We all know it by now: the notion that football is just better down there. But why? For the most part, those advocating for this point-of-view make one or more of the following arguments:
1. The best team in the country annually comes from the SEC, and not from any of the other power conferences.
2. Other conferences don’t fare well in bowl matchups against SEC teams.
From this commentators conclude that SEC teams are just faster, which means the SEC region (sometimes stretched to include all of Texas) just has better athletes, ergo domination. Drew Sharp (and no, I won’t link out to him) has made a particularly strong variation on this last one, arguing that migration patterns from the Midwest to the Southeast essentially mean that all the good athletes from Ohio or Michigan now reside in Florida or Alabama, which ensures the eternal viability of SEC national championship campaigns, and mostly dooms those from Big 10 country—this despite the fact that migration patterns are long-term processes whose social effects are generally felt across generations, not year-to-year. If this were true, one would assume the effects would be more wide-ranging across time. So let’s look more closely at this issue…
1. Where does the best team in the country come from?
Since 2006, it has been the SEC. No doubt about that. But since 1990, it breaks down as follows (with split championships counted as 2, and with teams assigned to their 2010 conferences):
Big 12: 5/24
Pac 10: 3/24
Big 10: 2/24
Looking at 1990-2005, it breaks down as follows:
Big 12: 5/19
Pac 10: 3/19
Big 10: 2/19
Taking this longer-view shows that SEC dominance is largely in the short-term. Prior to 2006, the SEC was decidedly middle-of-the-pack.
2. How do other conferences fare against the SEC in bowl matchups?
In 2010 the SEC went a dominating…5-5. Middling though this sounds, the other power conferences did even worse:
Phil Steele has some handy figures for the years 2000-9:
Here we see that the SEC has, in fact, been the best conference in the country in terms of bowl record, to the tune of a 48-31 record. The MWC and Pac 10 did next best. The other power conferences were less successful, including our beloved Big 10. From this we can conclude that the SEC has, in fact, generally done better than the other conferences in bowl matchups during the last decade, but that this success isn’t quite sui generis.
While I didn’t find a site listing conference records in bowl games for the 1990s, I did find a site that listed the most successful programs of that decade:
The SEC contributed 2 (Florida and Tenessee, at #s 4 and 5), the Big 10 3 (PSU, Michigan and Ohio at #s 6, 7 and 10), while the top 2 were Florida State and Nebraska. This suggests the SEC was not quite the top conference in the ‘90s that it would become in the ‘00s, which in turn suggests that the rise of the SEC has more to do with specific developments than innate or natural advantages.
So what about that migrations theory?
It’s not completely baseless, if you also count other sites of in-migration like the Southwest and West, but then again…Arizona and ASU aren’t exactly lighting it up, are they. But it’s nota very good explanation either. Here are better ones:
1. Warm weather schools have training advantages that cold weather schools don’t, particularly at the high school level, where kids don’t have access to the multimillion dollar conditioning facilities that colleges have. This is most evident in speed conditioning. Just think about it…what’s a better place to practice your 100-meter dash in January: suburban Miami or the Upper Peninsula? It’s not just the SEC that benefits, though. It’s a general advantage for southern and Western schools over Midwestern and Eastern ones. As the game moved towards a greater emphasis on speed over brawn over the past two decades, this translated into an advantage for schools recruiting primarily within the warmer parts of the country. Given the fast pace of advancements in conditioning, and the increasingly nationalized recruiting process, expect this advantage to soften over time.
2. The rise of the SEC in the ‘00s came at the moment of the ACC’s decline. Remember when Florida State used to annually beat Florida? Me too. From 1990-1999, FSU went 7-4-1 (and 7-3-1 if you discount the rematch in 1996-7). From 2000-2009, FSU went 3-7. So what gives? Bobby Bowden getting old and FSU losing ground in the in-state recruiting battles. Oh, and Miami’s post-Coker hangover didn’t hurt either. Actually, the whole ACC declined in stature during the ‘00s, which opened up recruiting lanes for several SEC schools that were previously more competitive. This suggests less a “natural” advantage than an historical one. Since the ACC doesn’t look to be coming back anytime soon, it may be a long-term development. At the same time, it also suggests that the Big 10 could benefit from similar declines in the Big 12 and Big East—provided the conference and its programs take advantage of that.
3. SEC schools have aggressively pursued excellent coaches and been willing to pay money for them. After a Zook experiment, Florida hired Urban Meyer. LSU hired Nick Saban, and later Les Miles. Alabama hired Nick Saban. South Carolina hired Steve Spurrier. Arkansas hired Bobby Petrino. Auburn hired Gene Chizik. Just as importantly, they all paid big money so these guys could build the staffs they wanted.
Big 10 schools are getting there, but it’s taking longer. Michigan is finally paying top dollar for top coordinators; Ohio will be too. Though their ceilings are lower, Little Brother and Wisconsin have also managed to put together efficient, competitive programs on tighter budgets. (Who knows what will happen to PSU—will they go for someone creative like Dan Mullen, or fall into a series of Notre Dame-like FAILS?) A lot of SEC success can be attributed to expensive coaching hires, which translates into a competitive advantage until the rest catch up. This won’t last forever.
4. Oversigning. Not every successful SEC program does this, but some of the most successful (Alabama and LSU, particularly) do. This ensures that certain programs have, say, 4 good choices for WDE rather than 3. Since not all top recruits pan out, oversigning raises the odds that you have someone who will at every position. It’s also a competitive advantage that won’t last, as virtually everyone in the world realizes practices like forcibly granting medical redshirts to college kids are unethical. Virtually everyone.
The SEC has, at least for the past 5 years, and probably for the past 10, been the best conference in the FBS. But the idea of some endless supremacy peddled by homers and haters (I’m looking at you, Drew) are as silly as Karl Rove’s dream of a “permanent Republican majority” in 2004, or Rahm Emmanuel’s similar dream of a “cascading wave of legislative victories” after 2008. Like politics, college football goes in cycles. At certain times, certain identifiable things provide certain empirically verifiable advantages. After some time, others either catch up or conditions change so that those advantages cease to be the assets they once were. We’re almost certainly going to have an SEC champion in 2011-12, and at least three programs in that conference are built for lasting success. But nothing lasts forever.