Commentary

Big 12-SEC dominance continues

Originally Published: January 7, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Florida and Oklahoma will tussle to determine a national champion in Miami Thursday night, but one thing already has been determined:

They represent the two most powerful conferences in the country.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Paul Spinelli/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer and Florida will try and make it three straight national championships for the SEC.
The Southeastern Conference and Big 12 have taken over college football … in the short term, and perhaps in the long term as well. With the exception of occasional incursions by USC and Ohio State, the two leagues own the joint.

They've got the hardware: Representatives of those conferences have won three straight national titles (Texas, Florida and LSU), heading for a fourth. The SEC is trying for its own three-peat. At least one team from the Big 12 or SEC has appeared in six straight championship games.

The SEC and Big 12 have had eight of the 12 championship-game participants over the past six years. The Big Ten and Pac-10 have produced two each, and both of those are the same schools, whereas the SEC and Big 12 have been more diversified. The ACC and Big East have failed to place a team in the Big Enchilada since Miami was upset by Ohio State after the 2002 season.

They've got the rankings: The top four teams in the final Associated Press Top 25 of December were all from the SEC and Big 12. Nine teams from the two leagues were ranked.

They've got the accolades: Fifteen of the 25 members of the AP All-America first team were from the SEC and Big 12. The top five vote-getters for the 2008 Heisman Trophy all were from those two leagues.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten's regression is as plain as the league's bowl results: 1-6 this season. The Pacific-10 is ephemeral outside of USC, with programs rising and falling. The Big East lost much of its power when it was raided by the Atlantic Coast Conference, which, in turn, has failed to gain any traction as a 12-team league, in large part due to poor coaching.

So it's a Big 12-SEC gridworld, and everyone else has to deal with it.

How and why has it become this way? The simple answer is better players and better coaching.

The two leagues sit on prime recruiting soil: Texas for the Big 12 and Florida for the SEC. (And the rest of the Deep South ain't bad, either.) If they do a good job keeping the best players at home, they should never run out of talent.

Seven of the top eight prospects in the ESPNU Top 150 senior class are from Texas, Florida or the Deep South. Four of them have given verbal commitments to SEC or Big 12 schools. The state of Florida has the most players in the ESPNU 150 with 25, followed by Texas with 19 and Georgia with 17. California is fourth with 15.

This might just be a cyclical thing, but even less-populated Southern states like South Carolina (with nine ESPNU Top 150 prospects), Louisiana (seven) and Alabama (six) currently rank right up there with traditional Northern hotbeds Ohio (six) and Pennsylvania (five).

"If you're Missouri, Kansas or Colorado, you have to go into Texas for players," said national director of recruiting for ESPN's Scouts Inc., Tom Luginbill. "But in most of the SEC, you can build your program based on the talent in your home state, then adding to it by going into neighboring states."

And on those occasions when the SEC and Big 12 powerhouses need to leave their backyards for prospects, they can. Florida's current commitment list includes a quarterback from Connecticut, a defensive end from Colorado and an offensive guard from Indianapolis. Alabama grabbed the nation's No. 2 fullback out of Toledo, Ohio. Oklahoma has a defensive end from Las Vegas.

[+] EnlargeJevan Snead
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesUnable to beat out Colt McCoy for the starting QB job at Texas, Jevan Snead found greener pastures at Ole Miss.
Of the 15 2009 recruiting classes ESPN.com ranks (subject to change from now until signing day in February), six are SEC schools and two are the old reliables from the Big 12: Texas and Oklahoma.

Don't think warm weather isn't a factor in this. And an emphasis on sports.

"The level of importance placed on athletics in these Southern states, for the most part, is far more than that in other states in general," Luginbill said.

There is more year-round football in the warm-weather states. More 7-on-7 football, more passing camps. And the more time players spend throwing and catching, the more prepared they are for college.

The spread-offense boom is a prime example. The rocket fuel behind the offensive pyrotechnics in the Big 12 is the spread, and nowhere is the spread being practiced and perfected in high school the way it is in Texas.

"It is in vogue with the high schools," Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said.

"The spread is popular throughout the area," Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. "You do see a lot of quarterbacks at [the high-school level] who are running spread offenses."

You see a lot of good quarterbacks in Texas, period. Twelve Texas quarterbacks have started bowl games this season, according to the Houston Chronicle. Five of the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency are from Texas. If your favorite school has not recruited a quarterback out of Texas (no fewer than 21 of them signed letters of intent with FBS schools in 2007), ask why not.

"I would give the nod to quarterback play in the state of Texas [over everywhere else]," Luginbill said.

But as we all know, recruiting rankings can be famously inaccurate. If they were gospel, Texas would have been led to glory this year by Jevan Snead. Instead it was Colt McCoy doing the handiwork, while Snead was leading Mississippi after being beaten out for the job in Austin and transferring.

So it takes quality coaching to get the most out of that talent. And the SEC and Big 12 are brimming with good coaches … who make great salaries.

Five 2008 SEC coaches had won national titles (Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Les Miles, Steve Spurrier and Phil Fulmer). Three more had won BCS bowls (Mark Richt, Tommy Tuberville and Bobby Petrino). Houston Nutt had a 10-win season on his résumé and has quickly revived Mississippi. Rich Brooks performed the original miracle at Oregon, taking the previously awful Ducks to the Rose Bowl, and now has taken previously awful Kentucky to three straight bowls. Bobby Johnson just took Vanderbilt to its first bowl since 1982.

Two from the Big 12 have won it all (Stoops and Mack Brown), and there is hope that the league can diversify its power base beyond Austin and Norman in the coming years. Mike Leach has lifted Texas Tech to new heights, and Mike Gundy is on a roll at Oklahoma State (with the ample financial backing of T. Boone Pickens). Gary Pinkel and Mark Mangino have made football relevant again at Missouri and Kansas, respectively. Bo Pelini is off to a promising start at Nebraska.

On Thursday night, either Meyer or Stoops will become the first two-time BCS champion coach. No matter who wins, we all know which leagues are 1-2 in college football … right now, and perhaps for years to come.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.