It happens every time, without fail. Write about the SEC's superiority in the college football world, and undoubtedly responses will flood in -- frequently from fans of schools up north -- claiming that it's only because of oversigning and various forms of cheating and impropriety. Admitting defeat is nearly impossible in such a prideful game. The opponent is always at fault, because everyone wants to think their team and conference represent the true ideals of the sport.
The story of college football over the last decade has partially been one of imbalance, but not necessarily in that sense. It's a sport that's always been defined regionalism, and in the 21st century it has taken a sharp turn toward the South. And through this swing in the balance of power, we've also been treated to years of realignment rumors and subsequent conference moves that have altered the sport's geography while causing fans from each region to further dig in and unite with their geographic brethren.
So the story of college football today is really about space: both the space on the football field, as forward-thinking offenses devise ways to maximize the amount of space they force defenses to account for, and off the field, as conferences seek to find new, lucrative markets in this age in which live sports on television are king, where the TV money bubble has yet to burst. The more real estate you own, the better off you'll be, both on and off the field. And amidst this power grab, one conference has only gotten stronger.
The Big Ten may have the eyeballs, television sets and cable subscription fees to sustain its deep pockets in Midwestern and now Eastern cities, but the SEC, of course, has something else: The 21st-century football talent base, spreading from juggernaut prep football state Florida to juggernaut prep football state Texas, and covering plenty of lucrative land in between along the Gulf Coast. No conference has better access to present-day blue-chip high schoolers, and therefore it's hardly surprising that the SEC has taken such a strong hold of the college football universe, even if its national championship streak was finally ended at seven years when Florida State took down Auburn in January.
But Florida State has the identity of an SEC school in an ACC disguise, and the balance of power in college football clearly rests in the 300-plus miles from Tallahassee to Tuscaloosa and covering Auburn in between. That's where the last five national championships have been won, in the center of the SEC region, and it's possible, maybe even probable, that that streak will continue into the College Football Playoff era that is now upon us.
If anyone can compete with the SEC's strength both at the top and in terms of depth on a yearly basis right now, it's not the ACC or the Big Ten or even the Big 12, with its stronghold in Texas. It's the Pac-12. The Pac-12 has the best beat on the future, the most forward-thinking commissioner in Larry Scott, a group of some of the most innovative coaches in the game -- Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Sonny Dykes, Chris Petersen, Oregon's post-Chip Kelly staff -- on top of David Shaw, Todd Graham, Jim Mora, Steve Sarkisian, Mike Riley, Kyle Whittingham and the promising Mike MacIntyre.
It has a power base in the talent-rich state of California, where USC is soon to emerge from the effects of sanctions; many of its locales have desirable, recruit-able weather; Oregon is on the cutting edge of everything; Nike has strong ties throughout the conference. There is a lot to like in the Pac-12, and it's easy to envision a future in which someone other than USC wins a national title for the league the first time since Washington in 1991. There's so much coaching talent, enough prep talent to draw from and enough available money to fuel a possible run of success for the Pac-12 as at least the top contender to the SEC's throne.
But nobody will knock take the SEC's long-term crown away. Just as the Pac-12 is loaded with modern coaching talent, so is the SEC, and it's diversifying itself. No longer are just the old-school, power football teams in charge. Alabama and LSU are still among the kings of the sport, of course, but Auburn and Texas A&M are providing a challenge with spread-it-out, hurry-it-up football. The SEC West alone has enough high-level talent, innovation and recruiting power to continue the national dominance by itself, and the East isn't far behind. Throw in the August debut of the SEC Network, and the hype machine behind its 14 teams will only get stronger and stronger. The SEC may have lost last season's national championship, but the noise surrounding it will only get louder as we enter the playoff era.
I want to say it's cyclical. Most things in college football are that way. Offensive schemes go in and out of fashion, as does conference strength. Remember, the SEC went through a rut in the 1980s, not winning a title between Georgia's championship in 1980 and Alabama's 12 years later in 1992. Then again, it's easy to forget that Big Ten teams (those who were active in the league at the time) have won just two national championships since 1970 (Michigan's split title with now-member Nebraska in 1997 and Ohio State's BCS title in 2002). The balance of power seems more permanent than cyclical, and it's certainly not something the new additions of Rutgers and Maryland are going to swing in the Big Ten's favor. Money matters, especially if its bolsters the Big Ten's coaching talent -- see: Urban Meyer and James Franklin -- but it can't make up for the dwindling amount of high-end talent in the Rust Belt, compared to the Deep South and the SEC's ties to Florida and Texas.
When you combine everything that's important to sustained success -- access to recruits, coaching talent, passionate fan bases and access to money -- it all points to last season as an anomaly: The SEC's reign at the top isn't going away anytime soon, and the playoff era is only going to be more conducive toward SEC dominance. SEC teams still frequently play the toughest schedules, and for better or worse, multi-year perception will still matter with the selection committee.
No conference has built up greater cachet than the SEC -- a deserving reputation, based on recent on-field success -- and it's only a matter of time before we see a two-loss SEC team usurp a playoff bid from a one-loss team from the Big Ten or another conference for a second slot for the league. It's bound to happen, and it's easy to envision a near-future in which many instances of the College Football Playoff are 50 percent comprised of SEC teams. No league stands a better chance of getting multiple bids, and as we've seen over the last decade, no league stands a better chance of turning those opportunities into championships.
The ACC may have won the last title of the BCS era, but let's see it for what it really is. It's not the end of the SEC's era of dominance, but simply an intermission before another.
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