Down in SEC country, a few of us like to make the occasional Yankee joke right before we remind the folks up north that Southern football is King with a capital K. Up in Big Ten country — where this writer happened to live for three happy years — those folks like to toss a few “hillbilly” barbs our way often followed by some mention of the term “oversigning.”
In reality, the SEC-Big Ten rivalry — at least in bowl games — has been pretty even. (We’ll pause for Big Ten fans to rejoice.) In 28 games against one another over the last 10 seasons, the SEC has won 15 times, the Big Ten has won 12 times, and last year’s Ohio State win over Arkansas has been vacated due to the cheatin’ ways of Jim Tressel and his Buckeyes. A three-game difference over a decade? That’s hardly the gulf we’ve come to believe exits between the two leagues.
But when you look a bit more closely at the bowl results you’ll notice a clear line of demarcation between SEC-Big Ten parity and SEC dominance. And the line was drawn on January 8th, 2007.
From the Music City Bowl of December 2002 right on through the Capital One Bowl of January 2007, the Big Ten actually held an 8-5 bowl advantage over their rivals to the south. But since Florida’s shocking 41-14 upset/blowout of Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game that January, the SEC has dominated the Big Ten 10 in bowl wins, 10-4. (That mark would be 11-4 if we had counted Texas A&M’s bowl win over Northwestern last month… but we didn’t.)
Not only did the Gators kick their own program into high gear — they would win another BCS crown just two years later — but they also heralded in what Mike Slive has referred to as the SEC’s “golden age.”
Here’s a quick look at the SEC-Big Ten bowl matchups of the past 10 years:
2002 Music City Bowl — Minnesota 29, Arkansas 14 (B10: 1-0)
2003 Outback Bowl — Michigan 38, Florida 30 (B10: 2-0)
2003 Capital One Bowl — Auburn 13, Penn State 9 (B10: 2-1)
2003 Music City Bowl — Auburn 28, Wisconsin 14 (Even)
2004 Outback Bowl — Iowa 37, Florida 17 (B10: 3-2)
2004 Capital One Bowl — Georgia 34, Purdue 27 in OT (Even)
2004 Music City Bowl — Minnesota 20, Alabama 16 (B10: 4-3)
2005 Outback Bowl — Georgia 24, Wisconsin 21 (Even)
2005 Capital One Bowl — Iowa 30, LSU 25 (B10: 5-4)
2006 Outback Bowl — Florida 31, Iowa 24 (Even)
2006 Capital One Bowl — Wisconsin 24, Auburn 10 (B10: 6-5)
2007 Outback Bowl — Penn State 20, Tennessee 10 (B10: 7-5)
2007 Capital One Bowl — Wisconsin 17, Arkansas 14 (B10: 8-5)
2007 BCS Championship Game — Florida 41, Ohio State 14 (B10: 8-6)
2008 Outback Bowl — Tennessee 21, Wisconsin 17 (B10: 8-7)
2008 Capital One Bowl — Michigan 41, Florida 35 (B10: 9-7)
2008 BCS Championship Game — LSU 38, Ohio State 24 (B10: 9-8)
2009 Outback Bowl — Iowa 31, South Carolina 10 (B10: 10-8)
2009 Capital One Bowl — Georgia 24, Michigan State 12 (B10: 10-9)
2010 Outback Bowl — Auburn 38, Northwestern 35 in OT (Even)
2010 Capital One Bowl — Penn State 19, LSU 17 (B10: 11-10)
2011 Outback Bowl — Florida 37, Penn State 24 (Even)
2011 Gator Bowl — Mississippi State 52, Michigan 14 (SEC: 12-11)
2011 Capital One Bowl — Alabama 49, Michigan State 7 (SEC: 13-11)
2011 Sugar Bowl — VACATED by Ohio State
2012 Outback Bowl — Michigan State 33, Georgia 30 in OT (SEC: 13-12)
2012 Gator Bowl — Florida 24, Ohio State 17 (SEC: 14-12)
2012 Capital One Bowl — South Carolina 30, Nebraska 13 (SEC: 15-12)
So what changed on January 8th, 2007? In our view, that night was simply the culmination of a series of events that would lift the SEC to new heights:
1. LSU’s Les Miles was already building upon the solid foundation left for him by Nick Saban. The Tigers would win the national title the following January and are in position to win another next week.
2. Nick Saban had already begun his second SEC rebuilding job at Alabama. The Tide went on to win the BCS title following the 2009 season and — like LSU — are back in the title game again this year.
3. Tim Tebow had arrived in Gainesville. Nothing against Urban Meyer, but as we’ve seen with Tebow’s impact in the NFL, players around him tend to play better when he’s on the scene. For all the talk of his disappointing passing stats, the Broncos were 1-4 when he took over as QB and they’re now division champs with a defense and running game that all just happened to get better as soon as Tebow took the reigns. Meyer’s first team — sans the wunderkind and his “Third and Tebow” runs — went 9-3. His second and fourth teams won BCS championships. Meyer was and is a good coach. There’s no debating that. But With Tebow he was 48-7 and without him he was 17-8. Tebow was the difference-maker in Gainesville.
4. In 2009, the SEC launched its new television deals with ESPN and CBS. Those packages will bring in $3 billion for the SEC over a span of 15 years, but more importantly, the pacts set the stage for darn near every SEC football game each year to reach a national audience. While other leagues still dealt with regional coverage for many games, the SEC was front and center for all America to see.
Miles, Saban, and Tebow created wins and storylines for college football fans to follow. CBS and ESPN broadcast those storylines from Alaska to the Florida Keys. As a result, the SEC’s position as the place to be for college recruits was only strengthened.
Add it all up and the gulf between the SEC and the Big Ten appears to be widening. The SEC has won five consecutive BCS crowns and it’s guaranteed a sixth when LSU and Alabama hold their rematch next week.
Already the SEC has won seven BCS titles since the system’s inception in 1998. Five different SEC schools have captured the flag. By comparison, the Big Ten’s only title came in January of ’03. And Ohio State is only Big Ten program to even reach the championship game (going 1-2 overall). Oh yeah, forgot to mention that the SEC is now 7-0 all-time in BCS title bouts.
How wide the gap between Slive’s and Jim Delany’s leagues will grow is anyone’s guess. The same goes for how long it will take for the Big Ten to regain equality. But for now, the SEC holds a clear advantage over its rival from up yonder. And that advantage has been growing since January 8th, 2007.