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Saturdays In The South: How The SEC Became Country’s Greatest Football Conference

The SEC has 6 teams in the AP Pre-Season CFB Top 25 this year. That includes preseason favorite and reigning champion Alabama.

In the last 10 years, the college football champion has come from the SEC 8 of 10 times, and an SEC team has played for it 9 of 10 times. In the 10 years prior to that? They had 3 outright champions (LSU and USC tied in 2003). To figure out what sparked the conference’s unreal run, you have to start the very beginning. Recruiting.

What has caused this concentration of talent in the SEC as opposed to the other power-5 conferences? Let alone conferences, colleges in the state of Texas, known for its high school football power, have produced 1 national championship (UT 2005) since the year 2000. Where is the talent going? What is pulling it away?

The easy argument is coaching. The SEC simply has the best coaches in the country. It’s hard to argue with. Nick Saban is a God among men when it comes to college football. Gus Malzhan swooped in and won a national championship 1 year later. Hugh Freeze (current NCAA investigation aside) got Ole Miss’s best recruiting class ever and brought it to heights it hadn’t seen since the Manning days. Up until his retirement this past year, high school kids across the country would drop everything for a chance to play for “The Ol’ Ball Coach” Steve Spurrier. But you’re really telling me that these men are better than the top coaches around the country? That as a top recruit in California, you would rather travel 2,100 miles to play for Auburn than to play for the incredibly storied USC?

I’d be an idiot to say that coaching didn’t play a major part in the SEC’s rise to power, and an even larger part in it’s hold, but it’s not the sole reason kids are leaving their families and hometowns to play football.

November 1st, 2008. Auburn travels to Oxford, MS to play Ole Miss. Both teams are 4-4 and unranked. Ole Miss sells out the stadium.

Recruits want to play in front of big crowds. They want to be big stars and have people cheering their name. In the SEC, thats more or less guaranteed, whether your team is competing for a national championship or to end the season with a winning record.

The average attendance for a conference game is 77,694. Which is even more impressive when you keep in mind that 5 of the schools (Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt) stadiums don’t even seat that many.

There is very little to debate when it comes to whether or not the SEC has the most dedicated fans in the country. That means a lot to recruits when deciding where they want to go. Especially in a time when schools are often criticized for low attendance and “wine and cheese” crowds. No one wants to play in front of a quite stadium and fans who aren’t invested in the outcome.

Another factor in the influx is talent is the school’s dedication to the sport. In many top schools in other conferences, football often doesn’t have the sole attention of donors or the athletic departments. Take UNC for example. They just came off their greatest season in school history at 11-3. Including rattling off a 10 game win streak after dropping their opener, which lead to its first ever ACC championship appearance against conference powerhouse Clemson. While Clemson would win in route to its National Championship appearance, Carolina fans had nothing to complain about. They were picked in the middle of their division and went far beyond expectations. Yet football still seemed like a second thought to the school’s storied and favored basketball program. Their average home attendance was only 49,714, and had only one game (vs. Duke) break 60,000 (61,500). This lead to players and coaches speaking out publicly about poor fans. After Carolina crushed Illinois 48-14 in front of an announced crowd, which is typically an inflated number, of 41,000, WR Bug Howard took to twitter:

“Maybe if we did a basketball pick up game at halftime of our games maybe people will show up? Will you?”

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Credit: SCACCHoops.com

This all happened in the same year where UNC had an equally as impressive start to the basketball season, and managed to get over 20,000 people to come out to watch them take on Boston College, who infamously went the whole year without winning a conference football or basketball game.

While this was happening in Chapel Hill, over 90,000 people flocked to The Swamp to watch Florida play 3-5 Vanderbilt.

The point here is that players don’t want to go somewhere where they’ll be overshadowed. Even big time football schools like Michigan have equally as big basketball teams, and some players aren’t excited having to share the spotlight. The SEC (Kentucky excluded) has never been known for its basketball talent. Recruits know that at schools like Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss, the football team is everything, and other sports are often forgotten.

None of this even takes in to account that people in the south love college football. In the 7 states that the SEC stretches across, only 4 of them (Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and Texas) have major professional sports teams.

That means in states like Arkansas and Mississippi, college sports, college football specifically, really is everything. For example, the recent Netflix hit documentary series “Last Chance U” shows the fandom involved in even junior college football in the state of Mississippi. Many of these fans have grown up as fans of these schools and never left the area; many have family who are alumni, and many even attended themselves and stayed in the area after graduation. For these people, home game days are more than just a football game, its whole weekend experience.

At Ole Miss, home of the what some call the “holy grail of tailgating”, or “The Grove”, often times has over 100,000 people packed in before the game. That’s nearly 40,000 more than what its stadium even seats. Many people stay outside, drink and eat, and watch the game on satellite televisions they have wired in to their tailgating tents.

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Credit- NCAA.com

So while the traditional “non-SEC” powerhouses of Michigan, USC, Florida State, and Oklahoma will continue to compete, they will always be at a recruiting disadvantage because they can’t guarantee the same level of competition or stardom that comes with the SEC.

Until that changes, Saturdays in the South will continue to rule.

All statistics courtesy of NCAA.com unless otherwise noted.  

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