Why Has the South Dominated College Football for So Long? – Allen Barra – The Atlantic
Southern teams are inspired by two of college football’s key intangibles—tradition and rivalry. To the veteran college football writer Dan Jenkins, those are “words that belong almost exclusively to the vernacular of college football.” The enthusiasm generated by match-ups like Georgia vs. Florida or LSU vs. Tennessee or Alabama vs. Auburn is the lifeblood of SEC football, a manifestation of Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” that has survived into the 21st century. This year, SEC stadiums have been jammed to nearly 95 percent capacity, tops in the country. According to a Sports Business Journal study in 2009, six Southern football programs—Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia, Auburn, and South Carolina—were among the top 11 producers in football revenue in the nation.
It’s a feeling that can only be imitated by pro-football fans. Their players and coaches, no matter how dedicated, are mercenaries. And while rivalries are important everywhere, in the North, Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, college football competes with major league baseball, pro football, the NBA, and even hockey for a fan’s attention. In the South, people celebrate Bear Bryant’s birthday even though it falls on September 11. Generations who were unborn when LSU’s Billy Cannon made his great 69-yard punt return against Ole Miss in 1959 regularly relive the glory of the run on YouTube.
No one knows exactly why the best football players in the country go to SEC schools—at least, there are no good guesses outside of the greater traditions, better climate, and the best tailgate food—but they do. According to the National Football League, over the last 20 years 576 players from the conference have been drafted into the pros. That’s more than the next two leagues—the PAC 12 (250) and the Big 12 (224)—combined.
Such success has spawned some naysayers, most recently journalist Chuck Thompson in his book, Better Off Without ‘Em. According to Thompson, “Bias for SEC teams builds into the system a near-insurmountable advantage.” The polls, he insists, are slanted to favor SEC teams. But what this doesn’t explain is why computers also seem to favor southeastern schools. The current BCS standings, which figures in some computer rankings but also leans heavily on personal polls, have six SEC teams in the top 12 in the nation with Notre Dame ranked No. 1 and Alabama No. 2.