Speeds the Issue

Always called second-best to the faster, stronger SEC by media critics, the Badgers, and the rest of the Big Ten, are set out to refute that bold statement.

MADISON - No matter who you ask on the Wisconsin roster, they've heard the comparison between the Big Ten and the SEC year in and year out about how the SEC is stronger, faster and can out play, out score and out class any other conference in the land.

Even after the Badgers have won their last two bowl games against the SEC, Wisconsin opened as a three and a half point underdog against Tennessee.

Frankly, Wisconsin players are tired of hearing that lame evaluation.

"I can't stand what everybody is talking about with the SEC is so much more athletic and fast," said kicker Taylor Mehlhaff, who will be playing against an SEC team for the fourth-straight bowl game. "The way we played the last two bowl games, we have some pretty fast guys on this team and we're big and physical, too."

With the experts analyzing the Southeastern Conference being the ‘fastest, finesse' conference and the Big Ten being the ‘bigger, physical' league, the Big Ten relies on pounding the ball with its physicality, rather than its speed, thus not having the same caliber of athletes.

Wisconsin's All-American Tight End Travis Beckum can only muster a chuckle when he hears that comparison.

"I don't see a difference because every team has athletes," Beckum said. "Everybody has a dynamic group of players that have a lot of speed. People tend to get washed up in the fact that SEC has the most speed. That just isn't the case."

Comparing the numbers between the Vols and the Badgers, it is hard to tell which team is from what conference. Wisconsin totaled more offensive yards (413.9 ypg to 399.2) and rushing yards (201.5 ypg to 144.6), while Tennessee owned the passing advantage (254.6 ypg to 212.4).

"They're fast but everybody is fast," cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu said. "Everybody can run, whether it is the Big Ten, Pac-10 or wherever. I don't know who is judging the fastest or if they're judging it by 40 times. No matter where you are or where you from, you have to step on the field and play."

Dive further into speed debate and one would think Wisconsin belongs in the SEC. The Volunteer offense gained 53 yards that went 20 yards or more (13 rush, 40 pass) compared to the Badgers' 51 plays (16 rushing, 35 passing).

Analyze further and the SEC's Tennessee had 11 plays over 40 yards, six of those going for 50 or more. Wisconsin, on the other hand, isn't far behind with 10 plays over 40 yards and five going over 50.

"We like to look at ourselves as pretty speedy, too," senior quarterback Tyler Donovan said. "Obviously, they have different style offenses where we might get more spread. Other than that, it's just playing football and that's what it is all about."

If speed isn't the issue, it's the toughness of the conference from top to bottom. With such powerhouse programs like Auburn, Florida, Georgia and LSU and big name coaches like Phillip Fulmer, Urban Meyer, Steve Spurrier and Tommy Tupperville roaming the sidelines, the conference is a physical battle every week.

But while the arguments hold water most of the year, the Big Ten broke the mold this year, as 10 of its 11 teams were bowl eligible (eight of them playing in bowl games) while the SEC had 10 of its 12 teams with a .500 record or better (nine of which are playing in post season bowls), proving that the Big Ten is just as competitive from top to bottom as the SEC.

"They're obviously a very strong league from top to bottom," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "Week in and week out they're highly competitive, but this year we were better top to bottom than a year ago. The Big Ten is a very competitive conference with some just as outstanding talent as the SEC."

In last year's bowl games, the Big Ten went 2-1 against SEC, winning the Outback and Capital One Bowl, but losing the all-important BCS National Title.

Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer was never a believer in the superiority of the SEC over the Big Ten, especially after Penn State beat the Vols in last year's Outback Bowl, 20-10.

"I think the discrepancy is way overstated," Fulmer said. "Penn State was a very fine football team and if it comes to any two teams that are reasonably matched up as equals, it comes down to who takes care of the football the best and does the fundamental things well. The turnovers that we had were the difference – not the speed level."

While many Big Ten schools haven't had success matching up with SEC schools in bowl games, the Wisconsin program has been the exception to the rule. After beating Auburn and Arkansas the last two seasons, the Badgers are looking to join Michigan as the only Big Ten school to defeat an SEC opponent three straight years.

"All I know is that the last couple years, our guys have definitely prepared in a way to put them in a position to have success on the day of the game," responded UW head coach Bret Bielema. "There's always a lot of Big Ten-SEC talk but all I know is that we're playing Tennessee, not LSU, Georgia or anybody else."

So with Wisconsin seemingly matching its SEC opponent in terms of speed, big plays and the two conferences solid from top to bottom, who is the better conference?

The debate wages on, but both teams know that an Outback Bowl win does not diminish two of the best conferences in college football.

"Anybody can beat anybody on any given day," UT quarterback Erik Ainge said. "If we win, it doesn't mean the SEC is better and if they win, it doesn't mean the Big Ten is better. I think they are two really good leagues."

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