The Sweep: Deflating the SEC balloon

"The American South has always been extremely prideful in its way of life and its traditions, so I think you're fooling yourself if you think the "ESS-EEE-CEE" chants that break out at national title games are just about football, and not at all about proving something after the past 150 years." The Sweep attends its first SEC game and reports on college football's chosen conference.

As always, we begin the Sweep with a Top 25. These are our best guess as to where all the teams will end up ranked, not power rankings that attempt to actually rank said teams on strength, as there are plenty of other sources for that.

This week, I'm jumping TCU to No. 3. It's partially a protest vote, but only partially -- who's to say they're not better than Alabama? Plus, No. 14 Stanford is one of five ranked teams.

2009 Week 11 Top 25
1. Texas (0)
2. Florida (0)
3. TCU (+1)
4. Alabama (-1)
5. Cincinnati (0)
6. Boise State (0)
7. Georgia Tech (0)
8. Ohio State (0)
9. Oregon (+1)
10. Iowa (-1)
11. Oregon State (+7)
12. Penn State (+2)
13. Wisconsin (+4)
14. Stanford (+7)
15. Pittsburgh (-1)
16. LSU (+1)
17. USC (-5)
18. Utah (-5)
19. Oklahoma State (+2)
20. North Carolina (+5)
21. Miami (-5)
22. Clemson (+1)
23. BYU (+3)
24. Cal (+2)
25. Rutgers (+1)

Questions, comments, concerns? Dannovi on this site or dannovi@gmail.com.

The SEC will rise again

Growing up a Michigan fan, becoming a lifelong Stanford fan after one fateful trip to the mailbox in December 2003, traveling to dozens of states over a three-year period as the Stanford football beat writer, living in Atlanta now, the nation's unofficial and soon-to-be official college football capital, supporting myself by writing about the greatest game on Earth for this very site, and, invariably, being a diehard college football fan throughout it all, I consider myself in as good of a position as anyone to comment on this nation's relationship with college football. This year alone, The Sweep has been lucky enough to attend a bevy of college football games throughout the Southeast: Clemson at Georgia Tech, Stanford at Wake Forest, Oklahoma at Miami, Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech and, Saturday night, Auburn at Georgia. (Michigan/Ohio State, the SEC Title Game and a Stanford bowl game are all hopefully to come.)

Any college football fan worth his car flags and tailgate kit knows that college football has a mecca and a chosen conference: the Southeast and the SEC, respectively. Year in and year out, the SEC is proclaimed to be the nation's best conference (and the only one with a guaranteed nationally-broadcast network television game every week, thanks to CBS), and ever since Bear Bryant first donned the houndstooth, Southern fans were deemed to be the nation's best. "You've never been to an SEC game?!?," I've been asked dozens of times with incredulity. "It's unlike anything in the world."

I'd like to spend the rest of the column investigating those three claims: that the SEC is the country's best conference, that Southern fans are the nation's best and that an SEC football game is an otherworldly experience.

First, is the SEC the country's best conference? If one were to ask which conference has on average been the best over the last ten years, the SEC would undoubtedly win. This decade alone, LSU has a fraction of a national title, Auburn was robbed of a chance to play for one, Florida has two national titles, and either Florida or Alabama will play for it all this year. That's impressive. Similarly, even after controlling for conference size, the SEC has the most NFLers – though like the national title measure, that is a metric which speaks more to the conference's strength over the past dozen or so years than in 2009. This year, as always, the SEC decided not to play anyone out of conference, but in notable results from the limited action we did see, UCLA won in Tennessee, Arizona State nearly won in Athens, West Virginia beat Auburn, Alabama beat Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech beat Mississippi State and Vanderbilt and North Carolina State beat South Carolina. A mixed record, and the bowl games will be the final measure, but I think the Pac-10 might have a better track record thus far. Certainly, the Pac-10 could prove themselves the nation's best conference this year should they repeat last year's 5-0 bowl mark, so here's our verdict: while in an average year, the SEC is the country's best conference, in any one season, any other league might prove stronger. The fine residents of Tuscaloosa and Oxford and Columbia and all the rest would never consider that possibility, but I think that's the reality.

As for the claim that Southern fans are the nation's best, here too we need some clarification. I turned on my basic cable, no-special-packages TV last Saturday at 1 p.m. Eastern and counted eight live college football games being broadcast. Right now, the sports talk shows here are 70 percent Georgia and Georgia Tech football, with the Falcons and the Thrashers and the Braves and the Hawks and the rest of the sporting world forced to scrounge for the leftover time. Bars are packed every Saturday with seemingly every TV in the place turned to Florida, Alabama, LSU, Georgia or Georgia Tech. That intensity of passion is the stuff of legend, and you're not going to find that anywhere else in the country.

However, nowhere else in the country is fandom so blissfully self-contained. Bars with every TV in the place turned to the same SEC game -- while the Cal/Arizona State ABC broadcast the establishments all are paying for via ESPN Gameplan not to be found anywhere in a ten-block radius – are the rule, not the exception. I literally had to stumble from one end of Athens to another, stopping without success at a good half-dozen bars along the way yesterday, before I found a place that would be willing to change a television to the Stanford/USC game. So my verdict: Southern fans are more passionate about college football and supporting their teams, but they are so provincial they probably know less about the rest of the college football landscape than fans from other parts of the country. Stanford fans: do you know what LSU's nickname is? Mississippi State's? Kentucky's? You're a better college football fan than half the locals here, who truly think our nickname is the Trees.

Finally, as to the claim that an SEC football game is an otherworldly experience: patently false. Does an SEC football game provide an environment significantly better than a Stanford football game right now? Sure. (Though you can bet your last dollar Cal and Notre Dame will be sold out and rocking.) But so does an Oregon game or a USC game (well, one they're not losing by 34 points) or an Ohio State game or an Oklahoma game or a game at any big-time football school. Saturday, I was at a night game in which the home team came from behind to beat a rival by a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Hard to draw it up better than that. Still, Sanford Stadium was a lot quieter than other places I've been: at all times, I could hear my friend next to me talk in her normal voice. That's not true in Eugene or Gainesville or Ann Arbor, (though that's largely a function of stadium design, not how loud the fans are yelling).

Tailgating was tailgating. People are drinking cheap alcohol, wearing the home team's colors, watching TV and playing that game (we called it cornhole growing up) where you throw bean bags through holes in a slanted wooden board. Same as any football school. As for the game itself: both teams were running the zone read at times, both coaches were irrationally conservative at times, both teams had one or two main playmakers that if shut down, good luck scoring. Same as for any teams just north of .500, as Georgia and Auburn are. My verdict: big-time college football is big-time college football. Nothing mythical about whether it occurs in State College or Corvallis or Austin or Athens.

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More than anywhere else in the US, the American South has always been extremely prideful in its way of life and its traditions, perhaps more than a bit defensively, and certainly for reasons more grounded in Civil War, Reconstruction and civil rights history than in college football. Today, the gridiron is the socially acceptable outlet for those frustrations (well, "tea parties" too), and so I think you're fooling yourself if you think the "ESS-EEE-CEE" chants that break out at national title games are just about football, and not at all about proving something to the country after the past 150 years. (If you think I'm exaggerating: the defense rests its case.) I also don't think it's a coincidence that neither my friend nor I could find a single non-white paying customer in 93,000-person Sanford Stadium – and we looked for a good five minutes. Plenty of black athletes on the field, not a single paying black customer of the hundreds of fans in our nosebleed section.

Sports serve as a catharsis everywhere, and so I believe that it's not just an accident of college football history, but partially one of American history, that college football is such a religion down here. Now, I'm glad college football is adored in the South – just like I have adored it my whole life and have met fans from across the country who love the game as well. However, I guess I was just ultimately disappointed in Athens -- and a little bit tricked too. Based on all the buildup, I was hoping for some otherworldly experience, but I merely ended seeing a good football game in a good football environment, just like I have been for nearly two decades now.

We all know there's a lot of hype in the SEC balloon, but now I know most of it is there for reasons other than the football on the field. Sorry to disappoint, y'all.


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