by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

While watching the Boise State-Virginia Tech thriller on Labor Day night, we received a call from a friend and longtime acquaintance who also happens to be an alum of an SEC school. This chap is a pretty sharp football analyst, but when the subject (directly or indirectly) involves the SEC, his regional bias is hard to disguise. So, it was no surprise that right after the Hokies scored a TD just before the half, our friend couldn’t wait to let us know what was on his mind. “That,” he said, “would never happen to an SEC defense.” In his mind, the Broncos had aparrently committed a serious transgression by allowing VPI to score a TD after Boise had fumbled the ball away deep in its own territory...something that our buddy didn’t think a quality SEC stop unit would allow to happen.

Welcome to college football circa 2010 and the era of the Southeastern Conference, which has parlayed its fanatical regional following into a national brand thanks largely to its network TV deals with CBS and especially ESPN, which has spared no expense to hype the league much as it has done with the Big East in basketball. And while we have long acknowledged the SEC as the best football conference in the land, we suspect the media overkill has distorted perceptions so much that even sharp-minded gridiron observers like our SEC alum friend suffer from an affliction some are beginning to call “SEC-itis,” those losing perspective on how much better the SEC is (or isn’t) than other leagues in the nation.

Before going any further, we’ll reiterate our long-held belief that the SEC is probably the nation’s best football league, and has been for many years. A quick glimpse of our TGS Power Ratings suggests that is likely still the case in 2010; our “average” rating for an SEC team (as of last week) was 5.08, better than the Big Ten’s 8.36 and Big XII’s 8.66 and Pac 10’s 10.00 (although the Pac-10 was at 7.44 minus Washington State). But that superiority over other conferences isn’t as pronounced as much of the SEC fan base has come to believe. After all, Alabama or Florida aren’t going to be invited to the NFC South anytime soon, are they?

Having been publishing since 1957, we at The Gold Sheet have seen similar “eras” for other conferences that prompted their fans to also claim superiority. It might surprise a few that this isn’t the first era in which the SEC touted it was the best; it had a mighty claim in the ‘50s as well, with national champions from Tennessee, Auburn, and LSU during the decade, and near misses with Georgia Tech (then a member) and Ole Miss. And that was all before the Bear Bryant era began at Alabama. But it was the Big Ten that was probably most noted for that mindset in those days, and it wasn’t until a succession of failures by its champion teams in the Rose Bowl that the perception of its supposed superiority would finally recede. Similarly, there were periods of time when the old Southwest and Big Eight Conferences were riding high, with some justification; in 1971, Big Eight teams filled the top three spots (Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Colorado) in the final polls and excelled in bowl action for much of the ‘70s. The Pac-10 would eventually experience its own “glory era” as well, but the sustained run of the SEC since the mid ‘90s has moved it back into the acknowledged pole position among the nation’s leagues. That advantage has been reflected in bowl action, especially since 1993, with SEC entries a noteworthy 73-53 vs. the number during postseason play over the past seventeen seasons, the best of any league over that span.

There are also practical reasons why the SEC has been flourishing lately, some of those relating to pure demographics. The northeast and midwest have been declining for decades, with the population “center” of the USA gradually moving southward over the past 50 years. Much of the south continues to experience explosive growth; there is now more high school football talent coming out of the south than the northeast and midwest combined. Florida has long been acknowledged as the top football talent-producing state in the nation, but it’s not the only place in the region that has been developing players. Georgia, and metro Atlanta in particular, have turned into prep gridiron hotbeds. The Carolinas have grown substantially, and even less-populated locales such as Alabama and Mississippi continue to spawn more college football players on a per capita basis than other states. Meanwhile, it is also not uncommon for SEC schools to pluck high-level talent from outside of the region, as LSU has done for years in neighboring Texas, which has seen other SEC schools poach its top talent as well (such as Kentucky star RB Derrick Locke, a product of Dallas-Fort Worth).

That the best teams in the nation have come from the SEC lately (indeed, the last four BCS champs are all SEC entries) is hard to debate, but in recent years, especially the last two seasons, that edge has not extended much beyond Florida and Alabama. And we should remind Erin Andrews and others that it is not etched in granite that the Gators and Crimson Tide are always going to ride high; it wasn’t long ago that both were slumping, as Florida fell far from the nation’s elite during Ron Zook’s disappointing 3-season run from 2002-04 before the program was revived by Urban Meyer, and Bama had struggled for over a decade to get back into a position of prominence before HC Nick Saban took over from Mike Shula in 2007. SEC schools without top-tier coaches, even Florida and Alabama, have rarely excelled. LSU is also a dual BCS title winner since 2003, but the previous Tigers under Saban and Les Miles predecessors Mike Archer, Curley Hallman, and Gerry DiNardo were rarely a contender for national honors.

And recent evidence of league superiority beyond Florida and Alabama is harder to uncover. Last year, outside of the Gators and Tide, SEC schools dropped 6 of 8 pointspread decisions in bowl games, with the likes of South Carolina and Tennessee suffering humbling defeats; our aforementioned acquaintance seemed to have conveniently forgotten how the Vols, very much an SEC rep, had been run out of the Georgia Dome by the same Virginia Tech in last December’s Chick-fil-A Bowl. Let’s also not forget how the Crimson Tide was throttled by Mountain West champ Utah in the Sugar Bowl following the 2008 season, and as recently as 2007 (Saban’s first year) was upset by UL-Monroe. And already this campaign, the SEC has taken a few hits, with Ole Miss a stunning upset loser to FCS Jacksonville State, and Tennessee, admittedly in rebuild mode under new HC Derek Dooley, thrashed last weekend by Pac-10 Oregon.

While intersectional action continues to be featured for the next few weeks in September, it’s a good idea to check out how SEC teams have fared vs. the number lately in non-conference work. Overall, the spread mark since 2006 is 114-94, solid but hardly overwhelming (54.8%). Minus contributions from Florida and Georgia, the mark falls to 89-85. Following are SEC team-by-team non-conference spread records since 2006; combined yearly marks are in (), with year-by-year marks from ‘06 thru 2010 and last weekend’s games. SEC WEST...Alabama (11-9) 2-3, 1-3, 3-2, 3-1, 2-0; Arkansas (5-12) 0-4, 2-2, 1-2, 2-2, 0-2; Auburn (7-11) 2-3, 2-2, 1-2, 2-3, 0-1; LSU (12-8) 5-0, 4-1, 1-3, 2-3, 0-1; Ole Miss (8-7) 0-3, 1-2, 4-0, 3-0, 0-2; Mississippi State (6-8) 1-2, 3-1, 0-3, 1-2, 1-0; SEC EAST...Florida (14-4) 3-1, 3-1, 3-1, 4-0, 1-1; Georgia (11-5) 2-1, 3-1, 3-1, 2-2, 1-0; Kentucky (11-7) 1-3, 3-0, 4-1, 2-3, 2-0; South Carolina (10-6) 4-0, 1-2, 1-3, 3-1, 1-0; Tennessee (11-10) 3-2, 4-1, 1-3, 2-3, 1-1; Vanderbilt (8-7) 2-1, 1-2, 3-2, 1-2, 1-0.

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