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Posted: Monday August 11, 2008 1:35PM; Updated: Monday August 25, 2008 2:22PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

The Great Conference Debate (cont.)

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Larry Coker
The Miami program eroded under the leadership of Larry Coker.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
SI.com's Conference Power Index
(Based on a highest possible score of 42)
2003-08 1998-'03
1. SEC (40) Big Ten (35)
2. Pac-10 (29) SEC (31)
3. ACC (23) Big 12 (25)
4. Big Ten (22) Pac-10 (21)
5. Big 12 (19) Big East (18)
6. Big East (16) ACC (17)

That fall, upstart LSU earned the SEC's first national championship since Tennessee's five years earlier. The Tigers' coach at the time, Nick Saban, was one of several SEC coaches hired near the start of the decade (his first season was 2000) to rejuvenate stagnant programs. Georgia's Mark Richt took over in 2001 and delivered the Bulldogs their first SEC title in 20 years in '02; Auburn's Tommy Tuberville (hired in 1999) would lead the Tigers to a historic 13-0 season in '04; Florida's Urban Meyer, helped by a core of talented players recruited by oft-maligned predecessor Ron Zook (hired in 2002), led the Gators to the 2006 national title; and LSU's Les Miles continued the legacy begun by Saban with another BCS trophy for the Tigers in '07.

Such well-spread wealth marked a dramatic change from the SEC of the 1990s, when Spurrier's Gators lorded over the conference with eight straight top 10 finishes. Florida and Tennessee combined to win six straight league titles from '93-'98.

"When I took over [in 1992], we were all chasing Florida," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. Now, says current Gators coach Meyer, "There are nine programs in this conference at any given time that think they're going to play for a conference championship. I don't know if you see that anywhere else in America."

It's no coincidence that the SEC's on-field supremacy has come at a time of unprecedented health among the league's formerly scandal-ridden athletic departments. Slive's goal to have a probation-free league by 2008 nearly came true -- Arkansas' track program is the lone remaining offender.

At the same time, administrators across the league have ramped up the competition with the power of their pocketbooks. The current strength of the SEC can be tied directly to the quality of its coaches -- heavyweights like Saban (now at Alabama), Spurrier (South Carolina), Miles, Meyer and the newly hired Bobby Petrino (Arkansas) -- but they've come at a cost. The average head coach's salary in the SEC has risen 78 percent in five years (from $1.03 million to $1.85 million, highest among all conferences). Miles, Saban and Meyer will all make more than $3 million this season.

It's been a different story for the ACC, where a series of high-profile coaching hires -- NC State's Chuck Amato, Miami's Larry Coker, Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey -- have already come and gone, and where the sport's all-time winningest coach, Florida State's Bobby Bowden, has become a shell of his former self.

The prime attraction for the beefed up ACC figured to be the annual clash of stalwarts Florida State and Miami, which ABC initially moved to Labor Day night. However, the Seminoles, following three straight BCS title-game appearances from 1998-2000, would soon sink to the depths of mediocrity, bottoming out with a 6-6 regular season in 2006. The Hurricanes, after going 35-2 from 2000 to '02, suffered their own nosedive, finishing 5-7 last season.

Virginia Tech has held up its end of the deal, winning its new conference's championship in 2004 and '07, but no league team has played for the national title in eight years, and the ACC's '05 (Florida State) and '06 (Wake Forest) champions failed to finish in the top 15. Simply put, the ACC's premier teams have not stacked up with their counterparts from around the country, as evidenced by their 1-8 record the past three seasons in the BCS, Gator and Chick-fil-A bowls.

"The numbers are what they are and it's up to us to start winning these games against top opponents," said NC State and former Boston College coach Tom O'Brien.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume the ACC has not improved from its previous incarnation. Long gone are the days when Florida State towered over eight mostly hapless competitors (the 'Noles lost just two conference games from 1992-2000). The league finished sixth in our CPI standings for 1998-'03. In the more recent period, the conference placed third.

While it may lack elite teams, the ACC has added much-needed depth thanks to the addition of the Hokies (which have posted double-digit wins every year since joining) and Boston College (which has won eight-straight bowl games) and the improvement of programs such as Clemson and Wake Forest.

"From a coach's standpoint, it's extraordinarily competitive," said second-year North Carolina coach Butch Davis. "There were years I coached in the Big East [with Miami] where it was basically, 'Get ready for one game.' Outside of that, it was pretty much a cakewalk. In this conference, there are a lot more haves than there are have-nots."

Fall of the mighty: The Big Ten and Big 12

While the ACC's five-year improvement in our CPI standings may come as a surprise to many, the demise of two more established leagues, the Big Ten and Big 12, was equally notable.

In 2002, when Ohio State stunned reigning darling Miami in the Fiesta Bowl to capture the Big Ten's first national championship in five years, the Big Ten found itself atop the college football world. The league posted our highest CPI score (35) for the 1998-'03 period, including a 5-3 BCS record (tied for first with the SEC), top five poll finishes by the Buckeyes ('98 and '02), Wisconsin ('98) and Michigan ('99), and the nation's second-best nonconference performance.

When Ohio State coach Jim Tressel won the '02 national title in just his second season, the Buckeyes appeared on the brink of a dynasty. They continued their dominance, all right -- earning four BCS berths over the past five seasons -- but the end result hasn't always been pretty. Meanwhile, the rest of the league hasn't exactly helped them.

Ohio State's Big Ten challengers have been dropping like flies. Penn State, once one of the nation's elite programs, suffered four losing seasons in five years from 2000-04 and, outside of a one-year return to prominence (an 11-1 season in 2005), has contributed to much of the Big Ten's lost luster. So, too, has Michigan. Though the Wolverines have remained an upper-level program, they've been routinely exposed out of conference, including three straight Rose Bowl defeats.

All told, the Big Ten has gone 3-6 in BCS games over the past five seasons, and while Ohio State provided two of those three victories, its blowout defeats in the past two title games have fostered a wider perception of the league as slow and outdated.

While Purdue's Tiller thinks too much has been made of the Buckeyes' title-game losses, he admits that larger changes in the sport have negatively affected the conference. Ironically, the trend toward more wide-open offenses -- which Tiller's program helped introduce -- has created a need for speedier defensive players, an area in which the Big Ten's home region is lacking.

"Midwest high-school football is still good, but it's not as good as it used to be," said Tiller. "You can have Jake Longs in this league that come from Michigan and play for Michigan, but you can't necessarily find that corner from the state of Michigan that can cover that receiver from the state of Florida."

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