What separates the University of Florida from Florida State and
Miami? National championship rings and national exposure for
starters. Between them, the Seminoles and the Hurricanes have
claimed four of the last 10 national titles and seen more
airtime than Beano Cook. But if you want to know what truly sets
the Gators apart from their in-state brethren, look no further
than the conference schedule of each school.
If you were trying to find the ideal Sunshine State vacation,
you could do worse than hitch up with Miami for its Big East
itinerary, an inviting stretch of overmatched opponents and
guaranteed W's; since the Hurricanes joined the league in 1991,
they have taken 19 of 20 Big East games. Even more relaxing is
the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule of Florida State. Last
fall the Seminoles, who have gone 24-0 since entering the ACC in
'92, trailed a league opponent in the second half for all of
four minutes. So yawning is the gap between them and the rest of
the ACC that this is what passed for the league's showdown last
fall: Florida State 59, Duke 20.
But the Gators' affiliation with the best conference in the
nation, the SEC, yields few such days at the beach. To win the
championship, an SEC team must slog through eight games so
demanding that even the relative softies can jump up and bite at
any time (two years ago, for example, LSU defeated unbeaten
Alabama). Win the division and what you get is a trip to the SEC
championship, a bowl game unto itself, a game you have to win
merely to stay in the hunt for the national title come Jan. 2.
"When you play eight conference games or, in our case the last
couple of years, nine," says Gator coach Steve Spurrier, "by the
time you get to the SEC championship, you feel like you've
already put in a full season."
Which bears directly on the matter of championship rings.
Because the Hurricanes and the Seminoles are unlikely to be
sidetracked by any of their conference cream puffs, they can
afford to enter each season with their eyes trained far down the
road, angling to add to their jewelry collections. "You play for
Miami or Florida State, you play for the big prize," said
Hurricane linebacker Ray Lewis last fall. "The national
August 4, 1995
The Gators, meanwhile, must first run the SEC obstacle course
even to begin talking about a No. 1 finish. Since the start of
the 1993 season, Florida has had an .875 winning percentage in
the SEC and has won the last two championship games. Yet because
of two losses to conference foe Auburn, the Gators have wound up
no higher than fifth in the country. In fact, they have finished
higher than third in their own state only once in the last five
years, while Florida State and Miami were divvying up two
national titles. "We don't have the luxury of taking our
conference schedule for granted," Spurrier says. "No SEC team
does. Not when you play in the toughest conference in the
So given the hazards of the rugged SEC, just what are the
privileges of membership? The first is that the conference
occupies a special place in the pollsters' hearts (chart, page
117). Last fall alone, the SEC finished with three of the top
nine teams in the country and five of the Top 25. It sent five
teams to bowl games and would have sent a sixth had Auburn not
been serving a two-year probation for recruiting violations.
How to explain the league's reputation? Tradition, that favorite
buzzword of the Deep South, offers one answer. "We win two
games, some bowl will invite us," Bear Bryant once quipped. Yet
to cite tradition alone invites the tired, unfair stereotype
that the SEC has become smug with its winning ways, content to
live off the past glories of coaching icons like Bryant, Wally
Butts and General Neyland. Says Kentucky coach Bill Curry,
"People see the SEC as being hidebound by its tradition. That's
an incorrect assumption. Rich in tradition and history? Yes.
Unchanging and unwilling to adapt? Definitely not."
Indeed, it is less its tradition than its malleability that has
sustained the SEC's formidable reputation. Often chastised for
its guileless devotion to such an archaic practice as
smash-mouth, defense-first football, the league appears
sufficiently prepared for the next millennium. To wit: In recent
years its schools have imported some of the nation's most
creative offensive minds. That group includes Spurrier and his
Fun 'N' Gun attack; South Carolina coach Brad Scott, previously
the architect of Florida State's fast break; Auburn coach Terry
Bowden, one of the nation's preeminent play-callers; and Alabama
offensive coordinator Homer Smith. It is Smith, you might
recall, who has used such unorthodox teaching methods as having
policemen fire blanks into the air to demonstrate the type of
explosiveness he wants from his offensive linemen. "College
football has changed," says Georgia coach Ray Goff. "And it's
changed in the South, too. To stay the best conference in the
country, we have to look forward. And I think we've done that."
Nothing better demonstrates this willingness to go forward than
the SEC's decision in 1992 to split into a two-division, 12-team
superconference--the first of its kind--a savvy stroke that
cemented the SEC's status as the nation's premier league. With
its crown jewel of a championship game and a television contract
with CBS that begins in '96, the SEC boasts a national profile
matched by no other football conference. Increased exposure has
enabled SEC schools to expand their recruiting bases to include
once forbidden grounds like South Florida and the Northeast;
last year Tennessee's top-rated recruiting class included
blue-chippers from such distant parts as New Jersey, Maryland
and Oklahoma. And only last February, Bowden signed eight
players from Florida, including the state's top prospect,
defensive back Martavius Houston.
Whereas other conferences once looked disapprovingly on the
SEC's decision to expand, they are now, not surprisingly,
starting to follow its lead. The WAC, which will increase its
membership from 10 to 16 next season, will introduce its own
title game in '96. And the Big Eight, which will become the Big
12 next season, has also begun examining the possibility of a
conference championship game.
But there's always this rub: Belonging to a superconference
assures a welcome stream of new revenue and an enhanced national
profile, but it remains a drag on any school that eyes the big
prize. Since 1981 no league has produced more Top 10 teams than
the SEC. Remarkably, during that same period the league has also
produced no more champions than the WAC has (one). "Expansion
and the championship game brought a lot of attention to the
league," says Alabama coach Gene Stallings. "It also made it
that much harder for any team in the league to win a national
It has also caused Spurrier something of an identity crisis.
With the Fun 'N' Gun and all its swagger, Florida has more
closely resembled its intrastate rivals than its SEC cronies.
For most of his five years in Gainesville, Spurrier has taken
potshot after potshot at the Seminoles, giving the distinct
impression that he deems Florida State the most important
measuring stick for his own program.
And yet during the past off-season, there was Spurrier
barnstorming through the Sunshine State, ditching his Free Shoes
University shtick from the previous summer and sounding instead
very much like, well, like an SEC coach. He spoke about getting
kids who came from good mamas and daddies and even sang a few
paeans to the best conference in the country. "My little son
Scotty came home from school with a prayer about a year ago,"
Spurrier recited at every stop, "and it goes like this: 'The
Lord's been good to me, and I thank the Lord for giving me the
things I need--the rain, the sun and the apple seeds.' Well, we
changed that prayer around a little bit now, and it goes like
this: 'The Lord's been good to me, and so I thank the Lord for
giving me all the things I need--the rain and the sun and the
Final Top 10 finishes (AP poll), by conference, during the 1990s
Big Ten 7
Big East** 5
Big Eight 4
* Includes Florida State, Miami and Penn State
before conference affiliation.
** Began play in 1991.
In the 1990s the SEC has clearly been the preeminent conference
in the nation. Here's how each league has fared in its
nonconference games during this span.
[Text not available--table showing nonconference records for
SEC, ACC, Pac-10, Big East, Big Eight, Big Ten, SWC, WAC, MAC,
and Big West from 1990-1994]