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March 3, 2011

BLOG: Anti-SEC Sentiment Fuels Hysteria

Hard-working college football fans in America - OK, the upper Midwest where the Big 10 rules the roost - outside the Southeastern region have reached the breaking point.

They're sick and tired of hearing about the greatness that is the SEC.

More importantly, they're grown weary of watching the conference capture the BCS national championship in football year after year.

They resent having to watch SEC football on every ESPN channel in existence from noon to midnight every Saturday in the fall.

They're angry about the SEC's seemingly never-ending domination of the national recruiting rankings. They're jealous. They're envious. They're paranoid.

Simply, they're freaking out and they're not going to take it anymore.

So, unable to compete with the SEC on the field (you pick the sport), they've been reduced to trying to break the conference down off it.

Which transitions nicely to this week's hottest trend - the hysteria about over-signing in college football.

While many publications have written about the controversy - oversigning is hardly a new topic - many of the recent stories have focused entirely on the SEC as if that league was the only conference engaging in the practice. Of course, it's not.

Witch hunt? Close. Anti-SEC sentiment in the media? Absolutely.

The latest to chime in - the Wall Street Journal. Initially, my reaction was probably the same as yours. Huh? Apparently they convinced a pair of 'we know absolutely nothing about college football but we'll pretend we do' authors to pen a story about the 'problem' of oversigning.

Sadly, business must be incredibly slow on Wall Street (the municipal bond market just isn't what it used to be) if the WSJ is focusing on purportedly distasteful behavior in big-time college football. The Peter Principle is still alive and well.

In my opinion, the WSJ story is part of a well-choreographed assault on the SEC because of its enormous success nationally over the last few five years.

The SEC has everything the other BCS conferences crave - talented players, great coaches, passionate fans, sold out stadiums, maximum TV exposure and media contracts worth billions.

Look behind the curtain and you'll probably discover Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delaney pulling the levers. Of course, he has a legitimate reason for despising the SEC - his conference has continuously over the last decade or more been pulverized in head-to-head matchups on the gridiron between Big 10 and SEC teams, with New Year's Day 2011 serving as just the latest example of the canyon-wide gap between the conferences.

With each story on over-signing that appears in the national media, consider this: Would over-signing be such a controversial topic if the SEC hadn't won the last five BCS national championships in football?

Correct answer: No.

To his credit, Steve Spurrier has been gracious in his comments - far more subdued than I would have been - by acknowledging USC could have handled a couple of situations better, careful not to puncture the overinflated egos of a few of the high school coaches he must deal with on a daily basis.

We even have one high school coach in Florida now insisting Gamecock coaches aren't welcome at his school. OK, what happens if one of his players expresses an interest in playing for USC? Is the coach going to tell him that he can't do that? Will the coach fling himself across the table on National Signing Day to prevent one of his players from signing a NLOI with USC?

Right now, the SEC is the 800-pound gorilla in the large room of collegiate athletics. Remember, it took a lot more than a single bullet to bring down King Kong. Instead, it took a massive assault of humans, planes and guns.

The national media (the same ones that shamelessly carry the banner for Boise State, TCU, etc. every year) will try to accomplish the same thing with the SEC - they'll chip away and chip away with one issue after another hoping someday to bring the Goliath SEC to its knees.

Will the strategy work? No, because the SEC is too rich, too powerful and too competitive. Moreover, commissioner Mike Slive is a smart dude who smell a rat from a mile away. He'll make sure the SEC maintains their position atop the college football mountain.

I agree with Spurrier on one point - if the Big 10 is truly concerned over-signing puts their teams at a disadvantage, then change the rules. It's their own fault.

The WSJ article that has garnered so much attention in the last few days either conveniently ignores or glosses over two important considerations about over-signing: 1) the practice doesn't violate NCAA rules; and 2) many of the athletes involved in the oversigning situation (including USC signees Lorenzo Mauldin and Jordan Montgomery) haven't yet or won't qualify academically.

Instead, the main argument of the opponents of over-signing appears to be that's it is immoral or 'reprehensible.' Frankly, that's dangerous territory.

Sorry, adhering to 'morals' doesn't win football games. And that's the bottom line for all Div. I coaches. When it comes to football in the SEC, winning is everything. Coaches are judged strictly on their won-loss records. Nothing else matters.

So, coaches will do everything they can - preferably within the rules - to win as many football games as possible with the 25 players that enroll every fall.

Blame the spineless NCAA for the over-signing dilemma, to the extent one even exists. If the organization governing college sports truly desired change, they would swiftly pass legislation setting a hard cap at 28 signees (or another number) in a single signing year. But they haven't done it yet.

Sadly, the over-signing issue will take the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla. hostage in early June. The national media, seeking avenues to connect to their readers in the heavily populated Midwest and northeast, will write one story after another bashing the conference over the practice.

Happily, it won't prevent the SEC from capturing their sixth consecutive national championship next January, which will be followed shortly thereafter by additional SEC domination on NSD.

Of course, blaming the media outside of the Southeast Region for creating the mindless hysteria surrounding over-signing doesn't explain some of the bizarre behavior we've seen from the media and others in the SEC Region.

As I mentioned the other day, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution launched an attack on USC by blaming the school for the plight of LB Lorenzo Mauldin, who still remains committed to the Gamecocks but is now looking at other schools who will admit him as a non-qualifier.

But those stories are easily dismissed as the ramblings of a fanatical newspaper still bitter a month after National Signing Day about USC reeling in 11 elite prospects from the Peach State while Georgia signed zero recruits from South Carolina.

The case of Florida President Bernie Machen is a little more curious. In a USA Today article published the day before National Signing Day, Machen harshly criticized the practices of over-signing and grayshirting in the SEC.

Looking beyond the fact Machen has a Big 10 academic background (he holds two degrees from Iowa), his comments deserve scrutiny. As the standing President of a SEC school, he understands - or should anyway - the importance college football plays in the culture of the South.

Here's my concern about Machen's comments: would he have made those same critical comments in early February about over-signing if Florida had gone 14-0 and won the national championship in 2010? I doubt it.

In other words, I'm comfortable saying Florida's 8-5 record last season has a lot to do with Machen's anguish about over-signing. I'm sure a few more wins by the Gator football team and a SEC East title in 2011 will ease his discomfort a great deal.

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