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Meeting shows SEC at head of the conference table

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / January 9, 2012
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NEW ORLEANS - This much we know about what will happen in tonight’s Bowl Championship Series title game, when Louisiana State tangles with Alabama: A Southeastern Conference team will lose for the first time in the 14-year history of the much-talked-about, much-criticized system of deciding college football’s national champion.

But there is another guarantee - an SEC team will win for the sixth consecutive season.

Whether No. 1 LSU or No. 2 Alabama walks out of the Superdome as the 2011 champion is a moot point in terms of conference supremacy. Is any conference better than the SEC?

Consider: During the SEC’s current run of BCS success, Alabama and LSU each have won a championship. Auburn won last season and Florida won twice. Add Tennessee’s title following the 1998 regular season and LSU’s first BCS title following the 2003 regular season and you have a virtual block party.

Commissioner Mike Slive remembers when the SEC felt like an uninvited party guest - and it wasn’t that long ago, at the end of the 2004 season when an unbeaten conference champion (Auburn) was not invited to the title game.

“Considering the level of competition we have, that still is unimaginable,’’ said Slive yesterday as he prepared for what will be another SEC coronation tonight. “To have an unbeaten SEC team not make the title game is something that I couldn’t comprehend.’’

What happened in that case was a matter of logistics. Auburn had begun the regular season ranked at No. 17. Oklahoma and Southern Cal were ranked 1 and 2 in the preseason and neither lost a game.

While Auburn kept winning and climbing, the ceiling could not be broken without a loss by either Oklahoma or USC, both of whom competed in BCS conferences in the Big 12 and Pac-10.

Slive fumed and fretted. But a few years later, the SEC reign began, and the conference has yet to give up its seat at the BCS championship table.

But the SEC success is based on more than simply winning games.

“It’s a passion that goes 365 days a year,’’ said Slive, who has overseen an expansion of his conference to 14 teams starting next season with the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri.

It is also a highly profitable, highly visible conference, with a billion-dollar television package.

It has the highest-paid coaches in college football, who attract the highest-ranked recruits, who generate the most profit.

A recent survey of universities listed SEC schools as seven of the 11 biggest profit-makers in college athletics.

“I felt like my main thing was to get to an SEC school if I wanted to be remembered,’’ said Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw, who is playing in his second BCS title game in three years.

Fellow Tide linebacker Dont’a Hightower was even more specific.

“I feel like the players are a little more versatile and athletic,’’ said the 6-foot-4-inch, 260-pound Hightower.

“We don’t find too many guys that weigh 260 pounds and can run a 4.6 or 4.5 in any other conferences, or guys that weigh 200 pounds and can bench press 500.

“I feel all of that sinks in, and that’s one of the reasons why the SEC has won the national championship the last six years.’’

As good as the SEC has been, it has also been lucky.

In 2003, LSU drew Oklahoma rather than the consensus (among voters) No. 1 team in the country in Southern Cal.

In 2006, Florida moved into the BCS slot because voters didn’t want to see a rematch between No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan, after some serious lobbying on television by Gators backers and then-Florida coach Urban Meyer.

In 2007, LSU became the only two-loss BCS national champion, moving from seventh to second in the last vote, before upsetting Ohio State for the title in New Orleans.

And last year, No. 1 Auburn easily could have lost three or four games, but was aided by dropped passes by opponents, and other mistakes, including a blown 24-0 lead by rival Alabama.

To their credit, the SEC teams did not squander their opportunities.

Slive knows the reign will end sometime.

“It’s an extraordinary run,’’ he said with a laugh. “And I think it’s going to be hard to be broken.’’

When asked if he had a pick for tonight’s game - LSU won the regular-season meeting in Tuscaloosa, 9-6, in overtime, he wouldn’t say.

“The only thing I know,’’ he said, “is that an SEC team will win.’’

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.

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