Andy Staples: Despite Oregon's best efforts, SEC team again hoists crystal football - Sports Illustrated

Despite Oregon's best efforts, SEC team again hoists crystal football

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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Something was missing Monday night.

At the past few BCS title games, the end-of-game procedure seemed set in stone. An SEC team wins the title, and even before the fans of that team break into their traditional chants, they serenade departing opposing fans with the same three letters.

S-E-C. S-E-C.

But when Auburn's Wes Byrum drilled a chip-shot field goal Monday to clinch the conference's fifth consecutive national title and seventh in 13 years of the BCS era, Tigers fans never started the chant. Alabama fans did it last year. LSU fans did it three years ago. Florida fans did it twice, in January 2007 and 2009.

Auburn fans yelled War Eagle. They chanted "It's great ... to be ... an Auburn Ti-ger!" They tossed rolls of toilet paper in honor of the folks back home who had so thoroughly covered Toomer's Corner in TP that those with untrained eyes would never have known the worst of the snow storm that ripped through Alabama had missed Auburn.

But they didn't chant S-E-C.

Maybe it doesn't need to be said anymore. Maybe the conference has such a stranglehold on the national title that its fans no longer feel the urge to remind the nation which league always seems to wind up hoisting the Waterford Crystal football.

When Florida capped the 2006 season by whipping Ohio State on this very field, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany sent a letter to his conference's fans. After all but saying the Gators beat the Buckeyes because they had dumber players, Delany offered a prediction.

"Let's see if the five- and 10-year trend lines hold or whether the recruiting services and talking heads are seeing a new day," Delany wrote. "We are quite proud of our history and tradition and remain optimistic about the future of Big Ten football."

Commissioner, the SEC has a five-year trend line it would like you to see.

This is not to pick on the Big Ten. The Big 12 also takes football very, very seriously. So does the Pac-10, which produced a fine champion (Oregon) that nearly broke the SEC's grip on the crystal football. But despite the Ducks' best efforts, an SEC team again wound up on the podium as confetti rained.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive refuses to speak ill of other conferences, but he has no problem talking about his league's five-peat. "That is the most amazing part -- that you can have that level of excellence in a league so deep," Slive said Tuesday in a phone interview. "[Five consecutive titles] may be a record that will never be broken."

Auburn coordinator Ted Roof, whose defense held Oregon to its lowest rushing total since a loss to Boise State in Chip Kelly's head-coaching debut in September 2009, believes the competition in the SEC breeds teams capable of succeeding on the biggest stage.

"It is such a grind to go through the conference season," Roof said. "It's a grinder. I think it prepares you for this."

Another reason is the attitude among the top programs in the league. At Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and sometimes Tennessee, a team's season is an utter failure if it doesn't result in a national title. They don't care about the Sugar Bowl. They don't care about anything but the crystal football.

Of course, this win-at-all-costs attitude can make for some rather messy situations. Auburn won the national title Monday, but the Tigers will always be remembered as controversial champions because quarterback Cam Newton's father tried to sell him to Mississippi State for $180,000. Logic would dictate that a player for sale to one school is for sale to all schools, but no one has found evidence of any wrongdoing by anyone at Auburn. The NCAA continues to investigate, though.

"Nothing is ever over, because you never know what tomorrow holds," Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said late Monday. "But as far as this issue goes, I have no reservation whatsoever. Cameron has always told the truth and never done anything wrong."

That attitude also results in a questionable practice in February that may give the SEC an unfair advantage in January. Several SEC schools make a practice of signing more players to letters-of-intent than scholarship availability would allow. This can result in messy divorces, as players who have outlived their usefulness get chased off to lower-division schools or placed on medical hardship. In eight of the 10 bowls involving SEC teams, the SEC school had signed more players over a four-year period than its opponent. This allows coaches to cover their recruiting mistakes. In Monday's matchup, Auburn had signed 19 more players than Oregon over a four-year span. In the Capital One Bowl, Alabama had signed 25 more players than Michigan State. In the Sugar Bowl, Arkansas had signed 30 more players than Ohio State.

The SEC instituted its own oversigning rule in 2009, capping incoming classes at 28 players. But come February, some players on scholarship at SEC schools will still get caught in a numbers crunch. So maybe university presidents need to pass a rule to level the playing field.

Of course, the conference that has lobbed the most invective at the SEC probably can't say much about the league's must-win attitude now. The Big Ten forfeited its right to be holier-than-thou when Ohio State cut a deal to allow some of its best players to play in the Sugar Bowl and put off suspensions for NCAA rules violations. The conferences really aren't as different as some would have you believe.

Besides, there is no guarantee new rules would keep the SEC from winning titles. Other than a few isolated strongholds such as Texas and Ohio, football simply means more in the South. Southerners were insulted when the 2004 Auburn team didn't get a chance to play for the national title. What was so good about the football in Oklahoma and Los Angeles that allowed the Sooners and Trojans to play for the title? "I believe they were the No. 1 team in the nation," Auburn offensive tackle Lee Ziemba said Monday, "and they didn't get to play for [the title]."

Jacobs understands all too well. The Auburn AD played on the Bo Jackson-led 1983 team that assumed it would rise to No. 1 after it beat Michigan in the Sugar Bowl and the two teams ranked ahead of the Tigers lost. "We went to bed thinking we'd won the national championship," Jacobs said. "Then we woke up the next morning and we hadn't."

Miami, ranked No. 5 going into the bowls, had rocketed past the Tigers to No. 1.

The Tigers won one Monday for the 1983 team. And for the 2004 team. And for the SEC -- even if their fans didn't feel the need to boast on the conference's behalf.

Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley is the SEC in microcosm. He's fast, strong, dominant. He can outmuscle a lineman, split a double-team and outrun a quarterback. Between the snap and the whistle, he usually is a joy to watch. But Fairley also grabs facemasks and hits late. His greatness, like the SEC's, has a dark side that occasionally overshadows the excellence.

So it was quite appropriate after the game when Fairley posted this on Twitter. "The State of Alabama runs College Football!!" Fairley wrote.

He's correct. The SEC office is in Birmingham.