Why Has the South Dominated College Football for So Long?

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

alabama fans 900.jpg
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.

Presented by

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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