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SEC's image muddied by off-field dirt

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

The Southeastern Conference is easily America's best football conference and easily America's most troubled conference off the field.

This is not breaking news. But the news broken on this website Wednesday – that five SEC players from three different schools allegedly accepted thousands of dollars in improper benefits from a former SEC player acting as a "concierge" for agents and financial advisers – reinforced the outlaw rep of the league.

Mike Slive did good work earlier this century scrubbing the SEC's image until it was at least presentable, if not pristine. Now it's back to looking dirty.

The biggest name among the implicated programs in the Yahoo Sports report was football flagship Alabama, which could have its 2011 and '12 national championships vacated. The other two were Tennessee and Mississippi State – both of which already were on probation for previous NCAA rules violations, thus increasing the possibility of major sanctions this time around.

[Watch SportsDash: Broken rules, uncertain futures]

If, of course, the NCAA can make the case against the allegedly involved players. That's a big if – the association's best chance to make a case would be if the affected states pursued legal action against the agents, financial advisers and "concierge" Luther Davis through the Uniform Agent Act, but those statutes often exist just for show.

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Tennessee has declared Maurice Couch ineligible for its game against Oregon. (Getty Images)

Whatever happens, the questions about tangible fallout on the programs probably won't be answered anytime soon.

But Tennessee already has declared the one active player mentioned in the reports – defensive end Maurice Couch – ineligible. Volunteers coach Butch Jones has said he is out for the team's game at Oregon. How many more games he might miss is open to conjecture.

Players on the take from agents is a national problem, but nowhere is it more of a concern than in the SEC. They have the best players, and agents and runners generally aren't going to cluster where the talent is mediocre. They also have a significant percentage of players from poor backgrounds, who are more likely to accept handouts.

An SEC source told Yahoo Sports Wednesday that "agent issues pop up repeatedly" within the league. The problem is sufficiently chronic and pervasive that in 2011 commissioner Mike Slive raised the possibility of waving the white flag – allowing college athletes to have agents. Slive didn't go so far as to champion that idea, but he was open to having the discussion.

Leagues less affected than the SEC were less enthusiastic about the idea, and there was no unanimity on the issue within the league, either. But the SEC source said this latest outbreak of potential agent-related violations provides an opportunity to reintroduce the topic both within and outside the conference.

But there's more to the league's image problems than that.

Any rule-breaking that implicates more than 20 percent of a conference in one fell swoop is not good. When two of those programs are potentially subject to repeat-violator penalties, it's really not good. And when you factor in what's going on at some other member schools, it's downright bad.

[Watch: How widespread are player benefits in college football?]

Vanderbilt, the conference's perennial ivory tower of integrity, dismissed four players during the summer who have been charged with rape of a female student. (The players have entered not-guilty pleas.) That's much more serious than whether players were receiving Western Union money transfers.

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SEC commissioner Mike Slive has talked about allowing players to have agents. (USA Today)

LSU coach Les Miles did not exactly cover himself in disciplinary glory by copping out on deciding running back Jeremy Hill's status after the running back's second arrest and guilty plea – this one for assault. Miles left the decision on whether Hill would remain on the team to his fellow players, who stunningly voted to keep him. After sitting out the opener against TCU, Hill rewarded his teammates' largesse by rushing for 50 yards on six carries and scoring a touchdown against UAB. (Neither does Miles come off looking great in the ongoing Sports Illustrated series shining a light on Oklahoma State, the school he coached before moving to Baton Rouge.)

The league's most prominent player, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, just escaped an NCAA investigation with a half-game suspension. That was viewed as a victory by Aggies fans.

Within the past year, NCAA investigators have done interviews regarding potential irregularities at Mississippi and Auburn. It's unclear whether either school is formally under investigation, but the NCAA is looking. (Or was looking, before a large percentage of the NCAA's investigative staff left the association in recent months.)

That makes troubling issues at eight members of a 14-team league. And that's too high.

The increasing amount of public fatigue with college athletic scandals indicates that most fans don't care nearly as much what happens off the field as what happens on Saturdays. Their level of concern with what goes on behind the scenes only spikes when there is the specter of significant penalties.

If the NCAA cannot prove the allegations against former Alabama All-American D.J. Fluker, most Crimson Tide fans will move on with scant concern about whether Fluker actually took the money. All that matters is what sticks and what the punishment is.

[Watch: Potential fallout from SEC investigation]

That mindset is not exclusive to the SEC. But it runs deeper there.

By Saturday afternoon, when Alabama and Texas A&M meet in the most anticipated game of 2013, all the off-field problems will be shoved into the background. Who wins and who loses will be all that matters.

That's the SEC mindset. It's why the league wins big, but it's also why the league has its rogue reputation.

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