Commentary

Bear Bryant Conference: Tradition rules

Originally Published: August 5, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Meet college football's new Bear Bryant Conference.

Arguably the toughest league in our newly relegated Gordon Gekko Subdivision, the Bear Bryant Conference boasts six former SEC and four former ACC teams. Like its namesake, the league has a distinct Southern drawl; none of its schools is located north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Together, the Bear Bryant Conference teams have combined to win 23 national championships since 1950. All but one of the league's 10 teams have been crowned college football's national champion at least once since 1951. South Carolina is the only team that hasn't finished a season No. 1 in a season. The Gamecocks will keep trying, just as they've done for more than 100 seasons.

Alabama is a seven-time national champion (Bryant coached the Crimson Tide to six of them during his 25 years as coach), and Miami has won five national titles since 1983 (the most by any NCAA FBS program in the past 25 years). Florida didn't win its first national title until 1996, but it has captured two of the past three BCS national championships.

Predictably, the Bear Bryant Conference is all about tradition. Alabama fans still wear Bryant's houndstooth hat. Tennessee's players still run through the "T" and checkerboard end zones. Georgia still plays "between the hedges," and the Gators still devour their opponents in The Swamp. Auburn fans still roll Toomer's Corner after a big victory, and Clemson's players still rub Howard's Rock before running down the hill into Death Valley.

Thanks to its regional flair, the Bear Bryant Conference boasts many of the sport's greatest rivalries. Alabama and Tennessee still battle on what used to be the third Saturday in October. Georgia and Florida still meet on the banks of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Fla., and the Bulldogs and Auburn still play the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry.

Many in-state rivalries remain intact, too. Auburn and Alabama still play the Iron Bowl. South Carolina and Clemson still play in the Battle of the Palmetto State, as they have every season since 1909. Georgia and Georgia Tech still battle for bragging rights in the series known as "Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate," and Florida and Florida State continue a fierce rivalry that often has mattered more than all the sport's others.

The Bear Bryant Conference is not for the claustrophobic. Eight of the teams' on-campus stadiums are among college football's top 25 in seating capacity. Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee pack more than 90,000 fans into their stadiums every Saturday.

[+] EnlargeBear Bryant
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesThe conference's namesake, Bear Bryant, won six national titles at Alabama.

There are no welcome wagons for rookie coaches in the Bear Bryant Conference, either. Four of the league's coaches -- Florida's Urban Meyer, Alabama's Nick Saban, Florida State's Bobby Bowden and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier -- have led teams to national championships. Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson won a pair of NCAA FCS national titles at Georgia Southern.

Six of the conference's coaches have won more than 65 percent of the games they've coached. Bowden has 382 career victories, only one behind Penn State's Joe Paterno for most among major college football coaches. Meyer's teams at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida have won at least nine games in each of the past seven seasons.

Three new coaches -- Tennessee's Lane Kiffin, Auburn's Gene Chizik and Clemson's Dabo Swinney -- are welcomed to the fraternity this season. No hazing allowed, gentlemen.

Defending national champion Florida is an overwhelming choice to win the Bear Bryant Conference in 2009. The Gators bring back quarterback Tim Tebow, a favorite to win his second Heisman Trophy, along with all 11 starters on defense. But under the new format, the Gators will be required to play at least one of their nonconference games outside the Sunshine State, something they haven't done since losing at Syracuse in 1991.

If the Gators are nice, we'll let them play at Ohio State.

Although it seems a foregone conclusion that the Gators will represent the Bear Bryant Conference in the national semifinals of the Gordon Gekko Subdivision, there's still plenty at stake for the other nine teams. Remember: Under our rules, the four teams that finish last in the Gekko conferences (plus one other underachiever) are automatically relegated to the lower Tom Joad Subdivision.

Auburn, Miami, South Carolina and Tennessee, you are now on the clock.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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