SEC still top football conference, Pac-12 closing the gap

Quarterback Nick Marshall and the Auburn Tigers were one of two SEC teams to lose in BCS bowl games last season.

Richard Mackson/Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

GREENSBORO, Ga. — When Atlantic Coast Conference power Florida State won the 2013 BCS National Championship Game over Auburn, not only did a seven-year trend of Southeastern Conference schools winning the national title in football come to an end, it may have begun a shift in momentum, possibly even in power.

Think "Rocky IV," when a stumbling and pummeled Rocky Balboa erupted from the corner and blasted Ivan Drago with a right-handed haymaker — "He’s cut. He’s cut. The Russian’s hurt."

In this analogy, Drago is obviously the SEC, a conference of football power and pride that not only had won the previous seven BCS titles, but nine of the 16 championships since the BCS became the governing body of football crowning committees in 1998.

Balboa signifies not only the ACC, but every football-playing conference not led by SEC commissioner Mike Slive that wanted a piece of the championship action. A collection of have-nots that have briefly tasted success, but are considered well behind the SEC.

The ACC owns two BCS titles with Florida State winning in 1999 and 2013. The Big 12 has two with Oklahoma’s win in 2000 and Texas’ in 2005. Add one for the Big East (Miami in 2001), one for the Big Ten (Ohio State in 2002) and a vacated title from the Pac-12’s USC in 2004, and the SEC still leads all the other conferences combined, 9-7.

No sane football mind in the country will argue anything other than this: The SEC is the most powerful football conference in the country.

But that doesn’t mean everyone else is sitting back, happy to battle for No. 2. At least one football coach outside the SEC believes the gap is closing between Goliath and a handful of Davids. And that coach resides nowhere near the state of Florida.

Where is this threat to dominance in college football coming from? Who should the SEC fear the most?

"I think right now the Pac-12 is in the best place it’s ever been," said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who spoke at the Arians Family Foundation Georgia Celebrity Golf Classic in Greensboro, Ga. "There’s more money being spent on the programs than there’s ever been before, whether it’s TV money or not. Everybody has gotten better, and we have to. There’s a lot of commitment being made to big-time college football. And as a league you’re going to see the results of that in the fall."

Did Florida State’s win on Jan. 6 open the door enough? Will that be the catalyst that sparks a shift in power?

"It’s starting to," said Rodriguez, who believes everyone is still chasing the SEC, but the disparity isn’t as great as it once was. "Not only Florida State’s win, but I think some of the other bowl results, and some of the other things that happened throughout the country. The SEC has set the standard, certainly. With the type of football they play and the type of athletes that come out. But I would put us right now, with the Pac-12, I’d put us with just about anybody as far as our quality of league from top to bottom."

Stanford and Oregon led the way for the conference last season with 11 wins. Arizona State, UCLA and USC each registered 10 to give the Pac-12 a record five teams with double-digit wins. Speaking of conference records, the Pac-12 sent a new high of nine teams to bowl games. Those teams chalked up six bowl wins.

"I think the Pac-12 has definitely closed the gap," ESPN college football analyst David Pollack said. "What’s cool about the Pac-12 is the diversity. You look at the coaches: RichRod, (Washington State’s) Coach (Mike) Leach, (they have) very innovative systems. Then you’ve got (Stanford coach) David Shaw, who’s one of the best coaches in college football, smash-mouth, different personnel groupings and stuff like that. I think it’s a very diverse coaching background, the talent’s good in the Pac-12."

But to be the best, you’re going to have to do more than just beat the best on a few occasions. Or in the case of the history of the BCS, seven of 16 times. Any conference that wants to establish itself as a clear, top option to the SEC, is going to have win not only on the field, but on the recruiting trail and as a pipeline to the NFL.

A good bit of every battle won on the football field on Saturday is first fought in the high schools around the county on Friday nights, as well as in the living room of just about every recruit that’s good enough to play collegiately. To keep a program stocked with talent, a good recruiting program is a must. And no one does it better than the SEC.

Six of the top 10 schools, according to rankings compiled by Scout for the 2014 recruiting season, are members of the SEC, including the top two (Alabama and LSU) and three of the top five. Ohio State, Florida State, Notre Dame and Southern Cal round out the top 10 overall. The first Pac-12 school doesn’t appear until USC makes the list at No. 10, followed by Stanford (No. 16), Arizona State (No. 17), UCLA (No. 20) and Oregon (No. 22) to give the Pac-12 five teams in the top 25.

The SEC boasts 10 total.

One of the benefits SEC schools have is that they’re close to the recruiting hot beds of Florida, Texas, Georgia and the rest of the South. As you can see from the rankings, that advantage has been utilized fully. Rodriguez said he recruits the South heavily, but it’s not easy to get Southern recruits to trek too far away from home.

"If we can get guys to visit, that’s the key," Rodriguez said. "If we can get guys from this area (the South) to come out to the desert in Tucson, we’ve got a great shot to get them. And once we do that, it’ll be a pipeline that keeps coming out West."

But that continual pipeline hasn’t been established yet. It may never fully be opened.

When a college coach sits in a recruit’s living room, the conversation turns to success on the field, educational opportunities and whether or not the program gives the recruit a high chance of making to the NFL. The more success a college program has at NFL placement, the easier it is to recruit top-quality players. The more top-quality players that enroll, the easier it is to win football games. The entire process is cyclical.

The SEC not only wins the recruiting game, and has had a fantastic success rate on the field. No other conference puts players in the NFL quite like it.

In 2014, not only were the first two picks in the draft — South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and Auburn’s Greg Robinson — from the SEC, the conference scored 11 first-rounders, the highest total of any conference. For the eighth year in a row, the SEC placed the most players in the NFL throughout the draft, this time with 49.

The path of least resistance to the NFL is to play at an SEC school. If a football star wants to play on Sunday, his chances are better with one of the 14 SEC schools, as opposed to randomly selecting a member school of another conference. Until this ceases to be the case, the SEC will be the marquee landing spot for football recruits.

What happens when more recruits want to come? The quality of the game rises, and more wins follow. This has been life in the SEC for some time now.

Rodriguez has a point, though. Not only did Florida State stopping the SEC’s run of national titles help to dispel the stigma of that conference being an unstoppable force, but when he mentioned "other bowl results" as being a factor, he was pointing toward the SEC losing both BCS bowl games it particpated in: Auburn in the title game and Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

The SEC hadn’t been held without a BCS bowl win since the 2005 season when Georgia, which lost to West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl, was the conference’s lone representative. And it had only happened two previous times before that.

Just like in previous years when the SEC didn’t win a BCS bowl game, regrouping and moving forward shouldn’t be an issue. If any conference understands how to win, reload and repeat, it’s the SEC.

"If you’re thinking because Florida State won the national title that makes any difference," Pollack said, "the SEC is still the king."

The Pac-12 has closed the gap between college football’s top conference and its second best. But a divide still exists.