Who's No. 1?

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas and Texas used to square off to decide the league champion back in the days of the Southwest Conference.

When they face each other at 7:45 Saturday night in Fayetteville as members of the rival Big 12 and Southeastern Conferences, the outcome will count toward the mythical top college football conference in America title.

The Big 12 and SEC have dominated the "top conference" argument for the last few years while the Big 10, Pac 10, Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference (before realignment) became increasingly top heavy.

In 2002, the Big 12 could claim top honors with a 5-3 bowl record while the SEC went 3-4.

That trend reversed itself last year as the SEC went a national-best 5-2 in bowls while the Big 12 was 2-6.

The SEC had a 3-0 mark against the Big 12 in 2003 including LSU's 21-14 win versus Oklahoma in the BCS national title game.

Since the Big 12 began play in 1996 formed from the remnants of the former Big 8 and Southwest Conferences, the head-to-head record against the SEC stands tied at 13-13 counting regular season and bowl games heading into the Arkansas-Texas game.

While that might mean something to the fans in the opposing conferences, it doesn't mean much to Texas coach Mack Brown.

"At Texas, if we don't win every game, it impacts everything," Brown said. "If we play the Pac-10 and lose, it kills us. If we play the Big 12 (and lose), it kills us. If we play the SEC (and lose), it kills us. If we play the ACC (and lose), it kills us.

"So we just have to win all of them."

It's no secret Texas sees itself as being in a league of its own, so it should be no surprise most coaches don't see the SEC-Big 12 battles the same way.

David Cutcliffe, who coaches at SEC charter member Ole Miss, owns a 4-0 record against the Big 12 as a head coach with wins against Texas Tech, Nebraska and Oklahoma in the Independence Bowl and against Oklahoma State in the 2004 Cotton Bowl.

He said coaches do take an active interest in the success of their conference compared to the rest of the nation.

"I think we all take pride in that wherever we are," Cutcliffe said. "We try to believe we have the best football playing conference in America, particularly over a period of time. With the television appearances, the national exposure, all that plays into recruiting.

"It is something you take pride in."

Ron Zook has played against the Big 10 (while at Miami, Ohio), coached in the former Big 8 (Kansas) and now is the head coach at Florida.

He said being able to claim top conference honors is a big factor in recruiting, especially as he battles in-state ACC foes like Miami and Florida State as well as every other top program in the nation trying to raid the fertile Florida talent fields.

"I think in recruiting you use it a lot," Zook said. "I don't think there's any question that the Southeastern Conference is a very strong conference. With conference realignment, maybe some other ones are becoming stronger.

"But the Southeastern Conference in my own personal experience has been the hardest grind."

Zook said one factor that sets the SEC apart from the Big 12 is as simple as numbers.

The SEC has led the nation in attendance for each of the last 23 years and set national records with more than 5.5 million fans in 1999, 20001, 2002 and 2003.

"Not that the other teams in the other conferences aren't good," Zook said. "They are. No. 1, the stadiums (in the SEC) are very tough. The away games are very tough in the Southeastern Conference. I think that kind of adds to the schedule."

When it comes to comparing stadiums in the SEC and the Big 12, there's really no comparison.

Seven of the SEC's 12 schools have capacities of more than 80,000 while only Texas (80,082), Oklahoma (82,112) and Texas A&M (82,600) are larger than 80,000.

Nebraska, which boasts seven national championships and tried to woo Arkansas coach Houston Nutt this offseason, has a capacity barely bigger than the Reynolds Razorback Stadium total of 72,000 with 73,918 at Memorial Stadium.

The SEC has 10 schools with stadiums larger than 60,000 while seven of the Big 12 schools have 53,750 or fewer.

Consider Arkansas spent more than $100 million expanding RRS from 50,000 to 72,000 while Texas Tech spent $84 million just to bring its capacity up to 51,389.

"If you compare stadiums and the capacity of each stadium ... You look at that tradition from the tailgating all the way through the game," said Nutt, who played and coached at then-Big 8 member Oklahoma State. "It's just unbelievable in the SEC from top to bottom."

Although most coaches in the opposing leagues were generally complimentary of each other, one statement was a common denominator.

Speed, especially on defense.

"Top to bottom, (the SEC) has more speed overall on the defensive side than any other conference in America," Cutcliffe said.

Guy Morriss, who coached at Kentucky from 2001-02 before going to Baylor last year, agreed.

"You can make an argument that the SEC is the premier speed conference and the Big 12, just in the short time I've been here, is a little bit more of a power-type conference," he said.

Morriss said that speedy tradition in the SEC carries over to NFL rosters.

The SEC had 263 players on NFL rosters in 2003 while the Big 12 had 187 ranking behind the Big 10 (207) and the Pac-10 (191).

"If you go back over the last 20 years, you have to make an argument (the SEC) may be the best conference," Morriss said. "You look at what happens on draft day where half the first-round picks were coming out of the SEC for a stretch of the last 10, 12, 15 years.

"If you use NFL draft picks as a criteria, the SEC would be the hands down pick."

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, who knows a little about speed from his days coaching at Miami, also said the defensive speed was the biggest difference between the SEC and Big 12, but he believes the gap is narrowing.

"Now everybody else is doing the same thing," he said.

It didn't take Arkansas fans long to learn what playing in the SEC was all about.

As the Razorbacks rolled to their 120-89 win against Texas in the finals of their last Southwest Conference basketball tournament after the 1990-91 season, the fans started the chant.

"S-E-C! S-E-C!" went the cry.

The chant rolls off the tongue just like "U-S-A!" and is unique to the Southeastern Conference.

Fans in the SEC take nearly as much pride in their league as a whole as they do the team they root for.

Looking at the leagues from a purely traditional standpoint leaves little comparison between the 72-year-old SEC and the 10-year-old Big 12.

LSU coach Nick Saban was the head coach at Michigan State in the similarly tradition-rich Big 10 from 1995-99, said there's nothing like the SEC.

"I don't think I've ever coached anywhere the fans have as much passion, interest, enthusiasm and pride in their particular state and school as they do in the SEC," Saban said. "That doesn't mean it doesn't exist some place else. I've just never been around it."

Zook hasn't either.

"All I can say is in the Southeastern Conference, it's a way of life," he said. "It's gotten to a point with recruiting, spring ball and the season, it's about the whole year.

"It's a passion. It's all they think about. With all the Internet, with all the services available, they're able to talk about it 365 days a year."

The SEC's revenue distribution to its 12 schools totaled a whopping $101.9 million in the 2002-03 fiscal year, the most in league history.

Besides the revenue from its conference basketball tournaments and its football championship game, the SEC banks on seven to eight teams earning postseason bowls and the payouts that follow.

Since 1996, the SEC is 35-23 in bowl games while the Big 12 is 25-29.

The SEC is first in bowl appearances since 1996 with 58. the Big 12 is second with 54.

In head-to-head bowl games, the SEC leads the Big 12 8-7.

Led by Ole Miss' 4-0 mark and Arkansas' 2-1 record with wins against Texas at the 2000 Cotton Bowl and Missouri in the 2003 Independence Bowl, the SEC Western Division is 7-2 against the Big 12 since its inception.

The SEC has finished with a winning bowl record in all but two years since 1996 and its 4-5 mark in 2000 still marked a record nine teams earning bowl bids.

The Big 12, which has sent seven or more teams to bowls in five of the last six years, has had just one winning bowl season with its 5-3 mark in 2002.

In terms of national championships, the SEC again comes out on top.

Florida won the 1996 title, Tennessee won in 1998 and LSU claimed a share of the title last year along with Southern Cal.

The Big 12 had Nebraska claim a share of the national title along with Michigan in 1997 and Oklahoma was the undisputed national champion after the 2001 season.

All told, the SEC and Big 12 have combined for five national titles in the last eight years.

"I think you could sit and argue for a long time every year which conference is the best," said Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione, who coached at Alabama from 2001-02. "I think they're the premier ones in the nation. The SEC has great fan support, so does the Big 12 in a lot of ways.

"There's just not a lot of difference when you talk about them."

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