Of course, that kind of objectivity is rare in the SEC. You'll surely get an argument from the frenzied folks who stream into Knoxville on game day in cars and trucks and boats festooned with orange. Tennessee, which was 2--3 going into Saturday's meeting with Georgia, probably had no realistic shot at dominating Georgia last weekend, yet the Volunteers humiliated the Bulldogs 45--19 before a crowd of 103,261 at Neyland Stadium and gave first-year Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin his first league win.
That traditional powers Georgia and Tennessee are unranked and fighting to get back among the SEC's elite speaks to the depth of the conference. So does what happened last Saturday in Fayetteville, where coach Bobby Petrino is building a formidable program. Arkansas, which surrendered 87 points in its first two conference games, slowed the high-scoring Auburn spread offense in a 44--23 victory, knocking the Tigers from the ranks of the undefeated in a meeting that might well determine who finishes fourth in the SEC West.
Your USCs, your Ohio States, sure, they're all great teams, but as far as a league, I don't think you can compete with the guys we have to go against each week," LSU senior tight end Richard Dickson was saying the other day. "Every player on our team will tell you that the toughest game of the year is the SEC championship game. It's probably tougher than the game for the national championship." He knows, because the Tigers dispatched Ohio State in the BCS title game at the end of the 2007 season more easily than they did Tennessee for the SEC championship. "The SEC rivalries are so intense," says Dickson. "Auburn-Alabama, Mississippi State--Ole Miss, Florida-Georgia. And it's easy to see how things got to be that way. In the South it starts early for the players. In your hometown, football is the biggest thing there is. You play a game on Friday night, and the whole town turns out to see you. I can remember being seven, eight years old and looking up to high school kids the same way I looked up to college players when I was in high school."
Dickson grew up in Moss Point, Miss., near the Gulf Coast. His paternal grandfather played at Ole Miss, and his father, Dick, played at Mississippi State. By the time he was a junior at Ocean Springs High, Richard was entertaining offers from Miami, Michigan, Texas and Oklahoma. He also received offers from every school in the SEC, but something happened to him on Oct. 22, 2005, when he saw LSU beat Auburn in overtime in Tiger Stadium. "I was sitting in the student section," he says. "As loud as the stadium was for the whole game, you could hear a pin drop from the time when Auburn's kicker kicked the ball to when it hit an upright. The kick was no good, and everybody in the place went berserk. But it was the silence between the kick and the ball hitting the upright that stayed with me. I knew I had to be there."
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier had a similar experience growing up near the Blue Ridge Mountains, in Johnson City, Tenn. "I was pretty open about where I wanted to play college ball," says Spurrier, "as long as it was in the SEC." He ended up at Florida, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1966.
The players' interest in the league is exceeded only by the fans' interest in the players. In 2008 the conference had six schools among the top 10 in the country in attendance. At No. 4 nationally, Tennessee drew an average of 101,448 for seven home games, even though the Volunteers finished a disappointing 5--7. SEC stadiums were at 95% capacity, with an average attendance of 76,844, a number that will most likely be higher this year. The big programs such as Florida and Georgia pack the crowds in, but the smaller ones do too. Ole Miss, for instance, has an enrollment of about 17,000, but more than 50,000 season tickets were sold this season. According to a Sports Business Journal analysis, six programs—Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, LSU and South Carolina—were among the top 11 producers in football revenue for the 2007--08 school year. The league shares revenue from the conference title game, bowl appearances and television deals among its 12 member schools, and last year the pot for football was a whopping $91.7 million. Of course SEC officials are not that forthcoming about what each program spends. But the conference only figures to get richer, as contracts with CBS and ESPN to televise football and other SEC sports will pay out more than $3 billion over the next 15 years.
"If you want to be in the fast lane, this is the league," says Alabama athletic director Mal Moore.
Until Kiffin took over at Tennessee after the 2008 season, Spurrier, 64, was arguably the league's most colorful personality. He coached the Gators to their first national championship, in 1996, and had a talent for getting under opponents' skin. It was Spurrier who once called in-state rival Florida State "Free Shoes University" and who said, "Call me arrogant, cocky, crybaby, whiner or whatever names you like. At least they're not calling us losers anymore."
Spurrier has finally built a contender in Columbia. The Gamecocks (5--1) beat Kentucky 28--26 last Saturday and jumped to No. 22, but even when they were struggling they played before sellout crowds of more than 80,000. Programs in South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama don't have to compete with a pro team for the attention of sports fans in their markets, and as a result each school's football coach lords over a fiefdom that reveres his every move. "There's an NFL presence in the South, but it's college football that dominates the culture," says Roy Kramer, who retired after 12 years as SEC commissioner in 2002. "As a result, the marquee representative in your state is the head football coach, and that individual takes on a presence that rivals—whether it's right or wrong—your elected political leaders. Football coaches become the persona of the state. That's an enormous responsibility, and it brings enormous pressure."
It all starts with recruiting. Nutt says that players from the South, particularly those who reside in Florida, become better college players than kids from other parts of the country, though he can't explain why. "Maybe it's the sunshine," he says. "In any given year an average of 335 young men [from Florida] sign with Division I schools. When I was coaching at Murray State [in Kentucky], I remember going to Florida and seeing, maybe, coaches from Wake Forest down there. But now? You've got Wisconsin, Minnesota, Purdue, Virginia, Virginia Tech. You've got schools from North Carolina. They're all down there, and they're coming for the speed. We signed nine from Florida this year. Nine!"