Even before they unleashed rammer jammer yellow hammer -- the traditional cheer that reminds a vanquished opponent that Alabama just "beat the hell out of you" -- Crimson Tide fans chanted three letters. Their united voice rolled over the field at the Rose Bowl, swept across the Texas sideline, rose out of the stadium and carried over the San Gabriel Mountains.
Florida fans had chanted the same three letters a year earlier in Miami. A year before that, LSU fans had chanted them in New Orleans. And a year before that, Florida fans had roared so loud that the letters had burst from University of Phoenix Stadium and tumbled across the Arizona desert.
Why such fierce regional pride? One academic has a theory. "There's something called Southern exceptionalism, where [Southerners] feel different from other people," University of Oklahoma history professor William Savage told The Oklahoman last year. (Savage, who earned his bachelor's degree from South Carolina, probably isn't welcome back in Columbia anytime soon.) The professor went on to offer, "There's a deep-seated inferiority, left over from the 19th century. It's an aspect of wanting to win something, [and it] doesn't really matter what it is."
With all due respect, Professor Savage, it does matter what it is.
The SEC won one fifth of the NCAA men's basketball titles in the first decade of this century, but you won't hear anyone bragging about that over biscuits at The Waysider in Tuscaloosa. It matters because the SEC dominates college football, the game that means more to the average Southerner than just about anything except possibly barbecue.
From the LSU tailgaters who start the party on Tuesday, to the Auburn war eagle that devours mice at the 50-yard line of Jordan-Hare Stadium, to the Alabama defensive end (Marcell Dareus) who can intercept a pass and spin his 306-pound body around Texas players until he reaches the end zone, the SEC simply provides a superior football experience. Whether in the Swamp, between the Hedges or in Death Valley, every Saturday means something.
For four straight years and five of the past seven, an SEC team has ended the season with its coach holding a Waterford crystal football aloft. Since the Associated Press began crowning a national champion in 1936, no other conference has won four national titles in a row. Since the BCS began in 1998, SEC schools have won half the titles.
"The league is better now than it's ever been," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who won the 2003 BCS title with LSU and the 2009 title with the Crimson Tide. "I thought it was an outstanding league before. From top to bottom there are probably more good coaches, more good programs, more good teams than ever before."
How good? For the past two seasons the participants in the SEC title game have entered the clash ranked No. 1 and No. 2 nationally. "If people want a playoff," Saban said, "all you've got to do is come to the SEC championship game."
Naturally, this dominance chafes those who live in places where they don't appreciate Dolly Parton as an artist and where they don't understand that good grits require the perfect combination of salt, pepper and butter. After Florida steamrolled Ohio State 41-14 to win the 2006 BCS title, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany released a statement that essentially blamed the Buckeyes' lack of swiftness on the Big Ten's higher academic standards.
"The SEC has great speed, especially on the defensive line, but there are appropriate balances when mixing academics and athletics," Delany wrote on Feb. 9, 2007. "Each school, as well as each conference, simply must do what fits their mission regardless of what a recruiting service recommends."
Near the end of his letter Delany posited that, given the cyclical nature of college football, it was unlikely the SEC's reign would last long. "Let's see if the five- and 10-year trend lines hold," Delany wrote, "or whether the recruiting services and talking heads are seeing a new day."
Three seasons have passed since then, Commissioner. No other conference has won the national title. And when an SEC team beats a nonconference foe, SEC fans -- even the ones who are bound by tradition to hate one another -- rise to a full-throated roar to proclaim that superiority.
Nothing an Alabama fan says could make an Auburn fan smile unless that Alabama fan is chanting those three magical letters. In Athens, the only time Georgia boosters don't razz the Florida Gators is when they take up the acronym of the conference. Mississippi State faithful would never clang their cowbells for an Ole Miss Rebel unless he were asserting SEC dominance against a team from some other conference in a bowl game.
Professor Savage may have a point: It's especially nice for Southerners to claim victory over Yankees or Midwesterners or Left Coasters. But it's most satisfying when that victory comes on the gridiron with a crystal football on the line. So should the SEC's champion find a way in January to win the conference's fifth consecutive national title, before that team's fans pay homage to their own school, they will honor the conference that plays football better than any other.
Those in other conferences have grown sick of hearing the chant. By now it must be ringing in their ears. The good news is, there's a simple way to make it stop.
Win. The. National. Championship.