You don’t have to own a GPS device or be a history buff to know that the road to the BCS national championship game travels through Southeastern Conference country.
This year, that’s literally more true than ever.
Drive down Interstate 10 from the Atlantic Coast Conference or the Big 12, motor down Interstate 55 from the Big Ten, fly into Louis Armstrong’s airport from the hinterlands of the Pac-12 and Mountain West or even arrive on a riverboat cruise ship, the message is as real as the land that surrounds you: To win the BCS national championship game, which this season will be played Jan. 9 in the Louisiana Superdome, you’ve got to get past the Southeastern Conference to do it.
For the last half-decade, no one has been able to do that at all.
Five - count ‘em - five straight SEC teams have come to college football’s biggest game and carted home its biggest prize: Florida in 2006 and 2008, LSU in 2007 (in New Orleans, naturally), Alabama in 2009 and Auburn in 2010.
The SEC’s dominance is historic, unprecedented, awe-inspiring. Even the normally staid and reserved SEC office in Birmingham decided to adorn this year’s football media guide with a large “5” set against a deep blue background.
“Home of FIVE Consecutive BCS national champions” the cover caption reads.
Care to make it six?
While with each passing year the odds are against the SEC adding yet another championship to its remarkable run, if it’s yet another SEC team that’s hoisting the Waterford crystal football in January, it won’t be a surprise.
The conference comes armed with at least two prime-time national title contenders: Alabama and LSU. South Carolina, the favorite to win the SEC East for the second straight season, occupies an Auburn-like dark horse position.
Playoffs? You want to talk about playoffs? Who needs it? Not the SEC, where its conference championship game has served as a de facto national semifinal the last five years. To carry it a step further, the LSU-Alabama game on Nov. 5 may well serve as the equivalent of a quarterfinal-round game.
Certainly there is a dark side to all this SEC dominance. NCAA probations and investigations are again on the rise, including the one-year penalty handed down to LSU this summer. Then there is the literally toxic rivalry between the past two national champions that pushed an Alabama fan to poison Auburn’s fabled oak trees at Toomer’s Corner.
Ultimately, though, most of the unpleasantness will fade. What will endure is winning, and right now the SEC is doing that better than anyone.
The Big 10/12 Split
Just a brief word on the biggest offseason shifts to the conference landscape:
The conference called the Big Ten now has 12 teams after adding Nebraska. The conference called the Big 12 now has 10 teams after losing Nebraska and Colorado, the latter fleeing to the new Pac-12 (which also added Utah).
Does this in some way simply not compute? Can this possibly last?
No, it can’t. Already there are more rumblings within the Big 12 (or 10) about Texas’ new Longhorn Network and the added imbalances it will create among member schools’ coffers. There were whispers this summer Texas A&M and Oklahoma may well be ready to bolt to the SEC if Texas becomes too high and mighty.
The major moves and shakeups aren’t done yet.
Some like it hot
It’s been a long, hot summer leading up to this 2011 season - some places hotter than others.
Some coach somewhere is always in trouble, just one dismal season away from having his hot seat turn into an ejector seat. This year’s prime candidates are:
•?Mark Richt, Georgia: Once the SEC’s wunderkind, Richt won 10 or more games in six of his first eight seasons, two SEC titles and had three Sugar Bowl appearances. But the past two seasons, Richt is a combined 14-12, and that’s a (Bull)dog that just won’t hunt.
•?Paul Wulff, Washington State: In three seasons, Wulff has all of five wins and seen his Cougars lose by 41 points or more 10 times. Maybe no one can win at Wazzu right now, but one more dismal season and the school is likely to try with someone else.
•?Rick Neuheisel, UCLA: He promised to knock USC’s Trojan mascot off his high horse (named Traveler). While USC has fallen back to the pack thanks to NCAA sanctions, UCLA has utterly failed to take advantage. Neuheisel is 15-22 with one bowl trip in three seasons ? and is 0-3 against that big, bad crosstown rival.
•?Mack Brown, Texas: Yes, he was in the BCS title game two seasons ago and won it all in 2005. But the Longhorns are coming off a shockingly bad 5-7 season that included a home loss to Iowa State. Brown has done the shake-up-the-staff thing, usually a head coach’s last reprieve. Texas recruits too well for the folks at UT to stomach broadcasting this kind of mediocrity out on the new Longhorn Network.
Bowls again runneth over
There are again 35 bowl games this season - that’s 70 teams getting rewarded with a postseason trip even if some of them are just 6-6.
The only changes to the bowl landscape this season are mostly cosmetic. The Meineke Car Care Bowl used to be played in Charlotte, N.C. Now, it’s the new name for the Texas Bowl in Houston (Dec. 31), while the game in Charlotte is now called the Belk Bowl and slides back from New Year’s Eve to Dec. 27. Both matchups are still the same - Big 12-Big Ten in Houston, ACC-Big East in Charlotte.
The Humanitarian Bowl has now become the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Western Athletic Conference and Mid-American Conference matchup is Dec. 17 in Boise, Idaho.
And the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala. - Sun Belt vs. MAC again this season - will be played Jan. 8, the night before the BCS title game in New Orleans.
The most significant NCAA rules change for 2011 involves unsportsmanlike conduct.
If a player is deemed to have committed an unsportsmanlike foul while in the field of play, the penalty will be marked from the spot of the foul. This will be true even if a player is heading untouched into the end zone for a touchdown.
If necessary, points will be taken off the scoreboard.
“If we take those points off,” said Big 12 coordinator of football officials Walt Anderson, “it’ll be somewhat of a storyline.”
Gee ? you think?
Conversely, referees will be instructed to go a little more lenient on celebration penalties. One celebrated case in point was in the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl in New York, when Kansas State receiver Adrian Hilburn was flagged for spontaneously saluting the crowd after scoring a touchdown to pull his team within 36-34 of Syracuse with 1:13 remaining.
K-State needed to go for two, but the try was moved back to the 18-yard line. It failed, and the Wildcats lost by those two points.
“Common sense would tell you, ?What in the world are we flagging that for?’” Anderson said. “This was the play that really generated the spark for the rules committee to come in and say the pendulum has swung too far ? we need to come in and bring it back to the middle.”
Finding a middle ground on celebrating and taunting has been elusive in the past for NCAA officials. It remains to be seen if 2011 brings more clarity.