No one does college football better than the SEC

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“There’s a lot of talent down there and they do a good job of coaching a lot of talent,” said Al Borges, the offensive coordinator at Michigan who formerly coached at Auburn. “That’s all there is to it.”

Digging a little deeper, the emphasis on defense in the SEC has largely fueled its rise to power (34 of those 72 first-round picks came from the less-heralded side of the line). Not surprisingly, Alabama and LSU are the nation’s two best defensive teams, filled with impact players such as Crimson Tide linebacker Dont’a Hightower and Tigers cornerback Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu.

From the perspective of ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge, it all starts up front.

“I really don’t think they have more speed at those skill positions on offense than the Big 12 or the Pac-12 or anyone else,” he said. “But those defensive linemen in the SEC, that’s where the difference is.”

Blackledge points to last year’s BCS title game, when Auburn stifled high-powered Oregon 22-19 to claim the SEC’s fifth straight championship. Offense may excite the fans, but teams such as West Virginia (a 70-33 winner over Clemson in the Orange Bowl) and Oklahoma State (which beat Stanford 41-38 in the Fiesta Bowl) didn’t qualify for the biggest game of all.

Rest assured, defense still wins championships.

“Auburn was, at best, a middle-of-the-pack defense in the SEC _ and Oregon could not block their front,” Blackledge said. “Until teams in other conferences make inroads on defense, it’s just going to be hard to catch the SEC.”

Blackledge also believes that SEC schools are more willing to bring in junior college signees, especially on the defensive side, players who are often challenged academically and shunned by schools that don’t think they can keep up in the classroom.

This, of course, fits in with another popularly held image of the SEC as nothing more than a dozen football factories (well, 11, leaving out Vanderbilt). The largest building on most campuses is a palace such as Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium (capacity: 101,821), a convenient symbol of college athletics gone wild. When Texas A&M joins, the conference will have eight of the 20 biggest stadiums in college football, all with seating for at least 80,000.

Of course, the SEC can quickly counter that it’s hardly the only conference to place a huge emphasis on football. Three of the four largest stadiums _ at Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State _ are in the Big Ten. And while plenty of SEC programs have run afoul of NCAA rules, perhaps the worst scandal in college football history erupted beyond its borders: the child-sex abuse accusations against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky that led to the firing of coach Joe Paterno.

But there’s little doubt the SEC is boosted by an accident of geography, too. Five of the nine states in the league’s current makeup have no major-league franchises of any type to steal away attention from the gridiron.

“Maybe it’s the culture of the South,” said Michigan lineman David Molk, whose team was in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. “They’re much more focused on football. The North has a lot of other things to do. … Down here, it’s football. That’s it. It’s football from birth.”

Of course, there are those who’ve grown weary of all the SEC hype, who see it as a league that is reluctant to travel too far from home, yet still receives preferential treatment in the rankings and a little-too-much praise from the media.

Georgia, for instance, went 42 seasons without playing a regular-season game outside the confines of the old Confederacy (if Kentucky is included) before traveling to Oklahoma State in 2008. This season, Alabama lost to LSU at home, 9-6 in overtime, but still wound up No. 2 in the BCS rankings over other one-loss teams such as Oklahoma State.

“I do feel like they get first dibs on everything,” said quarterback Tajh Boyd of ACC champion Clemson.

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