Asking why any team or conference is dominant is a bit of a chicken-and-egg question: do they nab the best players and attract the best coaches because they’re seen as the best, or are they the best because they get the best players and coaches? As with most of life’s profound questions, the answer isn’t black and white. A lot of factors go into making the SEC what most would agree is college football’s preeminent conference.
Youth and High School Football In The South
I don’t think most of the country has an equivalent as far as high school football in Texas and the Southeast. There are high schools in Texas with nicer football facilities than a lot of Division II colleges have. Boys in the South play Pop Warner football the way boys (and girls) in Canada play youth hockey – not all of them will like it or stick with it, but most kids’ parents do sign them up to give it a try when they meet the age requirement. In much of the country, Pop Warner football is competing with lots of other sports and activities for six- and seven-year-old athletes, many of whom will sign up for lacrosse or soccer instead. But with so many Southern kids at least trying football, not nearly as many talented athletes slip through the cracks, and the coaches are rarely shy about getting a talented basketball or soccer player to come to practice and give football a shot, even if he hasn’t played before.
Interestingly, a lot of SEC players do play other sports in high school as well. Several of the SEC schools have excellent track teams, and there have been football players from the conference who have had success there as well. Jeff Demps played running back for Florida and won a BCS title in 2009. He also ran track for the Gators and won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics in the 4×100 meter relay. LSU’s Trindon Holliday, now with the Denver Broncos, is another SEC athlete who found success in both track and football. Former LSU cornerback Chad Jones won a BCS Title as a freshman in 2007 and pitched on the Tigers’ championship baseball team two years later. Part of this is due, no doubt, to the fact that football hasn’t been taken over by extended-season travel teams the way a lot of youth sports have. With 7-on-7 spring and summer leagues popping up in the last few years, we may have seen the last of the multi-sport athletes at the college level.
The Loyalty Factor
If you’re a kid in the South who likes football, you have a favorite team. Period. Maybe it’s your dad’s alma mater, or your mom’s; maybe it’s the school your dad grew up cheering for, or just the closest big-name school to where you live. Sure, a scholarship is a scholarship, and getting letters from the coaches you see on TV every weekend is exciting, but if you’re a dyed-in-the-houndstooth-wool Alabama fan, you don’t check the mail looking for letters from Meyer and Kiffin and Stoops. You’re waiting for the one from Saban. And if one from Saban doesn’t arrive, you’ll settle for one from Miles or Muschamp or Richt. There’s loyalty to your school first, but the conference is a close second. When the SEC Championship is played, there are fans around the Georgia Dome in the colors of all the SEC teams. The ones whose teams aren’t playing are there to show support for the conference and to see a good football game, and over the course of the weekend can generally be found chanting “SEC! SEC!”
But Really… It’s About Winning (oh, and the NFL)
Of the 14 BCS National Championships that have been awarded (including the vacated 2004 title won by USC), the SEC has won eight. That makes it pretty damn easy for the SEC coaches to have their pick of the best athletes in the South, and to have a shot at some of the top-tier California, Texas, and Ohio/Western Pennsylvania kids too. As far as the NFL goes, since 2001 between four and eleven SEC players have been taken in the first round of the draft every year, with several more going in later rounds. And as long as the SEC teams are getting to the BCS game more years than not, and getting players to the NFL, they’re going to be getting most of the top players from one of the deepest talent pools in the country.