Why Has the South Dominated College Football for So Long?

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An unabashed Alabama fan tries to explain what makes Southeastern Conference teams just... better.

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AP Photo/Dave Martin

Without question, Notre Dame's return to the spotlight is the story of the year in college football. But the story of the decade—in fact, the story of the last decade and every decade dating back to its first season in 1933—is the supremacy of the Southeastern Conference.

With Alabama's 49-0 victory over Auburn last Saturday and Georgia's 42-10 devastation of Georgia Tech, the stage is set for the two 11-1 powerhouses to play for the Southeastern Conference championship tomorrow in Atlanta. The winner will then meet Notre Dame on January 7 for the national title. Should the SEC champ take down the Irish, the conference will have won the national crown for the seventh straight year and eight of the last 10.

Rivalries are the lifeblood of the SEC, and unlike in other parts of the country, college football in the South has little competition from other sports.

Every college football fan is aware of the SEC's dominance. What most don't know is that this isn't a recent phenomenon. Before the BCS was established in 1998, numerous different polls voted for their own No. 1, and SEC teams were picked for the top spot in at least one poll for 34 years out of 65. In three of those seasons, two SEC teams were voted No. 1.

The reasons for this unequalled dominance aren't clear. In his 1954 memoir, This Was Football, my favorite football historian, W.W. "Pudge" Heffelfinger, Walter Camp's first ever All-America selection back in the 1890s, wrote, "Southern football players play with a reckless abandon, a wild fanaticism that's rarely found in players from other parts of the nation." That's a generalization, of course. But why does it seem true?

Southern teams are inspired by two of college football's key intangibles—tradition and rivalry. To the veteran college football writer Dan Jenkins, those are "words that belong almost exclusively to the vernacular of college football." The enthusiasm generated by match-ups like Georgia vs. Florida or LSU vs. Tennessee or Alabama vs. Auburn is the lifeblood of SEC football, a manifestation of Whitman's "barbaric yawp" that has survived into the 21st century. This year, SEC stadiums have been jammed to nearly 95 percent capacity, tops in the country. According to a Sports Business Journal study in 2009, six Southern football programs—Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia, Auburn, and South Carolina—were among the top 11 producers in football revenue in the nation.

It's a feeling that can only be imitated by pro-football fans. Their players and coaches, no matter how dedicated, are mercenaries. And while rivalries are important everywhere, in the North, Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, college football competes with major league baseball, pro football, the NBA, and even hockey for a fan's attention. In the South, people celebrate Bear Bryant's birthday even though it falls on September 11. Generations who were unborn when LSU's Billy Cannon made his great 69-yard punt return against Ole Miss in 1959 regularly relive the glory of the run on YouTube.

No one knows exactly why the best football players in the country go to SEC schools—at least, there are no good guesses outside of the greater traditions, better climate, and the best tailgate food—but they do. According to the National Football League, over the last 20 years 576 players from the conference have been drafted into the pros. That's more than the next two leagues—the PAC 12 (250) and the Big 12 (224)—combined.

Such success has spawned some naysayers, most recently journalist Chuck Thompson in his book, Better Off Without 'Em. According to Thompson, "Bias for SEC teams builds into the system a near-insurmountable advantage." The polls, he insists, are slanted to favor SEC teams. But what this doesn't explain is why computers also seem to favor southeastern schools. The current BCS standings, which figures in some computer rankings but also leans heavily on personal polls, have six SEC teams in the top 12 in the nation with Notre Dame ranked No. 1 and Alabama No. 2.

Thompson feels that the SEC's gaudy record in the BCS is due in part "because SEC teams usually play in bowls at or near home stadiums, which often results in more favorable matchups for SEC teams." Maybe, but that doesn't explain why SEC champions from 2006 through 2012 defeated Ohio State (twice), Oklahoma, Texas, and Oregon by a total of 70 points. (Last season two SEC teams, Alabama and LSU, played for the title.)

Perhaps more objective is Jeff Sagarin's rankings for USA Today. He produces a neutral field power rating for every team in the country, resulting in rankings that are highly reliable. Mr. Sagarin's machine has six SEC teams among the top 12.

The truth is that Southeastern Conference teams could care less where they place in the top 12 at the end of the season because they're fairly certain they're going to come out on top after all the bowl games are played. There's a touch of arrogance there, but it's an arrogance born of hard-fought success over many decades when SEC teams were often shafted in the polls by northern schools like Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan, which had more pull with voters. (In 1966, defending champion Alabama finished 11-0 while Notre Dame settled for a tie in its final game of the season, knowing the even a 9-0-1 Irish team would enough influence to take home all the marbles.)

The BCS is far from the most satisfying solution to the age old questions of "Who's No. 1?" But it at least gives teams a chance to settle the issue on the field. If you want to kill the BCS and go to a playoff system, that's fine with SEC fans like me. Whichever way you want us to prove it, that's the way we'll prove it.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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