GLENDALE, Ariz. – From the first minute that Auburn stepped off the plane to the time the Tigers packed up and went home – sir, you’ll have to let us check that BCS national championship trophy because it won’t fit in the overhead compartment – inquiring minds wanted to know.
The pregame question was: How has the Southeastern Conference won four consecutive national championships?
The postgame question, following Auburn’s 22-19 victory over Oregon to make it five-in-a-row for the SEC, was, “How has this happened the last five years?”
Tigers’ second-year coach Gene Chizik tried to make sense of it at the final Tuesday press gathering in which he accepted national championship trophies from various organizations, such as the Associated Press, the FWAA, the National Football Foundation, and that gleaming BCS crystal football.
“I think if you look at last year's NFL draft, you can start there,” Chizik said. “Every year and this is not slighting any other league, our league year in and year out has as many or more draft picks than any other league. The facts are the facts.”
The evidence: Last year, the SEC had 49 players drafted, and has averaged 39.8 players per year drafted in the last five years, an average of almost four players more than any other BCS conference.
“I think the passion and the venues that you play in week to week in our league are second to none,” Chizik said.
The evidence: When the final NCAA attendance figures are compiled for 2010, the SEC will have led the nation in total attendance for 30 straight years since 1981 and in average attendance since 1988. This year, five SEC teams averaged 90,000 fans or more for home games – Alabama (101,821), Tennessee (99,780), Georgia (92,746), LSU (92,718) and Florida (90,511).
“We play in a (league) championship game that we really believe – I mean, I don't know that there's a guy, a head coach or a university, that doesn't believe that if you get to Atlanta, which that's what we talk about in our league, that you don't have a shot to play for the national title,” Chizik said.
Evidence: Since 1992 when the SEC expanded to 12 teams (adding Arkansas and South Carolina), split into two divisions and added the league championship game, the SEC champ has won the national championship nine times. Auburn became the fifth different SEC team to win it all since the birth of the league title game.
“And I think there is a certain level of confidence that comes with being able to win our league in Atlanta and going on to the next step and knowing that you've made it through an extremely tough league,” Chizik said. “And then whoever you play after that, I just think the confidence level that you have, you know, you believe that you can beat anybody in the country. I mean, again, that's not being pompous or anything else. It’s just there’s a lot of confidence that comes with being able to win this league.”
Evidence: The SEC is 7-0 in the BCS national championship game. Playing in a pressure game like the SEC championship prepares you for the next pressure game, the BCS title bout.
“I still think it is year to year,” Chizik said. “That doesn't mean that every year the SEC is going to have somebody that's able to beat somebody in this league or that league or whatever.”
But more often than not, the SEC does. And the question I got all week in Arizona from national writers who know I’ve covered the SEC for 30 years was, “How did the SEC get so good and why has it stayed this way?”
Okay, this is the Professor Higgins theory and I think it’s a fairly sound one.
It’s not that the SEC wasn’t one of the nation’s best leagues before conference expansion. Prior to then, six league teams had won 11 national championships, but six of those years belonged to Alabama and legendary coach Bear Bryant.
No team exemplified old-school SEC football better than Bryant’s champions, always built around a solid running game, heady quarterback play and teeth-rattling defense. Like the rest of the SEC, Bryant’s offenses only threw the ball when absolutely necessary.
Four of the SEC’s first six Heisman Trophy winners were running backs. The exceptions were quarterbacks Steve Spurrier of Florida (1966) and Pat Sullivan of Auburn (1971).
Consider that until 1993 when Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier threw for an SEC record 544 yards against Southern Mississippi, the league mark for most passing yards in a game was Alabama quarterback Scott Hunter’s 484 yards vs. Auburn in 1969. And that was considered an aberration because nobody ever thought the Bryant-coached Tide would throw that many times in a game.
But this is where I go back to that Florida QB named Spurrier.
Twenty-four years after his magical senior season, he became the Gators’ head coach in 1990. He not only had a profound winning impact on his alma mater, capturing six SEC championships (1991-93-94-95-96-2000) and a national title (’96), but his Fun and Gun offense featuring a passing game that shortcircuited scoreboards all over the league pushed the SEC toward becoming the dominant conference it is today.
Under Spurrier, Florida became the first school in modern college football history (since the NCAA started keeping stats in 1937) to score at least 500 points each year for four consecutive seasons from 1993-96.
He did this by putting superior athletes, especially his wide receivers, in space against defenses often overmatched by either Florida’s speed on the outside or its size or both. As good as SEC defenses had been over the years, they were mostly built to stop the run. Almost every SEC school recruited great athletes, but most of them were on the offensive side of the ball and Spurrier’s offense magnified that.
Other league schools figured they had to keep pace, so they began recruiting big, physical quarterbacks who could throw the ball 70 yards with a flick of a wrist. They also signed a bevy of receivers from 5-10 waterbugs to 6-5 go-up-and-grab it pass-catchers.
Enter Nick Saban.
When LSU initially went shopping for a coach in 2000 after firing Gerry DiNardo – its fifth coach in a 20-year span – Saban, Michigan State’s coach, wasn’t even in the picture.
But he was interested in the job and here’s how his name got thrown in the hat. The LSU athletic director at the time was Joe Dean, the former Tigers’ basketball star from the 1950s best-known to the public as the SEC’s first game-of-the-week TV basketball analyst.
Yet Dean also had business savvy and great people skills acquired from years as a vice-president of Converse Rubber, signing bundles of big-name talent to shoe contracts with the company.
Sean Tuohy, a former Ole Miss basketball star now best known for adopting former Ole Miss football player Michael Oher, a gesture that became a best-selling book and the heartwarming 2009 movie “The Blind Side,” was a friend of Dean. He had attended Dean’s summer basketball camps as a teenager and had kept in contact.
It happened that Tuohy, who’s a Taco Bell franchisee in Memphis, was also a friend of Memphis-based sports agent Jimmy Sexton, who was Saban’s representative.
Calls were made, all parties hooked up and the rest is history. In Saban’s fourth season at LSU, the Tigers won their second national championship ever (and first since 1958) and LSU led the nation in total defense (252 yards per game allowed) for the first time ever.
Not only was it coaching, but it was the type of defensive players Saban recruited. Realizing he had to match the tremendous offensive athletes in the league, Saban began recruiting big and fast defensive players.
Part of his influence in that area came from his NFL coaching days, especially from 1991-94 when he was defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns under Bill Belichick.
Saban’s ’03 LSU national title defense featured eight players that were eventually drafted by the NFL, five in the first two rounds.
He had bigger, faster defenders disrupting receivers and throwing off precious timing, and an entire supersized defense with 290-pound ends and 250-pound linebackers quick enough to chase down ball carriers. Saban’s recruiting blueprint showed what was required defensively to counter the Spurrier-influenced offenses.
In the last four drafts coinciding with the start of the SEC’s current run of national championships, 17 of the league’s 32 first round NFL draft choices have come from the defense. That includes five of the SEC’s seven first-rounders in the ’10 draft last April.
Four former SEC defensive stars – John Abraham of South Carolina, Patrick Willis of Ole Miss, Richard Seymour of Georgia and Jerod Mayo of Tennessee – all first-round draft choices since 2000, were recently named to the upcoming Pro Bowl game.
Three more first-round SEC defensive stars taken in last year’s draft – Tennessee’s Eric Berry, Florida’s Joe Haden and Alabama’s Rolando McClain – have been named to The Sporting News All-Rookie team.
Now, the SEC has a talent balance on both sides of the ball, and with such complete units, the league has been able to produce its current run of success.
There’s also a couple of more contributing elements.
The SEC’s TV exposure, on CBS and every ESPN outlet known to mankind, has enabled the league to telecast its product from coast-to-coast. Therefore, it isn’t a reach for Alabama to recruit ’09 Heisman Trophy winning running back Mark Ingram from Flint, Mich., or that a couple of Tennessee’s post-Peyton Manning starting quarterbacks were Casey Clausen of Northridge, Calif., and Erik Ainge of Hillsboro, Ore.
Also, the league has the good fortune to be located in a part of the nation where. . .well let’s let Chizik say it.
“Football in the Southeast is king, it’s a way of life,” he said. “It’s what you do from the time you get on the playground at three or four years old until the time you’re 18 and in college. That’s just who you are.”
Finally, there’s well-paid and superb coaching in the league. It’s one thing to have talent, but it has to be molded. LSU’s ’03 national champs began the season ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press preseason poll, and this year’s Auburn national championship team barely cracked the AP’s poll at No. 22 to start the season.
“When you go in the locker room last (Monday) night and you look at 100 guys that 15 weeks ago nobody would give a dime for to win a national championship, that you’ve brought these guys from point A to point Z,” said Chizik, “that’s family.”
And another branch on the SEC family tree to reach the top. Can the league make it six straight national championships?.
You just don’t know.
You didn’t know if two guys who weren’t on anybody’s radar like Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley would end up winning the Heisman Trophy and being named the Lombardi Award winner as the college football’s best lineman respectively.
You didn’t know if a decent freshman running back would turn into a Heisman Trophy winner as a sophomore like ’Bama’s Ingram did for ’09 national champs.
You didn’t know that a fifth-year senior who waited his entire career to become starting quarterback would be as good as LSU’s Matt Flynn when the Tigers were the toast of college football in ’07.
But know this. With five of six SEC Western Division schools finishing the AP top 25 this season, with SEC championship game participant South Carolina returning its top offensive weapons and with Florida re-loading under new coach Will Muschamp, don’t count the SEC out in ’11.
Don’t ever disregard a proven track record of greatness.