Posted: Wednesday January 12, 2011 2:02PM ; Updated: Thursday January 13, 2011 12:07PM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>COLLEGE FOOTBALL MAILBAG

SEC's postseason dominance killing cyclical theory of sport; more mail

Story Highlights

SEC's title streak is impressive, but league's competitive depth is even more so

It would be great to see TCU play Auburn, but playoff push has lost momentum

Urban Meyer would be a great replacement for Jim Tressel ... in five years

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In the competitive SEC, having a player of Nick Fairley's caliber can elevate a team from the pack for one season.
In the competitive SEC, having a player of Nick Fairley's caliber can elevate a team from the pack for one season.
Robert Beck/SI

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Another season is in the books and another SEC school took home the crystal trophy. Suffice it to say, the conference of sundresses and slacks is gradually destroying my long-held beliefs about cyclical conference strength. One could justifiably argue the league had a down year this season (5-5 in bowls, a terribly mediocre East Division) -- and yet there Mike Slive was on the podium again Monday night.

What's more impressive? The fact that the SEC has won five straight BCS titles or that four different teams did it?
-- Rudy Dyck, Kingsville, Ontario

Both are impressive, obviously, but the second part is far more telling.

Any one program can get on a hot streak and take home trophies for its conference, but that doesn't necessarily reflect the strength of its league. Florida State played in each of the first three BCS championship games, but no one was singing the ACC's praises. USC won two national titles and played for a third from 2003-05, but most viewed the Pac-10 as a one-team league.

Competitive depth has been the SEC's self-trumpeted calling card the past several years, and at this point it's hard to argue. Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports first tweeted this amazing stat late Monday night: The SEC has had as many schools (four) win national championships in the past five years (Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn) as the Big Ten has in the 74-year history of the AP poll (Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State).

That's not an entirely accurate comparative measure, seeing as there's only been an official championship game the past 13 years, but the larger point holds true: In most leagues, one or two programs generally stand apart from the others. In the SEC during the BCS era, those four plus Tennessee and Georgia have all competed at an elite level at some point. Florida was a 13-1 team last year that lost a bunch of key players and took a step back, but in stepped Auburn, an 8-5 team in 2009 that added two huge difference-makers (Cam Newton and Nick Fairley) to a veteran core and went 14-0. It shows that much like in the NFL, there's very little difference in the talent level between the teams in the upper half of the SEC, and in a given year, whichever one has a Tim Tebow, Glenn Dorsey, Mark Ingram, Newton or Fairley can rise to the top.

Of course, there are some other less laudatory factors behind the SEC's success as well.

The past two national champions (Alabama and Auburn) have signed more players in their respective four-year cycles than any other schools in college football. Is this at all an advantage, Mr. Mandel? If your conference is winning, what incentive does a conference commissioner have against curbing this practice?
-- Simon, San Diego

Of course it's an advantage -- not the overriding reason Alabama and Auburn won national championships, but certainly a factor in those programs' turnarounds. When you sign more players than your opponents -- from 2007-10, Auburn signed 119 players, Oregon 100 -- you can afford to take more chances in recruiting, some of your mistakes aren't as impactful and you can more easily trim the dead weight off your roster. Now, those four-year numbers predate the SEC's 2009 rule that set the limit per signing class to 28 (previously there was no limit), but it's still three more letters-of-intent than scholarships a school can offer and not the same hard cap under which Big Ten schools, among others (including SEC member Georgia), choose to operate.

The oversigning issue is finally starting to get more media scrutiny, starting first and foremost with the invaluable site oversigning.com. Right now you can go on there and see a real-time count of which schools are currently most over their "budget" for 2011. Surprise, surprise: Alabama is at the top of the list once again, currently committed to 12 more players (including verbal commitments) than the 85 scholarships it has to provide. Over the spring and summer, a few veteran backups will quietly transfer, a few will suddenly be deemed medical hardships (they get to keep their scholarships but can no longer play and don't count toward the limit) and perhaps a few incoming players will be asked to grayshirt. This goes on year after year and no one seems inclined to do anything about it.

On the other hand, one could argue that as long as it's within the rules, schools like Alabama and Auburn would be stupid not to sign every recruit possible. Coaches like Nick Saban and Gene Chizik are ultimately measured by how many games and championships they win, not how many upperclassmen they keep on scholarship. Ohio State's Jim Tressel is one of the staunchest proponents of not overpromising scholarships, but that doesn't seem to win him any sympathy when his team loses to Florida or LSU. Personally, I'd like to see the NCAA and/or conferences step up with some more stringent rules -- Randy Edsall, then at UConn, once made the logical suggestion that schools not be allowed to sign a player until he's been admitted academically -- but I've heard of no such plans.

Hi Stewart, I have no horse in the race, so to speak, when it comes to the national championship. Having watched two poorly prepared teams play a sloppy, mistake-filled, and ultimately unsatisfying game, isn't it clear that TCU should be the national champion? I think the Frogs would have convincingly beaten either team Monday.
-- Jeff, Baltimore

It's certainly possible, but there's only one way to find out, and unfortunately it's not happening. Unless they play on the field, we have no idea whether TCU would beat Auburn. It's not like Oregon proved an unworthy opponent. The game came down to a last-second field goal. The Ducks' defense wasn't nearly as dominant this season as the Frogs', but it did a fine job containing Newton. The game came down to the fact that Auburn's defensive line beat up a very good Oregon offensive line. I'm not sure TCU's o-line would have fared any differently.

As for the "sloppy, mistake-filled" part: That's not exactly a new phenomenon to BCS championship game, and like many of you, I'm getting extremely frustrated with it. Give all the credit in the world to those teams' defenses and the way they performed Monday night, but those were not the Oregon and Auburn offenses we watched for 12-13 weeks. That was not Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton or Heisman finalist LaMichael James. The prolonged layoff plays such a disproportionate role in the way these title game play out. Note that it's not necessarily true of the other BCS games. TCU, Stanford and Ohio State looked just fine. It's something about the title game itself -- in large part the intense buildup and media attention these guys deal with for 37 days -- that makes it almost impossible for them to truly shut out the "distractions" and stay in top form.

I'm not a playoff guy, but I might take one at this point just to bring some more natural flow to the season.

 
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