Oregon-Ohio State title game ushers in era not defined by SEC dominance

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As Oregon and Ohio State prepare for the biggest college football game in the history of everything ever, let’s pause for a moment and acknowledge: They have already won.

They have won because Oregon was supposed to fade two years ago, when Chip Kelly left for the NFL, and Ohio State was not supposed to rise to this level until next season, when the Buckeyes will be loaded. They have won because they are in the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game and the vaunted Southeastern Conference is not.

Officially, this game will determine the best team in college football this season. But it also will provide a window into the sport’s immediate future, and shed some perspective on its recent past.

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The SEC is not dead, and will not die, no matter how much the league’s detractors want to believe that. Four bowl losses don’t destroy a conference. But the SEC also won’t dominate the next decade of college football like it dominated the last decade. There will be more Oregons and more Ohio States (and some of them may actually be Oregon and Ohio State).

We have all heard the song of SEC dominance so often that you might confuse it with our national anthem. The truth is the league’s superiority is a relatively recent phenomenon. From 1983 to 2001, Miami won five national championships. Nebraska won three. The entire SEC won three.

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This was partly a function of luck, malfeasance and timing. Auburn went undefeated in 1993 but was ineligible for bowls because of NCAA violations, and Florida ran into a similar problem in the mid-1980s. Miami benefited from not being in a conference, and then not being in a very good conference, in an era when one loss could eliminate a team from title contention.

But also, while the SEC was a great conference, it was not the great conference. There were moments of excellence, certainly, like when Alabama obliterated favored Miami in the 1993 Sugar Bowl. But there were also days that would have invited unending ridicule if they had happened to the Big Ten in the last few years. After the ’95 season, Florida played Nebraska for the national title and got creamed, 62-24. In ’99 Alabama lost to Louisiana Tech but still won the SEC.

ohio state sec

Then came the SEC Era of college football. From 2006 through ’12, the SEC won every national championship, and really, that undersells the point. LSU won a share of the title in ’03. Auburn was worthy of playing for the title in ’04. Auburn came within a play of winning the title last year.

This led to all sorts of proclamations that the SEC had taken over college football and would never relinquish control. Surely you have heard the theories. The United States population is shifting to the South. That’s where the players are. With so many powerhouse programs (Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia, Auburn, do we have to go on?) the SEC would only get stronger, in perpetuity. Nobody likes snow. The sport matters more in the South.

This all sounded good at the time, and if you tried to argue against it, particularly in a certain social-media forum that limits thoughts to 140 characters, you would get shot down and perhaps slapped upside the head. Those chants of “S-E-C! S-E-C!” didn’t stop after championship celebrations. Nobody wanted to hear that college football is cyclical, and no league stays on top forever.

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And yet: College football is cyclical, and no league stays on top forever. The SEC was better than ever largely because of two all-time great coaches at their peaks: Nick Saban and Urban Meyer won six of the league’s eight championships. As for the future ... sure, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 118 million people live in the South, more than any other region. That gives the SEC an advantage, but is it an insurmountable one?

The two teams in this title game provide a road map from other parts of the country to the title. Two different road maps, actually.

Less than four million people live in Oregon, yet the Ducks have created a national powerhouse through unconventional means: Phil Knight’s money, glitzy facilities, undeniable branding success and progressive schemes. In an era when virtually every game is televised, and mom and dad are a text message away, recruiting territories don’t matter as much as they once did. Oregon has proven it, just as Boise State proved it. Of the 23 players in Marcus Mariota’s recruiting class, only three were from Oregon.

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Ohio State sits in a state brimming with talent, and both the school and coach Meyer have nationally recognized names. The Buckeyes don’t need a roster full of players from the South. Meyer can add a few players from around the country to the best of his recruiting base and compete for national titles.

And just as teams can get creative, so can leagues. Thanks to expansion, there are now more people living in states with Big Ten teams than in states with SEC teams. (That doesn’t count New York as Big Ten territory, even though it probably will be, with Rutgers and Penn State nearby. And it does count Texas as SEC territory, even though only one of Texas’ big schools, Texas A&M, is in the SEC.)

Meanwhile, the SEC is not immune to downturns. Saban will turn 64 next season. Les Miles will turn 62. Nobody is suggesting they will suddenly forget what they’re doing, but coaching at this level requires such a physical and mental commitment that very, very few coaches excel into their late 60s. If Alabama and LSU drop off just a little bit, doesn’t that alter the scene in the SEC?

Maybe Butch Jones will bring Tennessee back into the national-title conversation and Jim McElwain will do the same at Florida ... but, you know, maybe they won’t. Would you really choose the next 10 years of McElwain at Florida over the next 10 of Meyer at Ohio State?

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops famously ridiculed the notion of SEC dominance as “propaganda.” It wasn’t. What the SEC did over the last decade was incredible. And that’s why it couldn’t last forever.