SEC envy hits other regions in the preseason
Envy is never pretty, but it's usually a little more subtle.
During his appearance at Big Ten Media Days earlier this month, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini was asked if his conference was close to bridging the gap with the SEC. His answer raised a few eyebrows.
Rather than spouting the typical, politically correct sound bite and then pivoting back to whatever he wanted to say about his team, Pelini went off.
"You talking about Alabama?" he said, the muscles tightening in his neck as his gaze grew more narrow and intense. "Because I guarantee there are a lot of teams in the SEC that aren't Alabama that wish they were Nebraska; wish they were Michigan; wish they were Ohio State."
Pelini didn't leave the statement hanging, but he didn't bother to name names, either. One could fairly assume he wasn’t referring to schools like Florida or LSU, even though the Cornhuskers have five national championships to the Gators’ and Tigers’ three apiece, or even a place like Tennessee, which has been on the downside of championship-caliber of late but continues to fill its stadium and its coffers with more fans and money than the Cornhuskers.
Surely, he wasn’t talking about Arkansas, which had one of the more disappointing seasons in recent memory a season ago. The Razorbacks followed it up by hiring a new head coach named Bret Bielema, who recently claimed three straight Big Ten titles at Wisconsin — even though 2012 came with an asterisk, as Ohio State and Penn State were on probation.
Maybe he was talking about Kentucky. The Wildcats don't approach the Cornhuskers in terms of attendance or championships. Still, when you look at revenues generated by the football programs for 2011 (the most recent data available), Kentucky brought in more than $88 million, while Pelini’s Huskers generated $81.6 million.
Even lowly Auburn (0-8 in SEC play last year), which suffered the one of the most precipitous falls in NCAA history after winning the national championship in 2010, outdistanced Nebraska in football revenue — by $24 million. The Tigers have also ranked higher than the Cornhuskers in terms of recruiting over the last five years.
Still, like a dog barking at a shiny car, Pelini couldn’t stop from going on about the conference with the highest gross revenues, the largest television contract and 14 national championships in the last 35 seasons.
"Don't talk to me about the SEC," Pelini said. "You know, the whole SEC isn't Alabama; it isn't LSU; it isn't Georgia. Let's talk about certain teams . . . there are some teams in the SEC that are trying to bridge the gap to be us. Everybody wants to lump the whole SEC into one category. Let's not go there."
So, does Ole Miss, with a 7-6 record last season and a 38-17 BBVA Compass Bowl victory over Pittsburgh, need to bridge the gap with Illinois?
Yes, Mississippi State lost to a Big Ten (Northwestern) school in the Gator Bowl, but do the Bulldogs really aspire to be Indiana?
The preseason digs at the SEC might be a calculated motivational tool, or they could just be petty sniping.
Either way, from Pelini to Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops — who took the occasion of Big 12 Media Days earlier this month to double down on his earlier comments about the bottom half of the SEC being weak by saying, "I don’t care. I’m entitled to my opinion," — to Washington State coach Mike Leach saying, "The bottom half of the Pac-12 is better than the bottom half of the SEC," the best advice might be to keep your comments private and prove your point on the field.
At least one conference commissioner agrees with that assessment.
"I don’t think you can be the best without playing the best," said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who, along with SEC commissioner Mike Slive helped craft the upcoming college football playoff system.
"We have the arrangement in the Sugar Bowl that will, in most years, have a Big 12 team playing an SEC team. We will also likely play the SEC in at least one other and probably two other bowl games. . . . So, we believe in the best playing the best, and I don’t think you can lay claim to it unless you can beat them."
Then, Scott summed up the debate succinctly.
"We think we can play with anybody in the country," he said. "But it’s impossible to call yourself the best league in college football unless you can win the national championship."