Friday July 24th, 2009

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- I just spent the past hour asking recruits if they were virgins. OK, I'm kidding. I only asked the ones who had committed to SEC schools.

Kidding about that one, too. But maybe I should have. Isn't it my duty as a former SEC beat writer to ferret out the sexual proclivities of star football players? Or to sniff out the coach who dared cast a vote for someone other than Tim Tebow as the first-team All-SEC quarterback? I'm covering a recruiting event here and skipped SEC media days. Having watched the Hoover, Ala., histrionics from a distance, I now understand why the rest of the nation thinks we southerners descended from the planet ChickenFried. I also understand why the SEC might someday generate more revenue than the NBA.

For those who haven't been paying attention to SEC media days or following every athletic director, coach, player and beat writer on Twitter, allow me to summarize the topics that have blasted out of the Wynfrey Hotel and into the consciousness of football fans across the country.

• One by one, the 11 league coaches not named Urban Meyer denied leaving Tebow off their first-team ballot. Finally on Friday, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier admitted he cast the offending vote. Spurrier, who, like Tebow, was a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Florida, blamed the gaffe on a staffer and apologized profusely. "It's my fault," Spurrier said. "I take full responsibility. I messed that up. I apologized to Tim Tebow. We screwed it up pretty badly. I'm embarrassed about it. I feel bad about it. That's the way it happened." Spurrier changed his vote to Tebow, making the selection unanimous. The angels sang.

Clay Travis, an avowed Tennessee fan who writes for AOL, asked Tebow on Thursday if he was saving himself for marriage. "Yes, I love throwing versus one-highs. Speed posts," Tebow said, laughing. Then he fessed up. "Yes. I am." Tebow handled the aftermath better than the assembled media corps. "I was ready for the question," he said. "I don't think y'all were." Friday, bounties were posted in every sorority house in Gainesville.

• SEC fans eagerly anticipated the announcement of the broadcast team for the ESPN-ized version of what they call "the JP game," the noonish telecast that used to be presented by Jefferson-Pilot Sports. For years, the three-man team calling the game consisted of three guys named Dave, though one guy called himself Buzz. Only one Dave (play-by-play man Dave Neal) survived the ESPN purge. Some fans celebrated the move as an upgrade, while others mourned the loss of their favorite Dave-related drinking games. MANDEL: What the SEC deal means for college football

• Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked if he worried about wearing LSU colors for his role in the film version of The Blind Side, Michael Lewis' book about the development of former Ole Miss offensive tackle Michael Oher. Saban, who gave his recruiting pitch to Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw, needed 362 words to explain why Alabama folks shouldn't get upset that their coach donned the colors of a rival. The explanation could have been much simpler. Saban coached at LSU when Oher was in high school. End of story.

But it's not that simple in the SEC. It matters to folks around here when a school's coach wears another school's colors. That sort of act requires a 362-word explanation.

Before you e-mailers below the Mason-Dixon line start your flamethrowers, understand I'm not poking fun at any of this. My parents met in a class at Alabama. My stepfather, who taught me all about football, attended South Carolina. As many of you Tennessee and Georgia fans have pointed out, I was a walk-on football player at Florida.

College football is just more important to people in the South than it is to people in the rest of the country. There is a good reason for this. Pro sports ignored the South for a long time. For southerners in my parents' generation, college football dominated the news because it usually was the only game in town. Those people passed their sports consumption habits down to the next generation, and my generation will pass it along to the one that follows ours. For that reason, many SEC fans pay no mind to the NFL, unless it's a Tennessee fan checking on Peyton Manning or an LSU fan following LaRon Landry.

For these people, the color of a coach's shirt matters. They want to know who voted for whom in the meaningless preseason All-SEC balloting. They really are fascinated by everything first-year Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin does. Some of them truly want to know if Tebow is a virgin.

When Pac-10 media days roll around, no one will ask USC quarterback Aaron Corp the same question for two reasons. First, only Chuck Norris and Tim Tebow have that kind of willpower. Second, no one cares. The Pac-10 -- and I'm going to duck after I write this -- plays a more entertaining brand of football than the rest of its BCS-conference brethren, but it's invisible to half the country because of a horrendous TV contract. The reason networks haven't forked over the cash is because the fans of those 10 schools combined don't have half the passion of Alabama's fan base.

People who live up north always say they could never live down here because they would miss the change of seasons. We have seasons in the South. Football season, recruiting and spring football.

Unlike much of the national media -- which regularly underestimates the passion and buying power of rabid college football fans -- CBS and ESPN know that in a nine-state footprint lives a dedicated base of fans who will follow their teams to the ends of the earth. Baseball can't match that dedication. The next time you meet someone who claims to be a die-hard Red Sox fan, ask him how many magnets he can fit on his RV. That's why the two networks will pay a combined $3 billion over the next 15 years to televise SEC sports.

It seemed at first the deal would push SEC football to its saturation point. If this week proved anything, it's that there is no saturation point. There is only an insatiable hunger for more Tebow, more Saban, more Spurrier. If anything, networks will spend more money on the SEC in the future, allowing its schools to pump even more money into football.

So don't act so shocked that somebody asked Tebow about his virginity or that more journalistic dollars went into finding the offending All-SEC vote than The Washington Post spent to break Watergate. It's just the way things are done down this way.

Don't judge us.

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