability to lavish its football programs. The $2.25 billion ESPN agreed to pay for 15 years of SEC television rights wasn’t just a nice deal orchestrated by Slive. It spoke to the power of the league’s brand and its universal recognition as the be-all, end-all of college football.

Since the inception of the BCS in 1998, the SEC is 6-0 in title games. The other five conferences have won six championships combined. Four SEC teams have won titles, compared to only six non-SEC teams. And that doesn’t count the 2004 Auburn team, which ran undefeated through the SEC and didn’t end up in the national championship game because the BCS wouldn’t dare be smart enough to want an undefeated team from a perpetually dominant conference.

“Where I’m from, you grow up on SEC football,” Alabama freshman Dre Kirkpatrick said. “Nothing else. It’s religion. And the rest of the country is starting to be believers.”

Kirkpatrick is from Gadsden, Ala., a little more than an hour from the Georgia border. He was the top-ranked cornerback in the country this season, and his college choice came down to Alabama and Texas. He felt a tight connection with Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. He felt a tighter one with his home state, and with the conference that dominates it.

Alabama RB Mark Ingram rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
(Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

For so long, Alabama was the SEC, Bear Bryant the conference’s godfather and conscience, crimson and white its defining colors. To see Tennessee win that first BCS championship in 1998, and then LSU and Florida win two apiece – it just wasn’t right, not with Alabama ping-ponging from Mike DuBose to Dennis Franchione to Mike Shula before finding a head coach worthy of Bryant’s fedora.

That man was Saban, who coached LSU to its 2003 championship. SEC coaches used to fall into two categories: alumni of the school or Bryant disciples. The only SEC coach who attended his school is Kentucky’s Joker Phillips, and he got the job four days ago when Rich Brooks (Oregon State, ’63) retired.

“A lot of it has to do with the coaching staffs,” Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said. “The SEC does a great job in bringing in top coaches. It seems like every year they add to the coach arsenal. It’s surreal to me playing against these teams and coaches.”

He considered his answer and came with an addendum.

“And,” McElroy said, “we just have the best players.”

Alabama did Thursday, from Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mark Ingram and his backup Trent Richardson both running for 100-plus yards to defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, listed on the depth chart as a backup but present in the game’s two biggest plays. Dareus’ hit on Heisman runner-up Colt McCoy jolted the quarterback’s shoulder and knocked him out of the game in the first quarter, and his interception-turned-talent show – stiff arming and spinning to the end zone – was an inspired bit of athleticism from a 300-pounder.

“That’s the SEC,” said nose guard Terrence “Mount” Cody, himself an athletic marvel, lugging his 360 pounds around like they’re some harmless carry-on luggage. “We have a lot of athletes.”

The list continues to grow. Alabama is stockpiling another monster recruiting class, second only to Texas in Rivals’ 2010 rankings. The Crimson Tide isn’t alone. Of the top 10 classes, six come from the SEC. The rich don’t get richer. They get filthy stinking rich.

And so it’s not just Alabama and Florida and LSU that are threats. It’s Georgia and Tennessee and Auburn. One of these years, maybe even Vanderbilt will contend. Or not.

The possibility at least exists, and it makes the SEC worth those billions ESPN spends and the hundreds of millions that fans pile on top of it. They want the kind of ardor where everyone knows the kicker – the cheer for Leigh Tiffin coming off the field was deafening – and where the national championship game’s crowd leans 60 percent SEC. They want to shower the players with cheers and each other with beers.

They want what only the SEC provides: The biggest, the best and the grandest.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jan 8, 2010