Alabama fans hated to see former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville hold up six fingers signifying six consecutive wins over Alabama from 2002-2008. This season Alabama fans might relish the sight considering Alabama will be one of the leading candidates to win the SEC’s six consecutive national championship in 2011. Never before in the history of college football has a single conference won five consecutive national titles until Auburn beat Oregon last season. To compound other conferences misery, it has been accomplished by four different schools in the five-year run (Alabama,Auburn,Florida, and LSU).
Alabama, LSU,South Carolina and even Arkansas are prime candidates to give other league commissioners including the Big 10′s Jim Delany another reason to despise the SEC in 2011. LSU (with or without suspended quarterback Jordan Jefferson and wide receiver Russell Shepard) have a tenacious front seven lead by linebacker Sam Montgomery and defensive end Barkevious Mingo. Arkansas suffered a major loss in early fall camp losing one of the SEC best running back’s Knile Davis to a knee injury. But the Hogs are expected to make a seamless quarterback transition from Ryan Mallett to Tyler Wilson. Joe Adams and Jarius Wright will lead the most talented wide receiver corps in the nation.Alabama coach Nick Saban nearly allowed himself to smile at a recent press conference talking about one of the best defenses in the nation lead by linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower and Heisman Trophy candidate running back Trent Richardson. Even South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is excited about returning sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore and a very talented front seven on defense led by All-SEC defensive tackle Travian Robertson and freshmen sensation Jadeveon Clowney.
How has the SEC won five consecutive national championships? The SEC enjoys a tremendous advantage with some of the top coaching talent in the nation, recruiting success and tough weekly competition that prepares teams for the post season.
In this five-year run, the SEC has had great coaches. Nick Saban, since joining the SEC, has a 91-27 record in nine seasons at LSU andAlabama. Saban has coached a Heisman winner (Mark Ingram) and won two BCS national championships (LSU in 2003 and Alabama in 2009). Gene Chizik, who endured the infamous “boo bird” at his airport arrival with a 5-19 record as a head coach at Iowa State, has gone 22-5 in two seasons at Auburn. He has coached a Heisman winner in Cam Newton, and won a BCS national championship at a University that went half a century without repeating as national champions. Urban Meyer, who “retired” after this past season to become a ESPN analyst, amassed a sparkling 65-15 record with the Florida Gators, coached a Heisman winner in Tim Tebow, and won two BCS titles in a three-year span (2006, 2008). LSU coach Les Miles who waivers from looking like a genius to a buffoon with his clock management skills, has compiled a 62-17 record at LSU and won a BCS national title in 2003.
TV rules college football now and the SEC’s TV exposure, on CBS and ESPN have allowed the league to telecast its product nationwide. Alabama recruited Heisman Trophy winning running back Mark Ingram from Flint,Michigan. Tennessee recruited starting quarterbacks Casey Clausen from Northridge, California and pulled Erik Ainge out of Hillsboro, Oregon.
Competition in the SEC makes a team battle tested. Critics proclaim there is no way an SEC team can go undefeated each year running the gauntlet of a typical SEC sausage grinder schedule. Auburn and Alabama’s undefeated seasons in 2009 and 2010 refute that premise. When Florida won the national championship in 2006, it lost to Auburn and also had stiff challenges in LSU and Tennessee. In 2008, Florida suffered a defeat to Ole Miss, struggled against LSU and Georgia and also had to beat Alabama (who went 12-0 in the regular season) 31-20 in the SEC Championship game. In 2009, Alabama did go unbeaten, but the Tide’s Terrance Cody had to block two field goals (one on the last play of the game to win 14-12) and also was trailing Auburn before driving the length of field to win 26-21.
One position where the SEC is a level above any conference in the nation is defensive line play. The SEC clones defensive tackles and ends to combat spread formation offenses run by talented quarterback and skill players from other conferences. As Jon Solomon of Al.com notes the BCS Championship Game defensive MVPs during the SEC’s run have all been defensive linemen:Florida’s Derrick Harvey, LSU’s Ricky Jean-Francois,Florida’s Carlos Dunlap, Alabama’s Marcell Dareus and Auburn’s Nick Fairley. If it’s not Harvey sacking Troy Smith three times, it’s Dareus knocking Colt McCoy out of the game. If it’s not Jean-Francois blocking an Ohio State field goal, it’s Fairley wreaking havoc in Oregon’s backfield. These athletic linemen “freaks” relentlessly pressure opponent’s quarterbacks and shut down running games on the biggest stage in college football.
“One hundred percent that’s the difference between the SEC and other conferences,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “SEC fans think it’s the SEC speed. The Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC, these guys have speed on the perimeter. It’s not about the speed. “It’s the difference in the interior line — the athletic ability, the power, the energy, the intensity, the depths of it. Almost every team in the SEC has defensive linemen that when they go outside the conference, they will dominate the opposing offensive line.”
Mental and physical toughness goes hand-in-hand with success in the SEC. Legendary coaches in the league such as Paul Bryant, Pat Dye, Vince Dooley, Gene Stallings, and General Robert Neyland believed running the ball and playing defense are the keys to winning championships. Every SEC team to win the BCS title the past five years has either averaged over 200 rushing yards per game or held its opponents to less than 300 yards of offense per game. The SEC prides itself on having the biggest and strongest teams, not the fastest. Speed kills, but not always as Oregon discovered the hard way against Auburn last season.
Will the law of averages finally catch up with the SEC this year as many college football critics predict? Maybe, but no one thought two players at Auburn who were not on anyone’s preseason All-American list such as quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley would end up being such difference makers.
Critics say no team can win a national championship with an inexperienced quarterback. Ask Greg McElroy of Alabama and Cam Newton of Auburn if they can win one. Five of the past nine national titlists have had a first-year starting quarterback, including the Tide in 2009. A sophomore is too young and inexperienced to make that much of a difference. Well ask sophomore running back Mark Ingram if he could make a difference as he did in Alabama’s 2009 run. A fifth-year senior Matt Flynn who played sporadically during his career was the calm effective game manager Les Miles needed to win the national championship over Ohio State in 2007.
Can the SEC win an unprecedented sixth national championship? Don’t bet against them.
Brett Beaird and Harold Bugg co-host the Boomo Bugg Show on WYTK 93.9 FM The Score weekdays from 12:00-2:00 pm and the Sportsbuzz on WZTV weekdays at 5:30 and 11:00 pm CT. Brett is also a free-lance writer for Tiderinsider.com.