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By winning national title, Alabama illustrates SEC's dominance

PASADENA, Calif. -- The man wore a crimson sports coat and a houndstooth hat -- in other words, he fit right in with the rest of the jubilant crowd -- and when Alabama scored, he raised both hands, signaling "V" for victory with both, like he was channeling Richard Nixon.

Or four. The signal might have been the number four. It was hard to tell.

But a moment later, the familiar chant began, boiling up from somewhere lower in the old stadium. It rolled through the Rose Bowl -- and no doubt, swept all through the South, too -- "SEC! SEC! SEC! SEC!" And there was no mistaking the message.

Alabama's 37-21 win over Texas in the BCS title game sent Crimson Tide fans into paroxysms of joy over the traditional power's return to glory after 17 long years. But in the final, delirious moments Thursday night, before anyone yelled "Roll, Tide!", they made sure to remind everyone where the national champions hail from.

As usual.

If you're counting -- and rest assured, they are -- that's four straight BCS national championships for the Southeastern Conference, the undisputed king of college football. Don't believe it? Just ask 'em:

"I know it sounds terrible, or maybe a little bit cocky, but the SEC is the toughest football conference in America," said Greg McElroy, Alabama's junior quarterback. "Top to bottom. I don't care what anybody says."

What we're all saying is: SEC! SEC! SEC! To outsiders, it gets tiresome, the chant and the endless chest-thumping. But whether we're celebrating along with them, or grudgingly acknowledging the reality, the on-field thumpings they keep delivering cannot be ignored.

It's not at all clear, despite the final score, that Alabama was the superior team on Thursday night. Colt McCoy's early exit with shoulder injury changed everything. It was as if the unseen powers that rule football got together and agreed: OK, it has been long enough for one of college football's most storied programs, no more wandering in the wilderness.

Or maybe the explanation was simpler. It was just Alabama's turn. The SEC keeps sending teams to college football's ultimate game. They keep winning it.

"On my [championship] ring, it's not gonna say, 'Beat Texas without Colt,'" McElroy said. "It's gonna say, '14-0, national champion.'"

The script reads SEC dominance. And while its teams trade the lead roles -- Florida, LSU, Florida and now Alabama -- the rest of college football plays the patsy. It's their world; we're just playing (second) in it.

As the celebration swirled around him, SEC commissioner Mike Slive was standing on the field, listening to the fans chanting, and saying: "It's in our DNA. The whole region takes pride in what we do here tonight."

No, sorry, it gets confusing. That was Slive a year earlier, in Miami, after Florida whipped Oklahoma. Back when it was only three in a row, a trend rather than manifest destiny.

On Thursday night, Slive stood on the field at the Rose Bowl, watched the celebration, listened to the chant, and said: "It never gets old."

It might never end. In the 12 seasons since the BCS was formed, six SEC teams have played for the championship. Six times, they've won it all (and that's not counting unbeaten Auburn in 2004, which was shut out of the BCS Championship Game, a memory that still incites outrage around the South). By comparison, the Big 12 has won two championships. No other conference has more than one (although USC also was awarded a national title by the AP voters).

And in the last few years, the pace has accelerated, and the SEC's grip on college football has tightened.

LSU won the 2003 title under Nick Saban. Florida did it in 2006, LSU in 2007, Florida again in 2008. And now, in his third season at Alabama, Saban has the Tide back on top. Is it a good thing, I asked Slive, that the league's traditional flagship program has joined the string of dominance?

"The point of our league is that we don't have a flagship team," he said. "Four years in a row with three different teams, and Tennessee won it in 1998. That's the difference in our league and some other leagues."

That's not the only difference. It's the result of so many other things that separate the SEC from everybody else. The SEC owns autumn Saturdays because of its mammoth TV contracts with CBS and, more recently, with ESPN. Also, as Slive said, it's in their DNA to care more passionately about football than any other fans, anywhere else. The attendance Thursday night at the Rose Bowl was 94,906 ... or about what Alabama gets for a spring game.

Sometimes, people confuse passion with performance. The gap between the SEC and other conferences, top to bottom, isn't nearly as large as they'd like to believe. But the success in the biggest games is undeniable, and it feeds the perception of total dominance: best coaches, best players, best teams, best everything. Which led to another question, this one posed to BCS executive director Bill Hancock: Is it a concern that the SEC keeps winning, every year?

"I don't think it matters to the system," Hancock said. "It all goes in cycles, we know that."

But this spin cycle seems never-ending. For sure, the good folk of Alabama believe their reign is only beginning. In his third season, Saban brought the Crimson Tide's eighth national title (with loose accounting, the school claims 13, but we'll go with the method used by everyone else). The program seems poised for a sustained run, and maybe all of those houndstooth hats (and caps, and skirts, and so much else) can become something more than proud, yet painful reminders of long-gone glory.

"There's no end in sight to the Alabama dynasty that's been created," McElroy said. "I don't see an end in sight, I really don't. ... I'll be back next year. Might as well get ready to win another one."

It sounded good, and reasonable. Except it was only a year ago when we were wondering whether Urban Meyer, and not Saban, was building a dynasty. I'm not so sure it can be done in the SEC -- only by the SEC -- but whether it's Alabama or some other SEC team, we all might as well get ready to watch them win another one.

And to hear them crow about it, all over the south.

Long after the field had been cleared, the stadium had emptied and the chant had faded away, I spoke with a guy wearing a sharp suit accented with a crimson tie. Not so long ago, he coached college football's most dominant program, and people used to toss around terms like dynasty with regularity.

"A mistake," said Pete Carroll of the tie color. But it looked great on TV as he filled an unfamiliar role as part-time analyst for ESPN College GameDay.

If the Trojans were the team of the decade, Carroll understands which league owned the 2000s.

"What is it, five years in a row? Four? They couldn't do anything more," he said. "It's an awesome statement for the conference."

A moment earlier, one of the talking heads had turned to Carroll, on-camera, and suggested no disrespect, but he was picking Alabama No. 1 in his preseason poll, and that the SEC was the odds-on pick for next year.

Carroll didn't say anything, but it wasn't necessary. Like everyone else, he'd already heard enough.

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