• Infographic: Money may not buy happiness, but it can buy rings
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Five years ago today, the Nebraska football team battled Auburn at the Cotton Bowl.
It was a brisk morning. It was an ugly game. NU lost, 17-14.
That's the last time Nebraska tangled with the SEC.
At that moment, five conferences had captured the five previous BCS titles. Foreign was the idea of one league ruling the sport.
Since the AP poll began, a conference had won three consecutive national titles just twice; the Big Ten did it in the early 1940s, the SEC did it from 1978-80.
Why would the future be any different?
But behind the scenes, the SEC was building a powerhouse.
The blueprint: divisional alignment, which enhanced competitiveness and built a unique brand; a TV contract that exposed the league each Saturday to the largest possible audience; a bulging war chest that enabled athletic directors to lure the finest coaches in the country; a recruiting loophole that enabled coaches to widen the margin for error; an emphasis on defense, as everyone else in the spread-offense era prioritized points; a population boom in the South that expanded the pool of recruits and boosters.
One week after the 2007 Cotton Bowl came the watershed moment. The landscape hasn't been the same since.
Ohio State, led by Heisman winner Troy Smith, entered that year's BCS championship game No. 1. The controversy — it's the BCS, there's always controversy — focused on Ohio State's opponent. Should it be Michigan, whom the Buckeyes had beaten in a classic game to end the season? Or Florida, the one-loss SEC champion?
When Ohio State returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in Glendale, Ariz., it looked like the voters had made a mistake.
But what happened the rest of the night foreshadowed the new world of SEC dominance. Florida outscored the Buckeyes 41-7.
By night's end, Gator fans were chanting "SEC! SEC!" We're still hearing the echoes.
A year later, LSU smoked Ohio State. Then Florida humbled Oklahoma. Alabama was next, dropping Texas. Auburn clipped Oregon. Five years, five national titles.
Next week, it'll be six straight for the SEC.
As Nebraska prepares for its first SEC test in five years, it's hard to believe college football's top conference used to be just like everyone else. Sometimes worse.
During a 10-season span from 1985-94, the SEC produced one team — one! — that finished top-3 in the AP poll. The past five years, it has produced eight; all other conferences combined have seven. And that's before LSU and Alabama finish top-3 this year.
Never in college football history has one league been this good for this long. It's not just postseason rankings and honors.
Look at budgets: Last year, 13 college football programs generated revenue exceeding $50 million. Seven were from the SEC. Ten programs had expenses exceeding $20 million. Six were from the SEC.
Look at coaching salaries: In 2006, five of the 20 highest-paid coaches in the country were SEC coaches. In 2011, the SEC has 10 of the top 20 — and seven of the top 11. Eight college football assistants made $700,000 or more this season. Seven coached in the SEC.
Look at crowds, both in the living rooms and the stadiums: The three highest-rated college football games of 2011 were SEC games: LSU-Alabama, LSU-Arkansas and LSU-Georgia. And six of the top 11 attendance leaders in the country are SEC schools.
Look at talent: Per capita, all nine SEC states are among the top 20 nationally in Division I-A football recruits. Four (Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Georgia) are top-5. Those kids generally stay home. Each of the last five years, the SEC has led all conferences in NFL Draft picks.
It's easy to identify why the SEC is better. What's more complicated is pinpointing what changed in the last decade. What prompted the surge?
Even the most sophisticated SEC observers aren't exactly sure. It's like looking at a strand of Christmas lights and trying to find the beginning.
But the SEC's rise to powerhouse is no fluke. And the reasons behind it — the power sources — suggest that the gap between the SEC and its competitors may actually grow over the next five years.
That's bad news for Nebraska and the Big Ten.
POWER SOURCE NO. 1: A GRAND FINALE
Every spring, SEC coaches gather in Destin, Fla., for the conference's spring meetings. In 1992, Gerry DiNardo was the head coach at Vanderbilt.
He remembers sitting in a room full of Southern icons: Johnny Majors, Pat Dye, Gene Stallings.
He watched them grill SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer about his crazy idea to expand the league, jump from seven conference games to eight, split into divisions and — here's the kicker — hold a conference championship game.
"I remember them saying, we'll never win another national championship because we're just going to beat the hell out of each other," said DiNardo, now a Big Ten Network analyst.
Of course, Alabama went unbeaten that fall and won the national title. The SEC's reign didn't begin for another decade, but DiNardo points to Kramer's decision as the spark.
The SEC title game generated additional revenue. It gave the SEC a unique platform at the end of the season. And, most important, the divisional structure made schools more competitive, DiNardo said.
No longer were you trying to beat nine teams (South Carolina and Arkansas didn't join the league until '92). To win the division, you only needed to beat five. That intensified the pressure "10-fold," DiNardo said. So did the close proximity of the division rivals.
"Once it became two six-team divisions, the traditional powers took an attitude like, 'You mean we can't be the best of six?'" DiNardo said.
Now Alabama wins a national title and Gene Chizik's seat gets a little warmer — he works a little harder. Then Auburn wins one, shifting pressure back to Nick Saban. All the while, LSU fans are griping at Les Miles — until he goes 13-0.
POWER SOURCE NO. 2: A NATIONAL STAGE
Sure, the money is good — the latest contract is $55 million per year. But that's not why people tout CBS as critical to the SEC's dominance.
While other conferences partnered with ABC/ESPN, which often show different games in different regions, the SEC struck a deal with CBS. Starting in 2001, it became the only conference with a national "game of the week" on one of the big three networks.
That ensured not only a huge audience for its top match-up, but also a network devoted to promoting the SEC.
Don't underestimate CBS' national distribution as a recruiting tool, said Clay Travis, a Nashville-based SEC blogger and author. Not long ago, most SEC teams only recruited the South. Not anymore. Matthew Stafford came from Texas. Knowshon Moreno is from New Jersey. Felix Jones and Robert Meachem are from Oklahoma. Mark Ingram came from Michigan. Jerod Mayo and Percy Harvin came from Virginia.
"The SEC," said Tony Barnhart, SEC columnist and CBS analyst, "went from a very strong regional brand to a national brand."
POWER SOURCE NO. 3: 'THE ACQUISITION OF INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY'
That's Spencer Tillman's term for coaching improvement. According to the CBS analyst and former Oklahoma running back, it's the No. 1 reason for the SEC's dominant run.
Twenty years ago, SEC schools rarely ventured out of the South to find their coaches. Most new hires were alumni or former assistants. But this is the mercenary era of coaches, especially in the SEC.
Saban had no experience with Alabama before taking over in Tuscaloosa. Same with Urban Meyer and Florida and Miles and LSU.
The best minds in college football are flocking to the SEC because of prestige and money.
"The money that flooded into the conference with the new television deal went almost straight into coaches' pockets," Travis said.
In 2006, Tommy Tuberville was the highest-paid coach in the SEC at $2.2 million. Five years later, 10 SEC coaches earned more, led by Saban at $4.8 million.
But it's not just TV money, said Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs. It's season-ticket and seat-licensing revenue. Attendance at SEC schools exceeded 76,000 per game in 2010, best in the country for the 13th straight year.
When the business of college football got more lucrative, said former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, programs began an arms race to build the biggest facilities and hire the best coaches. It exposed a competitive gulf.
Some programs couldn't raise the money to win big. But people in the South, Bowden said, were willing to do whatever it took. They ponied up.
Even the assistant coaches are getting rich. Last year, Gus Malzahn made $1.3 million as offensive coordinator at Auburn. That was greater than 11 BCS head coaches, including Rick Neuheisel, Kevin Wilson, Pat Fitzgerald, Paul Rhoads and Joe Paterno.
The reward is high. Judging by the long line of fired SEC coaches, so is the risk.
Travis attended a game at Alabama in 2006, the final year of the dreadful Mike Shula era. That day, an old fan looked at him and said, "This team is too big to be bad for this long."
To Travis, it underscored a critical point for the SEC.
"It's such a big business. You can't afford to be bad because it ultimately hits you in the coffers. You have to be good."
POWER SOURCE NO. 4: BROKEN PROMISES
FBS football programs are limited to 85 scholarship players and 25 initial scholarships per season. That hasn't stopped SEC schools from "over-signing."
Houston Nutt once signed 37 players to a recruiting class. Saban once signed 32.
How do SEC coaches get below the scholarship limits? Some players transfer or quit. Some fail academically or take medical hardships.
But the student-athlete doesn't always make the decision. Sometimes a coach flat-out yanks a scholarship from an underperforming player or recruit, essentially kicking him out of school. It's like promising Christmas presents to four kids, then buying three.
Over-signing enables SEC coaches to minimize the damage of poor talent evaluation. It's representative of the SEC culture, Terry Bowden said.
"If the rules allow you to over-sign, the SEC is going to take it to the extreme to make sure nobody has an advantage over them," Bowden said.
Last summer, the SEC announced new legislation that restricts over-signing. From a public relations standpoint, it's a smart move. But from a competitive standpoint, DiNardo said, it's a mistake.
"That will hurt them."
POWER SOURCE NO. 5: STICKING TO DEFENSE
Passing numbers skyrocketed the past 10 years as spread offenses swept through college football. But there's one league where the spread offense doesn't fly.
"We throw the ball way more than we ever did in college football," said Fox analyst Charles Davis, who played at Tennessee. "No one rushes the passer better than the SEC. No one. You take a good look at those high-waisted, high-cut, sprinter-looking defensive ends around 250-255. You ain't blocking those guys."
Last year, Sports Illustrated examined where elite defensive linemen come from. The nine SEC states make up less than 20 percent of U.S. population. Yet of 309 defensive linemen on NFL rosters, 39 percent hailed from SEC country. They're elite not only in quantity, but quality: Nick Fairley, Marcel Dareus, Glenn Dorsey, Carlos Dunlap, Jarvis Moss.
The bowl format — where the national title game comes after a month off — aids SEC defenses as they prepare for high-octane offenses. Ohio State managed 82 total yards against Florida. Oklahoma (2008) and Oregon ('10) also struggled.
"Time after time," Travis said, "we've been told, 'Oh, this offense is outstanding.' And time after time, when they get the chance to go against these SEC defenses, they don't perform."
POWER SOURCE NO. 6: A GREAT MIGRATION
One factor in the SEC's rise has nothing to do with football.
In 1980, the nine states that comprise the Big Ten footprint (including Nebraska) had a cumulative population of 62.1 million. The SEC's nine states totaled 39.5 million.
Since then, Southern cities, especially in Florida and Georgia, have flourished. Northern cities, especially in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, have stagnated.
The past 30 years, Big Ten states have grown by 12 percent. SEC states have grown by 49 percent. The Big Ten's population advantage of 23 million is now only 10 million.
Last summer, one of the nation's best quarterback recruits, Gunner Kiel, committed to his home-state school, underdog Indiana. It raised quite a stir in recruiting circles. But somewhere along the line, Kiel decided IU wasn't a big enough stage. He re-opened his recruitment.
And late last week, he chose LSU instead.
In one report, Kiel cited the SEC appeal: "A lot of people call it the NFL of college football."
Eventually, Travis speculates, the SEC will grab a school from Virginia and another from North Carolina. It will align with ESPN (in addition to its Saturday CBS coverage) and form a conference network that breaks the bank.
"The scary thing for the rest of the country is the SEC is going to continue to distance themselves," Travis said.
And as the SEC wins more national titles, its reputation grows. And reputation is half the battle in college football, where national titles are just as often decided by politicking as scoring touchdowns.
In 2004, Auburn missed a shot at a BCS title because voters deemed the unbeaten Tigers inferior to USC and Oklahoma.
Seven years later, perception has changed. As as a result, Alabama got the benefit of the doubt over Oklahoma State.
By winning six straight championships, the path to a seventh gets easier.
The SEC will likely start next season with four or five teams in the top-10.
Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas should match up with anybody in the country.
Except maybe one team, which returns its best offensive playmakers and — more important — most of its vaunted defense.
You thought LSU was good last year? Wait 'til you see 'em in 2012.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/dirkchatelain
Sources: Athletic budget data compiled from the U.S. Department of Education; Coaching salary data compiled by USA Today; TV ratings released by CBS Sports; Attendance compiled by the NCAA; Recruiting data compiled by the Tulsa World; NFL Draft data compiled by the NFL; State populations gathered from U.S. census data.
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ADDITIONAL POWER SOURCES:
The BCS: Yes, it's maddening, but in the old bowl system, Florida never would've gotten a chance to play Ohio State after the 2006 season. LSU would not have played the Buckeyes the next year. Ohio State would have probably beaten Pac-10 teams in the Rose Bowl and — since it entered the bowls ranked No. 1 —- won two national championships. The BCS has opened the door for the SEC. And a plus-one system would likely open it farther, giving two SEC teams a shot at a title more often.
The fall of Miami and Florida State: The two best Southern programs of the 1980s and '90s fell on hard times in the early 2000s. For the SEC, that not only opened the door to more national championships, it opened up Florida for recruiting. “A lot of those kids in south Florida that would automatically go to Miami, they're going to Florida or Auburn or Alabama,” Tony Barnhart said.
High school spring football: Prospects in Louisiana and Mississippi are practicing in March and April. The extra work especially helps bigger kids, Gerry DiNardo said. “The offensive linemen, they're not going home at 2:30. They're going to spring practice. In Ohio, the big kids are going home.”
Educational improvements in the South: The talent pool has grown because of population, but also education. Low-income students, especially minority students, are better equipped to qualify and handle the academic load at SEC schools, said Doug Dickey, former head coach at Tennessee and Florida. “We're in the third or fourth generation of integrated schools in the South. We have had during that time from the '60s to now tremendous growth in the Southeastern United States ... and the educational system has grown with that. So you have far more players today in 2011-12 than were qualified to play in the '60s, '70s and even '80s.”
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MONEY MAY NOT BUY HAPPINESS, BUT IT CAN BUY RINGS
One reason the SEC has become so dominant: good coaching. And the best way to entice a coach to come to the conference: money. SEC schools have shoveled it out recently — and gotten a good return on their investment. Look at the top 15 highest paid coaches in college football and you'll find more than half the SEC's coaches on the list. The list — which doesn't include private schools — also reveals that the only top-paid SEC coach who hasn't won a national title at his current school is Arkansas' Bobby Petrino. Check out the image below for a look at how SEC coaches stack up compared to the rest of the nation's highest paid: (Click here for a larger image)