Auburn’s Pat Dye, one of the most successful coaches in the country the past few years, says college football is as popular as ever, especially in the Southeastern Conference, despite the rash of unfavorable publicity over academics, drugs and recruiting.
“College football has come under some heavy criticism,” Dye admits. “But I don’t see anything out there to indicate college football won’t keep growing and prosper.”
Dye’s vision may be slightly distorted because he is in the Southeastern Conference which annually is among the nation’s leaders in income and prestige.
Last year, for instance, six SEC teams were among the top 18 in attendance as the league attracted more than 4-million football fans for the second year in a row. Half of the 10 SEC schools got bowl invitations and three of those were ranked among the nation’s Top 20.
This year could be even better. Florida, 9-1-1 in each of the past two seasons but barred from television and bowl receipts, is expected to come off NCAA probation in time to go to a bowl this winter.
“The SEC is stronger from top to bottom than any other conference in the nation,” said Vince Dooley, who is in his 23rd year as head coach at Georgia. “We’ve never had as many potentially great football teams. It’s the best overall conference I’ve seen in my experience.”
Those are strong words, but the SEC has a strong reputation. In the past decade, no other conference has been able to keep pace with the SEC’s 23 bowl victories and only the Big Eight (thanks to Nebraska and Oklahoma) can claim more Top 10 teams for that period (18-15).
The Big Ten, with more than 100,000 per game at Michigan, draws an average of about 3,000 more to each of its games than does the Southeastern Conference.
“That’s misleading,” says Doug Dickey, athletic director at Tennessee, which had the nation’s second highest average at more than 94,000.
“Most of our schools pack ‘em in week after week and many have stadium expansions on the drawing board. We feel it’s only a matter of time before this conference draws more fans than any other.”
Florida coach Galen Hall points out while other conferences may have a couple of powerhouses, like Oklahoma and Nebraska in the Big Eight or Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten, the SEC is stronger from top to bottom.
“The real difference is in depth,” said Hall. “All those years (18) I was an assistant out at Oklahoma, the only conference foe we really had to worry about year after year was Nebraska. Here, you’d better worry every week.
“There are so many outstanding teams in our league, it is hard to rule anybody out of the race. The favorite has to be Alabama (a 16-10 winner over Ohio State in the college football opener Wednesday), but Georgia, Auburn, LSU and Tennessee are close and, of course, there’s us. When you look at the results over the past few years, it is obvious no team in the SEC can count on beating a league opponent.
“I believe it is the best, most-balanced league in college football.”
Outsiders are aware of that. Last season, the SEC was 40-10-5, a 77.3% winning mark, against non-SEC competition. Alabama’s only non-conference loss was by two points at Penn State when the Crimson Tide’s top defensive performer, Cornelius Bennett, was sidelined. And Auburn’s only non-conference loss came in the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M.;
“During the last three years, there have been about a half dozen championship caliber teams in our league,” said Johnny Majors, whose Tennessee Vols won the SEC title and then crushed Miami, 35-7, in the Sugar Bowl. “Our conference title keeps coming down to who won the close games.”
Majors should know. Tennessee won the SEC last season by nipping Alabama, 16-14, and still would have had to battle Alabama in the Sugar Bowl selection committee if LSU hadn’t tied the Crimson Tide, 14-14.