Friday, January 2, 2015

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

The first BCS title game took place on January 4, 1999, when Tennessee beat Florida State 23-16 in the Fiesta Bowl.  Since that time, there has only been one BCS title game that did not feature a team from the former Confederate States of America -- and that game featured Oklahoma, which didn't secede in the 1860's only because it did not yet exist.  Five BCS title games featured two teams from the old Confederacy.  And no SEC fan will ever forget this series of games:

1/8/2007:  Florida 41, Ohio St. 14
1/7/2008:  Louisiana St. 38, Ohio St. 24
1/8/2009:  Florida 24, Oklahoma 14
1/7/2010:  Alabama 37, Texas 21
1/10/2011:  Auburn 22, Oregon 19
1/9/2012:  Alabama 21, Louisiana St. 0
1/7/2013:  Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14

Those were glorious times for the Southeastern Conference, and we all grew accustomed to hearing the cry of S! E! C! each January.  But not this year.  Here's how the SEC did over the last two days:

Peach Bowl:  Texas Christian 42, Mississippi 3
Orange Bowl:  Georgia Tech 49, Mississippi St. 34
Hall of Fame Bowl:  Wisconsin 34, Auburn 31
Citrus Bowl:  Missouri 33, Minnesota 17
Sugar Bowl:  Ohio St. 42, Alabama 35

I think it's safe to say that no matter what you think of the Citrus Bowl, no SEC traditionalist is happy about the fact that only new-comer Missouri presented the SEC from suffering a humiliating sweep in these five big games.

Let's be clear:  there are no excuses for this type of performance.  The losing teams were not from the SEC East, which is supposed to be the weaker of the two SEC divisions.  No, these were all SEC West teams -- the same ones that spent much of the season dominating the top of the college football rankings.  And let's not kid ourselves that these results were fluky.  Of the four losing teams, Auburn was the only one that really came close to winning.  The two Mississippi schools were badly outclassed, and I don't think any fair observer came away from the Sugar Bowl thinking that Alabama was as good as Ohio State.

So the SEC's most recent golden age has come to a pretty decisive end.  This has happened before:

1.   SEC teams won the AP National Championship in 1957, 1958, 1961, 1964, and 1965.  That version of the SEC featured coaching giants like Bobby Dodd, Johnny Vaught, Shug Jordan, and Bear Bryant, and stars like Joe Namath and Billy Cannon.  But SEC teams were too slow to integrate their rosters, the rest of the league couldn't keep pace with Alabama, and the Conference went from 1966 to 1977 without a single title to its name.

2.  The SEC had another great run in the late 1970's and early 1980's.  Alabama won back-to-back titles in 1978 and 1979, and Georgia won it all in 1980.  Georgia played for the title in 1982, and Auburn had a great argument that it was really the best team in 1983.  These were the years of Hershel Walker and Bo Jackson.  But the SEC failed to tap into the huge surge of talent pouring into Florida State and Miami (Fla.), and SEC fans spent most of the next two decades watching those two schools play the big games.

Finally, in the early 2000's, both Miami (Fla.) and Florida State went into decline.  Meanwhile, Steve Spurrier's Florida teams had beaten the rest of the SEC so often that the rest of the league had gotten better in response.  New and very talented SEC coaches sopped up the talent no longer going to Miami (Fla.) and FSU, and used it to pound the rest of the nation.  Meanwhile, SEC fans took to the Internet to make fun of everyone else.

And now everyone else has had their revenge.  It started with FSU finally getting its act together, and building the type of annoying, hard-hitting, misbehaving teams that dominated college football through most of the 1980's and 1990's.  Five years ago, most of the guys starting for FSU would be in the SEC -- but that probably won't happen as long as Jimbo Fisher is taking FSU to the playoffs every year.  Meanwhile, out West, schools like Baylor and Oregon were developing new high-flying offenses that can overwhelm the type of smash-mouth defense SEC teams had used with so much recent success.  And most importantly of all, in my opinion, the Stolid Burghers of the Midwest -- fed up to here with years of mockery from down South -- opened their wallets to upgrade their coaching staffs.  Florida fans have been forced to admit that it was Urban Meyer (of Ashtabula, Ohio) who was primarily responsible for their titles in 2006 and 2008 -- and it turns out that he can win big in other conferences as well.  With Jim Harbaugh coming to Michigan, the Big 10 will only get stronger.

Since I'm an SEC fan, I'm not going to give you a lot of happy talk about how competition is good, or how we should be proud to see other schools imitating the SEC.  If it were up to me, the SEC would win every title in every sport during every season.  But I will say that SEC fans -- including me -- have been guilty of hubris in recent years.  The same fan bases that spent years fighting with everyone in the national press who criticized our teams were perfectly happy to soak up praise from those same pundits without asking why they were more likely to be accurate now than they had been in the past.  In the 2006 season, there were folks at ESPN who thought that Ohio State and Michigan were so much better than any SEC school that they should play each other in the National Championship game -- and they were stunned win Florida (coached by Urban Meyer) blew out the Buckeyes.  Now the shoe is on the other foot, and the SEC will no longer be able to coast on its reputation.

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