Battle of the South

With six teams in the Top 25 and more speed and NFL prospects than anyone else, the SEC is the best, toughest, wildest conference in the land. But can any of its members survive to reach the national title game?
October 15, 2006

If your notion ofthe South involves a leisurely paced lifestyle and languid afternoons spent onthe veranda, you're probably unfamiliar with the mostly Southern gentlemen whohave turned Southeastern Conference football into a Dixie-style version of theautobahn, complete with high-speed collisions. Saturdays in the SEC are weeklyadrenaline jolts, amped-up affairs with all the dials turned up to high, exceptthe ones that register points on the scoreboard. The hitting is Richter-scalehard, the outcomes can be wildly unpredictable, and it all takes place atmaximum velocity in front of packed houses. Everything happens fast in the SEC,which is the best conference in the country largely because it is theswiftest.

Like most everyoneelse, the league has its share of quicksilver players at the skill positions,but the SEC has accelerated beyond other conferences because of its speedelsewhere on the field, particularly on defense. Linemen such as Georgia'sQuentin Moses and Auburn's Marquies Gunn track down fleeing quarterbacks withrelative ease, linebackers such as Florida's Brandon Siler and LSU's AliHighsmith run step for step with backs heading downfield on pass patterns, andhardly anyone blinks an eye. "In the SEC," says South Carolina coachSteve Spurrier, "even the water boys can run."

It's not just theaction on the field that's accelerated. The balance of power can also shift ina hurry, as it did last Saturday, when Arkansas shocked No. 2 Auburn 27--10 onthe Tigers' home turf (story, right). The victory left the Razorbacks 3--0 inthe league and alone atop the SEC West, which is remarkable because at thestart of the day the conference had five ranked teams, four of which were inthe Top 10 (Auburn, Florida, LSU and Georgia), and Arkansas wasn't one of them.As college football hits the midseason mark, it is clear that the SEC has morequality teams than any other conference, but no one has the slightest clue asto which one of them is the best.

Fifth-rankedFlorida staked at least a temporary claim to that title with a 23--10 victoryover No. 9 LSU on Saturday in a game that featured typical SEC speed andathleticism. On a first-quarter play from his five-yard line, Gatorsquarterback Chris Leak completed a pass to wide receiver Dallas Baker, at whichpoint Tigers defensive end Tyson Jackson, who had been applying a pass rush,turned and hauled his 6'5", 281-pound frame upfield fast enough to get inon the tackle of Baker 18 yards away. It was a remarkable play that wentunnoticed because similar ones happen so often in the SEC. "The defensivepersonnel in that league is second to none," says Arizona coach MikeStoops, whose team lost 45--3 to LSU earlier this season. "Their speed andsize is pretty overwhelming. I don't know if there's a better group of playersin the country than I saw at LSU."

Georgiasurrendered what would ordinarily be about a month's worth of points in a51--33 loss to Tennessee on Saturday, but before last weekend's games theBulldogs were No. 1 in the country in scoring defense, and the three teamsright behind them in that category--LSU, Auburn and Florida--were conferencebrethren, none of whom were allowing more than 10 points per game. But thoseweren't the only teams in the league that were stifling opponents. Californiaquarterback Nate Longshore was duly impressed by Tennessee's speed in a 35--18Volunteers victory on Sept. 2. "I thought we had them beaten around theedge, and they would catch us from behind," Longshore said. "We had somany plays where we were a half a second away from a big play." That's thehalf-second SEC defenses are too fast to allow.

AlthoughSaturday's results knocked Auburn, LSU and Georgia out of the Top 10, Arkansasmoved into the rankings at No. 17, giving the SEC six ranked teams, more thanany other conference. The league also has a competitive second tier thatincludes revitalized South Carolina, which Spurrier has swiftly beenrebuilding, and included the Razorbacks until they moved up in class."There are a lot of coaches who will crow about how tough their leagueis," says Spurrier, "but I don't think you'd find a single one whowould want to come down here and jump into the SEC. The competition isfierce."

It's more thanfierce, it's downright cannibalistic. The conference is so strong that the topteams have taken turns putting a crimp in one another's national championshipplans. Georgia lost to Tennessee, which lost to Florida, whose undefeatedseason may not survive a trip to Auburn this Saturday. (The Gators wind up amurderous four-game stretch by playing Georgia in Jacksonville on Oct. 28.)It's going to be difficult for any SEC team to put together the kind of recordlikely to get it into the national championship game, which is why Auburn coachTommy Tuberville has been stumping for a four-team playoff system. "Thereis no reason on this earth why we can't have the best four and then play onemore," Tuberville said last week.

Facing SECdefenses on a weekly basis can also be hazardous to the health of a Heismancampaign, as Auburn tailback Kenny Irons is discovering. Arkansas limited Ironsto 75 yards on 15 carries, and LSU held him to 70 on 25 attempts. "Thisisn't a league where you can pad your stats," Irons says. "Sometimes 75yards in the SEC is like 150 somewhere else."

Even if the SECdoesn't produce the national champion or the Heisman winner, the NFL certainlyseems convinced of the conference's quality. There were 266 former SEC playerson NFL rosters when the season opened, more than from any other conference, andthere are many more on the way. Every weekend pro scouts head south likemigrating birds to evaluate the multitudes of draft prospects in the SEC. TheLSU-Auburn game featured a remarkable 27 NFL prospects, in the estimation ofBuddy Nix, the San Diego Chargers' assistant general manager and director ofplayer personnel, who says that at most a typical college game betweenhigh-level teams has about half that many. "That's 27 players you've got tokeep an eye on, and that's just two teams," says Nix. "You've got towatch tape over and over when it's an SEC game because there are just too manyguys to keep up with. We call that grinding. We've got to grind it out when itcomes to scouting the SEC."

SEC teams are26--7 in nonconference play, a record that is even more impressive when youconsider the extent to which some of the better nonconference opponents haveemerged dazed and confused from the matchups. When California, ranked ninth inthe preseason, visited Tennessee, the Bears were down 35--0 almost beforeVolunteers fans made it through the first few bars of Rocky Top. The Vols'17-point victory is even more impressive in light of the Golden Bears' lopsidedvictories in every game they've played since then, the latest a 45--24 win over11th-ranked Oregon on Saturday. "You hear a lot about how good the footballis down here," said Cal coach Jeff Tedford after the Tennessee loss."It's all true."

Although SEC fanstend to puff their chests out about the league's long tradition of stoutdefenses, the flip side is that the conference hasn't produced many offensespotent enough to test them since Spurrier left Florida for the WashingtonRedskins five years ago. But that's no longer the case. The league has Irons,the Heisman-caliber back; Florida quarterback Chris Leak has gotten the hang ofrunning coach Urban Meyer's spread option; and freshman QB Tim Tebow has addedanother dimension to the Gators' attack with his running ability. Newcoordinator David Cutcliffe has worked wonders with quarterback Erik Ainge andthe Tennessee offense, and Spurrier has reenergized South Carolina's offensewith the considerable help of standout wide receiver Sidney Rice.

Yet the league'sblazing-fast defenses seem to stay one step ahead. The same Tennessee offensethat strafed Cal for 514 total yards could gain only 220 against the Gators,who held the Vols to minus-11 yards rushing in Florida's 21--20 victory onSept. 16. Auburn and LSU had scored more than 30 points in a game four timesbetween them when they met, but the two sets of Tigers shut each other down inAuburn's 7--3 win.

That meetingstands as the SEC's signature game--an epic defensive struggle with frighteningphysics. The hits were made even more brutal by the speed of the playersinvolved. "The impact of the collisions was pretty scary at times,"says Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges. "The physicality of the gamewas off the charts."

Defense reigns inthe SEC, a truth that, like most of the league's defensive units, is virtuallyinescapable. "We're not a bunch of big, slow guys who need you to standstill for us to get you," says Florida defensive end Jarvis Moss. "Ilike to run almost as much as I like to hit. I love that look you get from aquarterback when you catch him from behind, like, Where did you comefrom?"

SEC recruitersaren't the only ones who search diligently for speed, of course. They're justmore successful at finding it than most other programs. That's partly justgeographical good fortune: The Southeast is fertile ground for the fleet offoot. In most areas of the country the rule of thumb is that the fastestplayers are usually from urban areas. Not so in the South. "In the SECspeed can be anywhere," says Borges. "You can find a kid in a verysmall town who's very, very fast. That's rare on the West Coast, for instance.That's the huge difference. Everywhere you look in the South, you can findspeed."

After findingspeedy athletes, the next step is often to lure them away from the basketballcourt, a task at which recruiters are becoming more successful. Encouraged bythe success of former college hoops stars such as Chargers tight end AntonioGates, some "in-between" athletes are choosing football overbasketball. "Kentucky is a big basketball state, but kids are realizingthat at 6'5" and 230, they're not going to be the next Michael Jordan andhave a much better chance of playing in the NFL than the NBA," saysKentucky defensive coordinator Mike Archer. "In our last recruiting classwe signed four tight ends who played basketball. They were 230 pounds in highschool, and they'll grow to 265 pounds in two years here."

It won't be asurprise if at least some of those players find themselves on the other side ofthe ball, because SEC programs make sure their defenses are well-stocked withswift athletes. "Either you have speed," says Alabama defensivecoordinator Joe Kines, "or you're chasing it."

It seems as if SECteams are constantly in pursuit anyway, chasing one another up and down theconference standings and the national rankings. The chase is so intense thatnone of them may have enough left to claim the national championship. But it'sstill a pleasure to watch them make a mad dash for it.

The Case for the SEC

MAKING ASTATEMENT

[This article contains tables. Please see hardcopy or pdf.]

The SEC has thehighest winning percentage of any league in games played outside theconference.

CONFERENCE RECORD PCT.
SEC 26--7 .788
BIG EAST 28--8 .778
BIG TEN 28--10 .737
PAC-10 19--8 .704
BIG 12 33--15 .688
ACC 23--11 .676

FILLING THEHOUSE

The Big Ten mayhave three of the four largest stadiums, but the SEC has led the country intotal attendance for 26 years running. Here's the 2005 attendance for the BCSconferences.

CONF. ATT. AVG. PCT.
SEC 5,751,917 74,700 97.6
BIG TEN 5,007,067 72,566 93.9
BIG 12 4,204,574 58,397 95.0
ACC 3,762,511 52,257 90.7
PAC-10 3,448,759 57,479 84.9
BIG EAST 1,812,406 39,400 83.5

PLAYING ONSUNDAY

No conference hadmore players on opening week NFL rosters than the SEC, which had 266. The ACCwas next, with 247 players, followed by the Big Ten, with 236. And while a pairof ACC schools had the most representation, five SEC programs ranked in the top11.

  SCHOOL NFL PLAYERS
1. MIAMI 42
2. FLORIDA STATE 41
3. TENNESSEE 40
4. GEORGIA 39
  OHIO STATE 39
6. MICHIGAN 36
7. FLORIDA 35
8. NEBRASKA 32
9. LSU 31
10. PENN STATE 29
11. AUBURN 27
12. NOTRE DAME 26
  UCLA 26
  USC 26
  WISCONSIN 26


HALFWAY POINT

See SI.com's midseason All-America team, a photogallery of first-half surprises and predictions on the rest of the year atSI.com/collegefootball.

"The defensive personnel in that league is secondto none," says Stoops. "Their speed and size is prettyoverwhelming."

PHOTOPhotograph by David BergmanROCKY TOP Arian Foster (27) had a pair of touchdowns during a 27-point fourth quarter as surging Tennessee rallied to beat Georgia. PHOTODAVID BERGMAN (AINGE)NEW MAN Ainge threw for 268 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Georgia. BOB ROSATO MAD SCRAMBLE The opportunistic Gators forced five turnovers in their triumph over LSU. PHOTO JOHN BIEVERLOVE YA BLUE Florida fans have seen their Gators win 13 straight games at the Swamp. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERLOST Anthony Campbell and Auburn now need help to get to the SEC title game.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)