IT COMES DOWN TO BRAGGIN' RIGHTS. THE GRIDIRON version dates to the end of the 19th century, a difficult time for a region still recovering from the Civil War. In his book A Tailgater's Guide to SEC Football, Chris Warner writes, "In the South, football emerged as a much-needed outlet of frustration and despair for both the players—and the spectators." In the first two decades of the 20th century only Georgia Tech under John Heisman and coach Dan McGugin's Vanderbilt squads (yes, Vandy!) made much of a national imprint. The first teams to truly put Dixie on the map were Wallace Wade's Alabama aggregations of the 1920s, starring halfback (and later film star) Johnny Mack Brown.
In '32 the SEC was formed out of schools breaking away from the Southern Conference. These institutions took the game serious. Alabama boasted the splendiferous passing combo of Dixie Howell to Don Hutson. Tennessee under Gen. Robert Neyland became a stone wall on defense. This was the era when game-day traditions, rituals and enmities began hardening into a regional religion. For better or worse SEC country is known for diehards poisoning trees, worship of mascots such as Georgia's Uga and state governments devoting all manner of oratory to football-related resolutions. If it's true that in the SEC there are two seasons, football and spring football, then the adage was borne out this year when three SEC schools (Alabama, Auburn and Florida) had higher attendance at spring games than the 2010 national regular-season average.
After World War II, Auburn (under Shug Jordan) and LSU (Paul Dietzel) won national titles. Enter the Bear: Paul Bryant directed Alabama, his alma mater, to titles in 1961, '64 and '65. Ole Miss, under Johnny Vaught, might have deserved one in '62. But for all the success, there was a major blemish on the SEC's escutcheon: the absence of African-American players. By the late '60s the color line began to break. In 1972 the conference had a black QB (Tennessee's Condredge Holloway).
Never has the SEC's reign over college football been more pronounced than it is today. In the past eight years battle-hardened SEC schools have won or shared six BCS championships. (Let's face it: Bowl season sometimes seems like a picnic compared with the rigors of conference play.) So when it comes to braggin' rights, well, the SEC has 'em. Then again ... if you can do it, it ain't braggin'.
FIRST DOWNS, SEC
1893 First Iron Bowl
In Birmingham, Auburn beats Alabama 32--22
1913 First Cry of "War Eagle"
At a pep rally on the Auburn campus