Having discussed some of the things that are not primary drivers of the SEC’s recent six-year run (and counting) of national dominance in college football, it’s time to look at the major factors that I believe are to credit for the rise to this unprecedented level of rule over the sport. If I were to boil it down to one word, I would say it was “commitment” that has separated the league. However, that stops far short of explaining the success gap between the leagues, because all schools and all conferences have a commitment to excellence and a commitment to success — and there is probably no difference in the level of personal strength and intentions behind them.
What distinguishes the SEC from the rest of the leagues are the things in which they invest that commitment, and both the wisdom and the resolve with which they do it. As I looked at the SEC over the last couple of years trying to identify the programmatic elements that distinguish the conference from the other BCS conferences and elevate them on the national stage, four main areas of commitment stood out. I list them here in ascending order of importance, but there will be little drama in the reveal of the most important one, since it is fundamentally integral to the two preceding factors, and largely facilitated by the third.
4. Financial Commitment
This is the least of the four impacts, and certainly the hardest to validate merely because of the nebulous manner in which financial investment is dispersed across a football program and how difficult it is to quantify into an empirical apples-to-apples comparison. Take facilities, for instance. We cannot simply look at size, cost and time of the latest expansion or renovation of the conferences’ collective football and sports complexes. After all, some are free-standing, and some are part of a stadium complex. Some house multiple sports, so it is impossible to quantify the portion dedicated to football. Each design is unique, so it is impossible to make direct comparisons of their aesthetic appeal. And finally, there is no hard and fast way to assign priority to different elements of facilities, as far as how each element benefits a football program. For instance, most programs have one or more very expensive components to their football complex that look very nice and even get a lot of use, but do nothing to enhance or improve a program’s success (I’m looking at you, indoor practice fields!).
In researching the comparative football facilities across the country, I separated out the stadiums since their expansion and construction costs are so much higher than the combined amenities generally referred to as “facilities.” And when I started compiling the total costs, dates and components of all the programs in the BCS conferences, it became clear that everyone was pouring huge amounts of money into their facilities and everyone was updating and renovating within the last ten years. At the top of the heap, it was clear that the power programs in the SEC led the way in facilities, but so did most of the other power programs such as Oregon, Ohio State, USC and Oklahoma, as well as many programs that have had very limited success (to be kind) for decades, like Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Nebraska and Michigan.
So, having actually too much data to reach any meaningful conclusions based on facilities, the next step was to look at the stadiums. Again, cost, scale and regularity of upgrades and renovations led to ambiguity, so the only meaningful empirical statistic available is size. And when discussing college football stadiums, and college football prestige in general, size most definitely matters. When looking at the average capacity of football stadiums by conference, the SEC is clearly the biggest of the bigs. Conference schools average 78,463 Saturday seats, nearly 6,500 more per school than the second-place Big Ten. The recent league expansion did not alter the SEC’s average too much, since the stadiums of Texas A&M (82,600) and Missouri (71,000) hover around the mean, although the Tigers did pull the average down a tad. The Pac-12 is a distant 16,931 per school behind the SEC, followed by the Big 12 (-17,111) and the ACC (-19,444), which only averages 59,000 seats per arena — which is actually higher than I expected (though seldom are a majority of those seats filled on a Saturday).