Mark Dantonio, the Michigan State football coach, isn’t buying into the whole Southeastern Conference mystique.
He knows the SEC is considered by far the best conference in the land. But his Spartans have played Georgia twice and Alabama once in bowl games since 2008, and he didn’t think either opponent was clearly superior in talent or in the speed factor that supposedly gives that conference its edge.
After losing the first two of those three encounters, the Spartans beat Georgia, 33-30, in triple overtime in the Outback Bowl last season. And Dantonio bistles at the prevailing opinion in college football that it’s the SEC’s world and everyone else is just taking up space in it.
“I really didn’t feel like there was that big a gap when we played Georgia in ’08. It was a close game into the fourth quarter, and they beat us. We made a lot of mistakes,” Dantonio said. “I saw a difference in the Alabama game in 2010. They out-hit us. Did they out-run us? They out-hit us and ‘out-physicaled’ us at the point of attack. We couldn’t run the football. But there’s been a lot of other teams that couldn’t do that against them – SEC-wise, too. “
The SEC has staked its reputation on winning the last six national titles and is favored to do it again with LSU and Alabama opening 1-2 in the USA Today preseason coaches poll.
“I think the Big Ten is a tremendous conference. We have great players in this conference,” Dantonio said. “I say it all the time, it’s a game of inches. Just because one team loses by a field goal or wins by a field goal, it doesn’t mean that the conference is less or greater. If it’s a dominant effect with this conference wiping out everybody by 20 points, then that’s a dominant conference. I don’t see that. I think it’s competitive in a lot of ways.”
Dantonio may be in the minority in his views about the SEC not being in a class by itself. Since the BCS era began in 1998, the conference has won eight national crowns, while all other leagues have combined for six.
And success is breeding success. Five of the top 10 teams in the preseason poll hail from the SEC.
“The one thing about college football, it’s very cyclical,” first-year Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “And the Big Ten for many, many years was without question the No. 1 conference in America. Right now, we’re not, but there’s a lot of coaches and players very intent on making it the best conference in America.”
The SEC has gone 19-19 against the Big Ten in bowls since ’98, but it has an 11-6 record in head-to-head match-ups since 2006.
Overall, the SEC is 36-20 in bowls in the last six years, the Big Ten 16-30.
Ohio State and Michigan have always drawn blue-chip recruits. And the Big Ten seems to be churning out just as many top-level pro prospects as any conference, producing 41 NFL draft picks last April. Only the SEC with 42 had more.
But based on recruiting rankings in recent years, SEC schools seem to be stockpiling more talent across the board.
“I just think in overall athleticism right now, we’re a little bit behind,” Meyer said. “We’re recruiting with that motive, with that intention, and I’m real proud to say it’s going very well. But I think without question – and I’m not the only one who says it – the defensive front seven in that conference, in the SEC, is the difference-maker right now.”
Bo Pelini, the Nebraska coach, was defensive coordinator at LSU when it beat Ohio State for the 2007 BCS championship. He said what separates the SEC from other conferences is not the front seven, but the front four.
“I was talking to a guy who coaches down in the South a few weeks ago, and he was talking about how many D-linemen they have and how many they had in their area. Part of it is just the geographics of it,” Pelini said. “I have D-linemen who can run, too, but there are probably more of them down there.”
Meyer won two national titles at Florida during his reign there from 2005-2010. The Big Ten has won two in the last 42 years, Ohio State in 2002 and Michigan in 1997.
“The bottom line in all of this is to win,” Meyer said. “How far are we from that? The coaches in this conference would know much better than I would. I’ll know more obviously next year when you ask that same question. … But I know one thing: I’ve watched enough film this summer, and there’s some very good teams in this conference. I anticipate winning is not that far off.”