Marshall: SEC Football Big Picture

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about Southeastern Conference football.

No matter how you cut it, it was impressive.

Alabama's capacity crowd of more than 92,000 for A-Day at Bryant-Denny Stadium set a national record for spring game attendance that will probably never be equaled. The massive turnout caught even Alabama officials by surprise.

What did it mean?

It reiterated what anyone who follows Southeastern Conference football already knew, that Alabama has a large and passionate fan base. It showed again the excitement that the hiring of Nick Saban created. Admission was free, but I don't know how many people would have been deterred by having to pay $5 for a ticket.

There is a lot of positive momentum at Alabama right now. The Crimson Tide, under Saban, is no doubt going to be a stronger force in the SEC than it has been for the past decade under Mike Dubose and Mike Shula.

But neither Alabama nor any other team is going to dominate the SEC for years on end anymore.

The SEC's big six--Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and LSU--all have passionate fan bases. They all are committed to spending the millions of dollars it takes to compete at the highest level. Each has unique advantages, some more than others.

Today, Florida is the team that seems to have everything going its way. There is no doubt that the Gators have more advantages than any other SEC program--a huge fan base, great weather, almost unlimited financial resources, by far the best recruiting base. But it took some fortunate bounces for the Gators to find themselves playing for the national championship last season. They lost to Auburn, should have lost to South Carolina and probably Tennessee, could have lost to Georgia and even Vanderbilt. In another season, those bounces will go the other way.

Auburn had a better season in 2004 than Florida had last season, but by sheer misfortune the Tigers did it in the only season in the BCS era in which three BCS conference teams had perfect records. Auburn has been the best team in the SEC over the past three seasons combined, going 33-5.

Coaches can't control injuries. They can't control the bounce of the ball or officials' calls. They can't control how strong other teams are. All they can do is put their teams in position to win. The seasons when everything falls into place are the ones that produce championships.

Alabama's public relations machine and many in my business frequently point out that every Alabama coach since Bryant has won 10 games at least once.

A cursory review of the facts says all that really means is that Alabama is like other SEC big boys.

Since Shug Jordan took over in 1951, every Auburn coach but Doug Barfield has won 10 games at least twice. Each of the last three coaches--Pat Dye, Terry Bowden and Tommy Tuberville--have had 11-win seasons.

From General Robert Neyland on, every Tennessee coach has been a 10-game winner at least once. From Wally Butts on, every Georgia coach has done it, including Ray Goff and Jim Donnan. Also, it has to be taken into account that winning 10 games these days doesn't mean nearly as much as it once did. The teams that go to the SEC Championship now play 14 games. Arkansas won 10 last season, but it lost four.

You get the point.

Alabama is going to be back, just like we all knew LSU would be back when it was going through a stretch of eight losing seasons in 11 years, just like we knew Auburn would be back when things went bad. All of the SEC's big six have their down times, but sooner or later, they all come back.

The bottom line: In any given season, any of those six teams have the wherewithal to win it all. Each of them has won the league championship at least once since 1999.

That's modern life in the SEC.


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