August is finally winding down. The kids are back to school, and the whole world seems to settle back into a routine. Starting this week — and especially on Saturday — the world changes for the better, as teams on campuses across the country take the fields to play football.
Yes, it’s college football season, and college football, like food, music, and beautiful women, is one of the things we just do better down South. The Southeastern Conference (SEC) has dominated the sport for years now, and for that reason, the entire country is in a love-hate relationship with the conference.
Over at one of my favorite sports blogs, Saturdays Down South, Kevin Duffey speculates how the SEC, with all their successes, may well be the villain of college football:
Just over three years ago, Lebron James became the biggest villain in major American sports as a result of his televised Decision. For the next three seasons, fans – whether they hated or loved Lebron – couldn’t stop watching him as he pursued NBA Championships.
Several years before that, baseball fans were joined together in a hatred toward the New York Yankees as a result of multiple World Series titles and an ever expanding payroll.
Whether the villains are a result of a Decision, a payroll several times that of a team’s competitors or 7 straight BCS Championships, villains are fantastic for sports. Villains drive emotion and drive fan interest on both sides of the equation.
The SEC is an interesting scenario for a villain since it’s such a large entity. It’s not a single individual like Lebron James or Tiger Woods. It’s not a single team like the Yankees. No, it’s 14 teams and an entire region of the country.
I know what you’re thinking – “These SEC fans sound like they’re bragging.” But the facts speak for themselves. Teams from the SEC have won the last seven championships in a row – and nine of the last 15. Five of the ten largest college football stadiums reside within the SEC, and the SEC boasts nine of the 20 largest attendances in college football. Then again, those are mere statistics.
The SEC hosts some of college football’s most beloved traditions as well. From the beautiful tailgating at The Grove at Ole Miss to Tennessee’s Volunteer Navy and distinctive checkerboard endzone to Georgia’s hedges surrounding the field and Sanford Stadium and ringing the Chapel Bell after a victory to new conference member Texas A&M’s 12th Man and Yell Practice, traditions are as much a part of SEC football as wins and losses.
But what drives SEC football? What are the factors that make college football so much better in the South?
Writer Allen Barra wrote last year – in The Atlantic of all places – about the importance of traditions and rivalries in SEC football:
Southern teams are inspired by two of college football’s key intangibles—tradition and rivalry. To the veteran college football writer Dan Jenkins, those are “words that belong almost exclusively to the vernacular of college football.” The enthusiasm generated by match-ups like Georgia vs. Florida or LSU vs. Tennessee or Alabama vs. Auburn is the lifeblood of SEC football, a manifestation of Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” that has survived into the 21st century. This year, SEC stadiums have been jammed to nearly 95 percent capacity, tops in the country. According to a Sports Business Journal study in 2009, six Southern football programs—Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia, Auburn, and South Carolina—were among the top 11 producers in football revenue in the nation.
Kevin Duffey pins it on emotion (which, interestingly enough, was a reason given for many Confederate successes in the early part of the Civil War):
It’s no question that the Southeastern Conference is that emotionally charged entity of college football. The SEC is dominant, arrogant, and a group of fans separate from the rest of the country. Fans outside the SEC don’t really care who wins the next BCS Championship as long as its a non-SEC team. Fans inside the SEC want their own team to win, but if that’s not going to happen, well, keep the crystal trophy in the conference.
The worst thing in sports is a lack of emotion… Emotion and interest are linked.
Over at ESPN The Magazine, Rick Bragg chalks it all up to God and good old-fashioned Southern pride:
…we believe — well, maybe all but the Unitarians — that God himself favors our football teams. On Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, our coaches, some of them blasphemers and backsliders and not exactly praying men the other six days of the week, tell their players to hit a knee and ask his favor at the same exact instant the other team is also asking his favor, which I have always taken to mean that God, all things being equal, favors the team with the surest holder on long field goals.
And what we mostly believe in — across racial, political, religious and economic lines — is football. We believe absolutely in our supremacy over all pretenders, upstarts and false prophets from the North, East, West and some heathen parts of Florida that are too sissy to mix it up with the real men of the SEC. We have been fed that belief since we were infants…
But for years and years, we have even had the science of the BCS on our side and have grown accustomed to the pretty way that crystal trophy catches the light; for three years it has not even exited the state of Alabama. We are sure of this pre-eminence — so sure that we view all the years when the South was not dominant in college football as a surreal space-and-time fluctuation…
Regardless of the reason – and I think that all three writers are on to at least part of it – the fact remains that the Southeast is where we do college football the best. Sure, they do it well in places like Pasadena, Ann Arbor, and South Bend, but excellence and tradition meet in the SEC like they do nowhere else in the football world. And I’m looking forward to watching our teams – especially my Georgia Bulldogs – prove it once again this year.