January 8, 2007: The Day the SEC Took Over College Football

As of this past season, the SEC has won 11 of the last 15 National Championships in college football. Alabama has won 6 of them, Florida and LSU have each won 2, and Auburn has 1 over that span. From 2006 to 2012, the SEC won 7 straight National Championships, a streak that was only broken by Florida State beating Auburn in the 2013 National Championship game.

For a decade and a half now, the SEC has been the premier conference in college football; it has become normal to us. Pretty much nobody under 40 remembers what college football was like before the SEC took over, and now you have Oklahoma and Texas joining the conference–plus Nick Saban’s contract extended through 2028–which should ensure the SEC’s continued dominance for years to come.

But the SEC wasn’t always dominant. In the 15 seasons prior to 2006, meaning dating back to 1991, the SEC only won 4 of the 15 National Titles: LSU in 2003 (another Saban-coached team), Tennessee in 1998, Florida in 1996 and Alabama in 1992. There was quite a bit of conference parity in college football prior to 2006: Texas, USC, Ohio State, Miami, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Florida, Florida State, Bama, LSU–they all won National Titles over that 1991-2005 span. (And I guess Michigan won one as well, although it was a split title with Nebraska in 1997, the year before the BCS system was introduced, so both teams never actually played one another to find out who was truly better. I think Nebraska, based on how dominant they were throughout the 1990s, and the fact that Michigan beat #8 Washington State 21-16 in their bowl game while Nebraska blew out Peyton Manning-led #3 Tennessee 42-17, was the better team that year, and would have housed Michigan had they actually played.)

Even going back further than 1991, the SEC really was never anywhere near as dominant as it has been over the past 15 years: from 1960 to 1990, the SEC only took 5 National Championships. Bama won back-to-back titles in 1978 and 1979, followed by Georgia in 1980. Then you had Bama winning in 1964 and 1961. That was it for the SEC from 1960-1990.

So from 1960 through 2005, the SEC won 9 total National Championships (5 of them were Bama). Since 2006, though, the SEC has won 11 National Championships.

What the hell happened in 2006?

If you remember that year, Ohio State was ranked #1 from wire to wire. They were the most dominant team in the nation all year long, twice beating the #2 team in the country. Early in the season, they went down to Austin and soundly beat defending National Champion and #2 ranked Texas fairly easily, 24-7. In the final game of their regular season, “The Game of the Century,” OSU beat #2 Michigan 42-39 to clinch a 12-0 regular season, a Big Ten Championship, and a trip to the National Championship Game in Arizona, which at the time was viewed as more of a formality, a coronation, than anything else. Ohio State had the Heisman Trophy winner, QB Troy Smith, who won the award by an even more lopsided margin than Reggie Bush did the season prior.

There was a lot of debate over which team would get the nod to lose to Ohio State: would the pollsters give Michigan a rematch? Would #2 USC get in? Or would the #4 ranked and one-loss Florida Gators get in? After UCLA upset USC the following week and Florida secured an SEC Championship, the voters narrowly put Florida over Michigan, but nobody thought it mattered at the time. Ohio State was going to plow through whichever team they faced, everyone believed.

Then, they actually took the field against Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators, and the result stunned the college football world. Not only did the 7-point underdog Gators upset the top-ranked Buckeyes, they absolutely dominated them in every facet of the game. The final score was 41-14, but it could’ve been even worse than that had Urban Meyer, the Ohio native (and, obviously, as we know now, future Ohio State head coach) not let off the gas and shown mercy in the second half. It was 34-14 at halftime. Florida probably could’ve hung 60 on Ohio State that night had they really wanted to. Plus, one of Ohio State’s two TDs in the game was a return TD by Ted Ginn Jr. on the opening kickoff of the game, meaning they couldn’t do a damn thing on offense.

After the game, Florida defensive end Jarvis Moss had some revealing comments: “Honestly, we’ve played a lot better teams than them. I could name four or five teams in the SEC that could probably compete with them and play the same type of game we did against them.”

Whoa. Before kickoff, the 2006 Ohio State Buckeyes were in contention for being one of the greatest college football teams ever. After the game, there was doubt Ohio State could even be one of the top 6 teams in the SEC. That’s how badly Florida beat them.

Now, you can point to a lot of reasons why Ohio State got obliterated: for one, they were without their top receiver, Ted Ginn Jr., for all but the opening kickoff of the game. After he housed it, his teammates dog-piled him in celebration and actually wound up injuring his ankle, and knocked him out for the game. If not for a guy you might have heard of named Calvin Johnson, Ted Ginn Jr. was the best wide receiver in college football that year. Losing him was a huge blow for Ohio State. They had tons of plays designed for him, and he was really the key to their offensive game plan with his ability to stretch the field, take the top off the defense and even run the ball on end-arounds and wildcat plays.

Plus, Ohio State had a whopping 51 days off between their game against Michigan and the National Championship–it mattered. They got rusty. And they arrived in Phoenix 11 days early for the game, which a lot of players on that team point to as something that took them out of their element (aka there was a ton of partying and living the high life in Tempe going on instead of preparing for the game). During the long layoff, Troy Smith was the toast of the college football world and was invited to numerous awards dinners and banquets, which reportedly led to him gaining as much as 10 pounds and getting out of shape by the time the National Championship was about to kick off. On top of that, the Buckeyes bought into their own hype: they were massively over-confident and took Florida lightly going into that game, according to Anthony Gonzalez, who played WR for that Buckeyes team. They were shocked by how good Florida’s defensive line was. (That article is a great read, actually; it’s a discussion by a bunch of guys who were part of that 2006 Ohio State team and they really open up as to why they believe they lost that game.)

In the end, none of these excuses truly excuse the fact that Ohio State lost so badly. Florida was the better team. They were more prepared, they probably had better talent, and most of all, they had the better coach. Nobody knew it at the time, but Urban Meyer was actually the better coach. He was one of the pioneers of the spread offense, while Ohio State’s Jim Tressel was very old-school in terms of his approach to the game. Urban Meyer was running a 2 QB gameplan on offense, where Chris Leak would throw the ball and freshman Tim Tebow would come in to run the ball up the gut. Ohio State had no idea how to stop Tebow–or the Gator passing game, for that matter. Urban Meyer honestly coached circles around Tressel–it was a massive coaching mismatch.

Whatever the true reasons were for Ohio State losing, it was a watershed moment in the history of college football. Following the game, everyone was raving about “SEC Speed” and the narrative quickly took hold that players from the South were just better than everyone else.

In reality, it wasn’t so much the Gators’ speed that made the difference in the game, but their dominance of the trenches. I think before the game, a lot of people in the college football world knew Florida was faster, but Ohio State also had a real speedster in Ted Ginn. Plus, it was assumed that Ohio State–and Big Ten teams in general–were more dominant up front with all those corn-fed midwestern boys. The real shock was just how much Florida dominated the line of scrimmage. Florida out-gained Ohio State on the ground 156 to 47 and held Ohio State to 2.0 yards per carry. The Gators’ D-line sacked Troy Smith 5 times, and held him to just 4-14 passing for 35 yards, which is remarkable because Ohio State only ran 37 plays on offense the whole game and 23 of them were runs. Smith was under pressure all night long. I’ll never forget that famous image of Florida defensive lineman Earl Everett losing his helmet and still sacking Smith:

It really was the game that changed everything: consensus emerged that the SEC was far and away the best conference and that the Big Ten just couldn’t compete with them. The following season, a chaotic final few weeks featuring upsets to top teams left and right saw Ohio State “back-in” to the National Championship game once again against two-loss SEC Champion LSU, who also benefitted from the upsets. LSU won fairly handily, 38-24, but the game was really not even that close. After Ohio State went up 10-0, LSU rattled off 31 straight points, and was up 38-17 late in the 4th before Ohio State added a stat-padder TD to make it look more respectable. But outside of the first quarter, LSU was in complete control of the game.

And that basically sealed it: the SEC was the king of all conferences.

It’s possible that the SEC has always been the best conference in the nation, but that the system college football had in place for determining a national champion was, until the advent of the BCS in 1998, deeply flawed and did not actually allow the SEC’s superiority to shine through.

Think about it: prior to 1998, there wasn’t actually a true National Championship Game. Teams were ranked by the pollsters, and if you were ranked #1 and you won all your games, you were the National Champion–even if you didn’t play the #2 ranked team in your bowl game. We went over it above with Michigan in 1997: they were crowned National Champions after beating #8 Washington State in the Rose Bowl. They didn’t even play Nebraska, who the coaches’ poll had ranked #1. It was a complete mess.

People point to undefeated Auburn being left out of the National Championship game in 2004 as an example of this: Auburn went undefeated that season, but so did USC and Oklahoma, meaning one of those teams was going to get snubbed. Because USC and Oklahoma were ranked #1 and #2 in the preseason poll and went undefeated, they got the nod for the Championship Game over Auburn. USC demolished Oklahoma 55-19 to win the crown, and of course because the game was so lopsided, Auburn fans were disgusted that their team had been left out. They insisted that they would’ve been a better match for the Trojans, and maybe they were right. We’ll never know because we didn’t have a playoff system back then to determine a true, undisputed National Champion.

And that was even during the BCS era, which was supposed to be the way to ensure a true, undisputed National Champion was crowned every season. In reality, although the BCS was superior to the earlier Bowl Alliance system, it was still flawed in that it was influenced mainly by where teams were ranked in the preseason polls and didn’t really take conference strength into account. If you started the season ranked #1 and won all your games, you were in to the National Championship game even if, in reality, your conference was inferior and your rank was inflated by beating up on inferior competition and playing an easier schedule.

In those days, it was basically assumed that all the conferences were more or less equal in terms of overall strength, and that going undefeated in, say, the Big Ten, the Big 12, ACC or the Pac-12 was more impressive than having one-loss in the SEC. Hell, as we just went over, even an undefeated SEC Champion got left out of the National Championship Game in 2004. That would never happen today, because we know the SEC is the toughest conference.

Florida pulverizing Ohio State in that 2006 National Championship Game caused everyone in the college football world to re-evaluate their views on the national landscape: maybe the conferences weren’t essentially equal. Maybe there were actually significant disparities between the conferences in terms of the quality of talent and level of competition. On top of Ohio State getting smashed by Florida that year, Michigan also lost handily to USC in the Rose Bowl, by a score of 32-18. That only reinforced the perception that the Big Ten was overrated, and that the top-tier Big Ten teams were simply not on the level of the top teams in other conferences.

And there were signs prior to 2006 that the SEC was better than all the other conferences. After the National Championship Game, people brought up the fact that Ohio State was 0-8 against the SEC all-time. It was only in the 2010 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas that Ohio State finally beat an SEC team (a game that is now vacated due to the infamous Ohio State Tattoo/Memorabilia Scandal).

And if you look at the overall conference bowl records prior to 2006, the SEC was still better than every other conference: Prior to 2006, the Big Ten was 92-96-1 all-time in Bowl Games, while the SEC was 171-142-9 overall. To this day, the SEC has by far the best bowl record of all the major conferences. It’s not even close:

  • SEC: 268-197-9 (57.5% winning percentage)
  • Pac-12: 149-138-5 (51.9%)
  • Big 12: 89-88 (50.3%) (began play in 1996; if you include the Big Eight, which was the predecessor to the Big 12, you get a total record of 152-152-1)
  • ACC: 132-146-2 (47.5%)
  • Big Ten: 146-165-1 (47%)

Bowl records are really the best way for us to determine how the conferences stack up with one another, because that’s where you see the most inter-conference play. And the SEC has always had the best bowl record, meaning it’s likely that the SEC has always been the best conference even if it wasn’t always borne out in the final rankings at the end of the season.

In terms of players drafted to the NFL, the SEC is far ahead of everyone else: between 2010-2019, the SEC had 516 players drafted. The ACC was a distant second with 359, the Big Ten was in third with 346, the Pac-12 in fourth with 319 and the Big 12 a distant fifth-place with just 235. I couldn’t find any data prior to 2010, but I’d expect the SEC to be #1, but maybe not by quite as wide a margin.

It’s very possible that, prior to 2006, the SEC wasn’t getting the benefit of the doubt consistently and was snubbed way more times than just Auburn in 2004. If you think about it, if the SEC was always the toughest conference and its teams were always beating each other up, that really hurt the conference in a system that placed a premium on going undefeated. It was and is so much harder to go undefeated in the SEC, meaning a lot of one-loss SEC teams in the past probably got overlooked by the pollsters who maybe didn’t fully realize how much stronger the SEC truly was than all the other conferences.

The whole mentality of pollsters has changed nowadays. Back in the day, you pretty much always held on to your rank as long as you won your game, even if you barely scraped by an inferior team. Nowadays, pollsters will drop you in the rankings even if you’re undefeated and even if you win your game. If you’re not impressive in winning your game, or even if a team behind you simply beats a superior team to the one you played, you can and will get jumped in the rankings. Pollsters today take so much more into account when they rank teams. Obviously going undefeated is still paramount, but the pollsters take strength of schedule and quality wins into account so much more today. No longer do they just assume that because you began the season ranked highly, that means you’re automatically legit. You have to basically re-earn your ranking week in and week out.

This shift in the mindset of pollsters has all been to the SEC’s benefit, but it all stems from that Florida-Ohio State game in January 2007. That’s when the pollsters basically adopted a pro-SEC bias. The word “bias” has a negative connotation, but it’s really a deserved bias. The SEC is the best conference, and the pollsters are right to now be biased towards it, in my view.

However, there is another way to explain the SEC’s remarkable dominance of college football over the past 15 years or so. And while it dates back to 2007 as well, it has nothing to do with the the Florida-Ohio State National Championship Game. It’s very possible that January 3, 2007–not January 8, 2007–was the day the SEC began its reign of dominance.

That’s the day Nick Saban was officially announced as head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

The stronger argument, in my view, is that the SEC’s dominance has mostly been due to superior coaching. In other words, it’s not that the SEC has been dominant as a conference, it’s that Nick Saban has been dominant. After all, 6 of the 11 SEC National Champions of the past 15 years have been Saban’s Bama teams. Other than LSU in 2019, Bama is the only SEC team to win a Natty since 2010, when the Cam Newton Auburn team won it all. Bama has 5 National Championships since 2011.

If the SEC is so great as a conference, then why has Nick Saban gone 93-11 in conference play dating back to the start of the 2008 season? Other than 2019, when Bama lost 2 SEC conference games (and one was after Tua fractured his hip and went down for the season), the last time Bama lost more than one conference game was 2010. Three of the past five seasons (2020, 2018 and 2016) Bama went undefeated in conference play, and in 2020, they played 11 conference games in total instead of the usual 8.

Who is Bama’s chief rival in the SEC? Georgia? I think it’s safe to say Georgia is the second-best program in the SEC right now, even including LSU. While LSU has won more National Titles than Georgia recently (LSU has won 3 since 2003 and Georgia hasn’t won one since 1980), Georgia is a more consistent program from year-to-year. But they’re not even close to Bama. Georgia hasn’t beaten Bama since 2007. At all. Not in regular season play, not in the conference championship–not one time in 14 years. I know it feels like Georgia and Bama go back and forth, but they don’t. Bama always wins. Georgia came so, so close in the 2017 National Championship, but Tua swooped in and saved the day for Bama.

And as for LSU, other than the 2019 “Game of the Century II” where LSU won 46-41 and ultimately went on to win the National Championship, Bama is 9-1 against LSU in their last 10 meetings, including that 21-0 beatdown in the 2011 National Championship game in which LSU couldn’t even get the ball past the 50 yard line.

Well maybe Florida is a true rival for Bama, right? No: Florida hasn’t beaten Bama since the 2008 SEC Championship game. Bama is 7-0 against Florida since then. And only this past season’s SEC Championship game has been remotely close (52-46 Bama win).

Auburn, Alabama’s chief rival? Bama is 9-5 against them in the Saban era. Auburn got a win in Saban’s first season, when Bama only went 7-6. Auburn also got a win when they had Cam Newton as their QB (more on this later). Auburn won the infamous “Kick Six” game in 2013, probably the most miraculous win in college football history. And then Auburn beat Bama in a 48-45 thriller in 2019, after Tua had already gone down for the year. The only “legit” win Auburn has over Bama since 2007 is 2017, when they beat Bama 26-14. But Bama was still able to make it to the playoff and win the National Championship that season.

Face it: nobody in the SEC is on Bama’s level. Bama might lose a conference game here and there to somebody–Ole Miss beat Bama two years in a row in 2014 and 2015; everyone remembers Johnny Manziel beating Bama in 2012–but it’s usually in some miraculous, fluky fashion. Bama has lost 11 conference games over the past 10 seasons and almost all of them are memorable, iconic games. And, best of all, it’s generally never really enough to derail Bama’s season: four times (2011, 2012, 2015 and 2017) has Bama won a National Championship despite dropping a conference game.

Nobody in the SEC has been able to consistently challenge Bama year in and year out during the Saban era. Maybe once every 7-8 years or so, LSU will put it all together, beat Bama and win a National Championship (and somehow, all of LSU’s National Championship appearances–2003, 2007, 2011 and 2019 have been played in the Sugar Bowl, which is basically a home game for them) but in the intervening years, LSU is not on Bama’s level. They’re nowhere near as consistently great as Bama is.

Alabama under the leadership of Nick Saban is truly without equal in the SEC. While SEC fans love to claim credit for Bama’s accomplishments, the reality is, all the other programs in the SEC are just as far behind Bama as the rest of the country is.

Plus, Florida’s 2 recent National Titles came under Urban Meyer, who is undoubtedly the second-greatest head coach of the modern era behind Saban and an all-time great coach. This is evidenced by the fact that he was able to win a National Title at Ohio State, beating Alabama in the process. Florida has never been the same since Urban Meyer left. It just goes to show you how much coaching matters in college football.

So really, 8 of the SEC’s 11 National Championships over the past 15 years are attributable to Saban and Meyer.

And you could even make an argument that LSU’s 2007 National Championship is at least partly attributable to Nick Saban: a lot of the junior and senior players on that team were Saban recruits from his final recruiting class at LSU in 2004. We’re talking about guys like starting QB Matt Flynn, leading rusher Jacob Hester, and wide receiver Early Doucet who led the team in receptions that season. On the defensive side, it’s even more Saban guys: LSU’s three All Americans that year–DT Glenn Dorsey, S Craig Steltz and LB Ali Highsmith–were all Saban recruits, plus starting DB Chevis Jackson, DLs Tyson Jackson and Kirston Pittman. Dorsey, Pittman and Jackson were the three top-tacklers on the 2007 LSU D-Line. Dorsey in particular was one of the greatest college football players of all time, winning the Nagurski Award (national defensive player of the year), the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman), and SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2007.

Now obviously Les Miles had a lot of his own recruits contributing to that team, as 2007 was his third year as LSU head coach. And Miles was the one who actually coached the team and developed the players, so you can’t just say Nick Saban deserves all the credit for that Championship. But the facts are the facts: almost all of LSU’s key contributors that year were Saban recruits, and Les Miles was never truly able to re-create the success he had in his first three years at LSU, after the last of Saban’s recruits had moved on from the program. Saban deserves at least partial credit for the 2007 LSU National Title.

Auburn’s Natty in 2010, I’d say, was a result of them just being fortunate enough to have Cam Newton, who for my money is the greatest and most dominant college football player I have ever seen. I truly believe that–he was even better than Tebow, better than Reggie Bush; better than anybody I’ve ever seen. Any half-decent team with Cam Newton at QB would’ve won the National Championship. He was that dominant; he was like a man among boys out there. That 2010 Auburn team only had two legit NFL players: Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, the defensive tackle, who were both first round picks in the 2011 draft. Other than those two, they only had two other guys that were drafted: Zach Clayton and Lee Ziemba, both in the 7th round and both neither guy did anything in the NFL. Cam and Nick Fairley pretty much carried that Auburn team to a Natty by themselves, and really it was mostly Cam.

Look, I still believe the SEC is the best conference in America. Despite the fact that the SEC’s dominance has largely been Bama’s dominance, plus Urban Meyer for about a 3-year span in the late 2000s, the SEC still has had 4 programs win at least one National Title since 2006. No other conference has anywhere close to that top-end quality. The last time the Pac-12 won a National Title was USC in 2004. The last time the Big 12 won a title was Texas in 2005.

Ohio State won the National Championship in 2002 and 2014, but other than Ohio State, no Big Ten program has come anywhere close to a National Championship since Michigan in 1997. Michigan State is the only Big Ten program besides Ohio State to make the College Football Playoff, and that year, 2015, Michigan State got trounced by Bama in the semifinal game 38-0.

The ACC has actually had 3 different programs win National Championships since 2001: Clemson in 2016 and 2018, Florida State in 2013, and Miami in 2001. But Miami hasn’t been elite since 2003, and Florida State hasn’t been good since Jameis Winston left in 2015. The ACC is really just Clemson and then everybody else.

The bottom line is, I still think the SEC would be the best conference even without Saban, but the gap between the SEC and the other conferences would be a lot closer if, say, Saban had never left the Miami Dolphins back in 2007 and just remained in the NFL for good.

I would say the SEC’s reign of dominance over the past 15 years is due to three main reasons. There is no one single reason; I believe it’s a combination of everything we went over above:

  1. SEC speed, talent and dominance becoming nationally recognized after Florida’s 41-14 victory over Ohio State in the 2006 National Championship game.
  2. The BCS System–and subsequently the CFP–doing a better job recognizing and rewarding the superior level of competition and talent in the SEC.
  3. The fact that the GOAT, Nick Saban, has coached in the SEC since 2007, plus another all-time great, Urban Meyer, winning two National Championships at Florida in 2006 and 2008.

With the SEC now widely regarded as the flagship conference in college football, and with Nick Saban now inked through 2028 in Tuscaloosa, it’s tough to see the SEC’s run of dominance ending anytime soon.

Austin Frank

Sports blogger

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