Modern era of SEC football continues to reach new heights

nwhite@thestate.comJuly 24, 2013 

SEC commissioner Mike Slive wasted no time getting to his brag list during last week’s football media event. The string of accomplishments rolled off his tongue.

•  Seven straight BCS national championships.

•  Six teams in the top 10 of the final regular-season BCS standings.

•  A record 63 NFL draft picks, more than double the number from any other conference.

•  The fourth Heisman Trophy winner in the past six seasons.

Slive then added the league also won national championships in men’s indoor track and field, gymnastics, women’s swimming and diving, equestrian, men’s golf and men’s outdoor track and field, which boosted to 86 the number of national titles won by SEC schools since 2000.

The news off the field is just as good.

Next summer, the SEC will launch its own television network, owned and operated by ESPN. The 20-year deal for the new SEC Network added 10 years to the ESPN’s existing SEC contract signed in 2008, which guaranteed the conference $2.25 billion over 15 years. This extension will provide the league a considerable financial boost.

The SEC doesn’t need to look to the past to find its golden era. It’s squarely in the middle of one.

“We share a proud history, and we are excited about a very bright future,” Slive said.

There’s no question the schools share that feeling. After one year as an SEC member, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin referenced how a big 2012 season — highlighted by a win over No. 1 Alabama and a Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Johnny Manziel — has translated into a huge wave of support, especially financially.

“It’s great for our former students, for our fans, for our community, to be excited about this football season, to be excited about being in the SEC, to be excited about our schedule next year,” Sumlin said.

Slive spoke of the unique place that college sports have in American life, and nowhere is the passion more evident than in SEC territory. The SEC averaged 75,538 fans per game to lead all conferences. The Big Ten (70,040), Big 12 (59,004), Pac-12 (53,679) and Atlantic Coast (49,910) filled out the top five.

Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch grew up in Massachusetts, but he wouldn’t trade his experience of going to school and playing in the SEC for anything.

“It’s one of those things you can only experience here,” Lynch said. “It’s the love and appreciation people have for the game of football and the Southeast, especially the state of Georgia. It’s one of those things I appreciate to the fullest. There’s nothing that can compare to Southeastern Conference football.”

Ultimately, it all goes back to consistency and the depth of the league’s programs. Alabama has won three of the past four national championships, with Auburn grabbing the other. In the three years preceding that, Florida won a pair of titles, and LSU claimed one. Georgia always possesses the potential to compete for a title. South Carolina’s program has risen to new heights under Steve Spurrier. Texas A&M is already flexing its muscle. Arkansas is a traditionally solid program while even perennial doormat Vanderbilt has begun to show that it’s attempting to contend with the big boys.

For Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, that’s what amazes him.

“When you wake up and turn on the game film, it’s hard to think that next week’s team is going to be better than last week’s team,” Mullen said.

Georgia coach Mark Richt has experienced the difficulty of competing while going 67-29 in conference games over 12 seasons.

“The fact that we’re in the type of league that is so rugged that people understand even if a team has one loss, they still might be worthy of an opportunity to play for a national championship,” Richt said. “That’s exciting to be a part of that type of league.”

When the new NCAA four-team playoff begins after the 2014 season, multiple SEC teams are likely to draw strong considerations for those spots each year.

It’s hard to imagine things getting even better in the conference, but Slive is confident. He quoted Benjamin Franklin to make his case.

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement and success have no meaning,” he said.

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