Conferences try to steal SEC's thunder
Tents go up long before kickoff in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where co-eds in bright sundresses walk gracefully from one party to the other.
Gas grills fill the air with all sorts of culinary smells while fans jostle for position on sidewalks in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium, hoping to get a glimpse of their Alabama heroes climbing off the buses.
Inside, a thunderous roar from the throats of a capacity crowd of more than 100,000 people greets Crimson Tide players as they run onto the field — to play Georgia State.
Yet, when LSU arrives Nov. 9 with SEC supremacy likely at stake, nothing will change.
Football in the SEC is special, no matter the opponent, said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, a former assistant at LSU and Auburn.
No wonder the SEC attracts the top recruits (six of ESPN.com's top 10 this year), leads all other conferences in players drafted into the NFL (every year since 2007) and has won the past seven national championships.
Further, the SEC led the nation in average attendance (75,538) last year, 5,498 per game more than the Big Ten, which was second. When the Big 12 set its attendance record in 2011 (63,265), it was 12,567 behind the SEC.
“You have 10 stadiums of about 85,000 (in the SEC), and they are packed every time they play,” Fisher said. “Those kids get used to playing in those atmospheres.
“It has a huge impact on the results of games, and people don't realize. It makes you grow as a player, as a coach and as an administrator if you fill the stadium up.”
Florida State has defeated Florida two of the past three years, and Fisher said that's partially due to his players not flinching on a big stage.
“Being able to handle big games, that's an advantage we have (at Doak S. Campbell Stadium) because we have 83,000 seats,” he said.
Still, SEC dominance — and arrogance — are evident, not just in recent champions Alabama, Florida and Auburn, but in three other areas:
• The SEC's 13-5 record against the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 last year. Average score: 34-23.
• South Carolina All-America defensive end Jadeveon Clowney bragging that Clemson's Tajh Boyd is among three quarterbacks who are afraid of him. (Although, he did contend that Georgia's Aaron Murray and former Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson of the SEC also fear him.)
• SEC commissioner Mike Slive's frustration with the power of the NCAA, which hasn't approved legislation to allow his league to pay student-athletes. “Do we need all of the services provided by the NCAA's national office, its many committees and task forces, or are some of these services better provided elsewhere?” he said.
When Mike Farrell, recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, was asked if SEC schools have a recruiting advantage, he replied with “an absolute yes.”
“The (SEC) has the most depth of talent each year, they win the national title each year and they have programs that are considered the NFL team in their home states and cities,” he said. “There is little doubt that if you want to win a national title these days, you need to recruit the Southeast.”
SEC schools Tennessee and Alabama are first and fourth in Rivals' 2014 recruiting rankings, but Farrell said the Tide could jump to No. 1 with one more four-star commitment.
Other conferences are fighting back.
Pitt has played two SEC schools in recent seasons — beating Kentucky and losing to Ole Miss in two of the past three BBVA Compass Bowls — and coach Paul Chryst isn't overwhelmed by the SEC's dominance. In fact, he has entered the fray by recruiting players in Florida, Louisiana and Georgia.
“When they talk about (Pitt), some of it is real and some of is perception,” he said. “I'm sure it's the same with conferences.”
North Carolina defensive end Kareem Martin, whose team opens the season Aug. 29 against South Carolina, understands the perception but doesn't like it.
“All we hear is SEC, SEC,” he said. “We're going in there to show the ACC is just as good. We're going to try to prove everybody wrong.
“Right now, they're thinking basketball when they hear ACC. We're trying to switch that more from basketball to football. Everyone's going to be watching North Carolina versus South Carolina.”
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said he believes conference dominance fluctuates, and the Big Ten might be next in line.
“Right now there's no doubt they're king of the hill, but I believe it's cyclical,” he said. “You've got coaches in this league that know how to recruit and know how to win. We're more of a national conference now with the expansion, so I think we'll be able to recruit nationally a little more, all of us combined, and eventually, you'll see the Big Ten will come back.
“We want to play more night games in the Big Ten. I believe that's going to help us. That's a great atmosphere, and I think that can only help with recruiting. You look at the Southeastern Conference and the night games that are played at Florida, at Alabama, at LSU, they're fun for your fans, they help in recruiting. I love night games.”
The ACC also has a chance to change the perception early this season with ACC/SEC matchups North Carolina/South Carolina, Clemson/Georgia and Virginia Tech/Alabama scheduled in late August.
“You've got to win your share,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “The biggest thing is our league has been very good, very strong. We just haven't produced a 12-1, 13-0 team to carry the banner for the ACC.”
Burdened by a nine-game conference schedule, only three Big 12 schools — Oklahoma (Mississippi State), TCU (LSU) and Texas (Ole Miss) — are scheduled to play the SEC this year. But commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the conferences could meet in as many as three bowl games.
“I don't think you can lay claim (to being the best) unless you can beat them,” he said.
North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner acknowledges SEC dominance, but he doesn't think about it.
“I think you guys do a lot more talking about it than we do,” he told reporters in Greensboro, N.C. “Everyone in college football has great athletes.”
But the SEC has more, and no one knows that better than ex-Florida and current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
“Every day we're waking up trying to change that,” he said.