Second tier SEC teams struggle to reach top
In the powerhouse Southeastern Conference, not all members measure up with the game's best.
See, there's good and then there's SEC good.
Alabama, Florida and LSU have combined for six national championships and 13 SEC titles since 1992. Others, like South Carolina or Mississippi State, do well against nonconference opponents, but go decades - and through several coaching changes - trying to creep to the top.
Since 1977 only six schools have won the conference title - Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Tennessee. Three schools have never won: Arkansas, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
And its unlikely any of the have-nots will break through this year, the Razorbacks appear to have the best shot.
With several SEC teams opening league play this weekend, No. 1 Alabama and No. 8 Florida are heavy favorites to meet for the third straight season in the conference title game.
''We said a few years ago that the SEC was not going to come down to us,'' said Joker Phillips, Kentucky's first year coach.
And the bar is high; the SEC has won four national championships in a row.
It features innovative coaches like Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban, and has attracted some of the country's best recruits - including recent Heisman Trophy winners like Tim Tebow at Florida and Alabama's Mark Ingram.
It is also a league of champions and chasers.
No SEC school has made an out-of-the-blue run to win the league title like Illinois in the Big Ten (2001), Kansas State in the Big 12 (2003) or Wake Forest in the Atlantic Coast Conference (2006).
Former Georgia coach Vince Dooley says there are reasons a handful of schools dominate the SEC: Deep traditions, passionate fan bases and recruits in those states who dream about starring for their state universities.
Dooley, who won six SEC titles and the 1980 national championship with the Bulldogs, said that even in down years, his program was quick to bounce back.
''I think perhaps we were a little more consistent than some of those other schools,'' he said.
No. 22 Georgia opens SEC play Saturday at No. 24 South Carolina. Spurrier, the Gamecocks coach, was 11-1 against the Bulldogs during his years at Florida, yet is just 1-4 against them since coming to South Carolina.
''Georgia's right there with Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Tennessee ... with tradition,'' Spurrier said. ''So high school football is very good in Georgia and they generally, not always, get most of the kids they want.''
Gamecocks defensive lineman Chaz Sutton grew up in Savannah, Ga., and was pushed by friends and family to consider the Bulldogs. When Sutton first committed to Florida during his senior year at Jenkins High, everyone ''was like 'Why not Georgia? Why not Georgia?''' he said. ''Then once I committed here, the same thing.''
It's an edge that requires patience and a strong will from fans, coaches and administrators to overcome, said Lou Holtz, who coached South Carolina to its two most successful seasons in the SEC. The Gamecocks won 17 total games in 2000 and 2001.
Holtz, an ESPN analyst, says players must learn to compete, win and to handle winning before rising to championship level.
''That doesn't happen overnight,'' he said. ''But it can happen.''
Just not that often in the SEC.
Mississippi State hasn't beaten Georgia since 1974. Kentucky has lost its last 23 games to Florida. Vanderbilt has won just once against state rival Tennessee since 1982.
Phillips, Kentucky's coach, has seen his club come closer than ever to breaking through.
''We had to come up to the SEC, to the elite teams and I really think that we have closed that gap,'' he said.
There are plenty of advantages to the SEC, maybe none bigger than the $209 million in revenue shared by all its members. That allows schools to upgrade facilities the league also attracts stellar athletes who want to play in packed stadiums.
Last season, SEC teams had a 42-6 mark in nonconference play and were 6-4 in bowls, including Alabama's 37-21 victory over Texas in the national title game.
Each year it seems there's an SEC dark horse or two on the verge of success.
Ole Miss was 7-1 in the league in 2003 with star passer Eli Manning. Kentucky rose to No. 8 in the country in 2007 and South Carolina was No. 6 that same season, yet neither made the final rankings. Even Vanderbilt went 7-6 two years ago, reaching its first bowl game in more than a quarter century.
This season, it's Arkansas.
The Razorbacks are 0-4 in SEC title game appearances, the last loss coming in 2006. However, Ryan Mallett is considered among the league's top quarterbacks and capable of pulling a surprise or two.
Arkansas doesn't start SEC play until Sept. 18 and will find out quickly where it stands with back-to-back games against Georgia and Alabama.
Spurrier's Gamecocks appear to be on the outside of an SEC title looking in. But he took the South Carolina job with the goal of playing in the Georgia Dome for the league crown, a goal that he said remains attainable.
''Their 85 might rank higher than your 85,'' he said, ''but you can only put 11 at a time out there.''
It just seems like there are more than 11 when you're playing catch up.
AP Sports Writers Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., Will Graves in Lexington, Ky., and Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.