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SEC sets standard on signing day

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – From his spacious office from the middle of it all, it's a rare hour that SEC commissioner Mike Slive doesn't think about college football. Yet unlike so many of his obsessed peers in the run up to Wednesday's National Signing Day, he doesn't pore over the latest visits and verbals, commitments and leanings.

He figures his 12 schools will sign around 300 players on Wednesday and at that point, they'll be in the SEC family. He'll skip the machinations.

"I wait until the day," Slive said last week. "In some ways it's become a season unto itself."

If so, then the SEC has proven even more dominating in the recruiting game than during the actual season – and this is a league that's won each of the past four BCS championships.

Yes, recruiting is an inexact science. Player development, strategy and motivation remain the key for actual results. And the entire idea of winners being declared over how many three-, four- and five-star prospects are signed is patently ridiculous.

That said, the fact remains this: You'd rather be in the SEC right now than anywhere else.

On the eve of signing day, league teams take up six of the top nine spots in the Rivals.com rankings – Florida (1), Auburn (3), Alabama (4), LSU (6), Tennessee (7) and Georgia (9).

If there is one recruiting class that best illustrates the power of the SEC these days, one that makes for absurd things like Georgia finishing ninth nationally, but sixth locally, it's the impressive group put together by Auburn coach Gene Chizik.

Last January, Chizik arrived at Auburn dealing with fan doubts (the school AD was heckled at the airport after hiring him) and boasting a lackluster head coaching record (he'd gone just 2-10 in 2008, his final year at Iowa State). He was forced in just three weeks to put together a respectable recruiting class. He promptly announced it wasn't good enough.

"When I said a year ago we were going to roll up our sleeves and were going to recruit the best players in the country, it was not lip service," Chizik said Monday. "We wanted to be in the top echelon of the rankings when signing day came.

"Now, you don't really know how you did for three years, but if someone is going to keep score, and they do with this thing, well, we're in it to win it."

Chizik rode a blue-collar work ethic and the momentum of an 8-5 season to recruiting success. After his bold promise to do better, he and his staff got after it with little fanfare. He's the anti-Lane Kiffin of the SEC, trying to let his work do the talking not the other way around.

"I hired a staff of fighters," Chizik said. "We went after the best players in the country, East Coast to West, who we thought fit in at Auburn. We're very proud to be representing Auburn and very confident we can battle anyone for players."

That's the strength of the league. In most places, Auburn would've been in a tough spot. Chizik was new, Nick Saban up the road in Tuscaloosa wasn't – and that was before Alabama won the BCS title last month. Chizik's surrounded by other recent BCS champions – LSU to the west, Florida to the east.

Yet with an 85,000-seat stadium, top-notch tradition and a fan base as passionate as any other school, Chizik refused to concede anything.

"Our kids are extremely happy," he said. "We're selling the fact of how are kids are treated. We want recruits to feel what it'd be like to be part of the Auburn family. We really feel once we get [a recruit] on campus, then the tradition and passion of Auburn sells itself."

The Tigers held their own instate. They then went outside of it to land the nation's best junior college player (former Florida QB Cameron Newton from Blinn, Texas CC) as well as commitments from the highest-rated players in both Arkansas (RB Michael Dyer) and Mississippi (OL Shon Coleman). There are commits from California, Missouri and plenty, as usual, from nearby Georgia. The Tigers' spot in the top five (if not top three) seems secure.

"When you see Auburn near the top it's because we worked hard on it," Chizik said.

Slive won't play favorites or even acknowledge one school is having more success than another. He should be particularly pleased with the likes of Auburn because it's proof of what has been a long-range plan to expand the league's influence outside of just its nine-state footprint. His television deals with CBS and ESPN won't just net $3 billion over the next 15 years, they were designed to give exposure to the middle and lower parts of his league.

It's easy to get Florida and Alabama on TV. It takes work to get almost the entire league noticed. It's how you wind up with two programs in a state of just four million people thriving like Auburn and Alabama.

Five different schools have commitments from at least one of Rivals.com's 27 elite five-star prospects either out of high school or junior college. The league has 10 of the 27, twice as many as the second place Pac-10. Eleven league schools have at least one pledge from a four-star player.

"The conference has evolved over the last decade from a regional conference to a national conference," Slive said. "At this point it's fair to say we're the most widely distributed conference in the country."

Chizik said the appeal in the South is overwhelming; kids aren't interested in leaving. The draw nationally is getting just as strong – league teams landed Rivals.com top 100 players from California, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, Virginia and so on.

"There is so much power and history and tradition in the league," Chizik said. "It's not just two or three teams where there will be a full stadium to play in. It's everybody, every week."

That much Slive will acknowledge. He oversees the most intense league in the country and he believes as long as his coaches can show that to players, there's no reason those 300 signees on Wednesday won't represent an oversized share of the nation's most-coveted prospects.

"I don't follow it that closely," he said before smiling and noting. "The SEC has become a very attractive place to play college football."