Speed, Specimens and Slobberknockers

With each passing season, certain opinions persist with respect to the nature of the Big Ten and the SEC. This year, with the two conferences set to compete in the BCS title game, it’s a particularly good time to examine these conferences. In this article, we’ll size up the level of athleticism in the two leagues.

If you’ve heard these statements once, you’ve heard them a million times: the Big Ten has the massive, muscled men of the trenches, while the SEC stands for “Supersonic, Explosive Cheetahs.” The Midwest has the mashers, the South the speedsters. There’s a blend of fact and fiction in these claims, so instead of allowing them to linger unchallenged, let’s tackle them head-on.

The most obvious–but also the most important–point to make about the size-speed debate in the Big Ten and SEC is that there’s plenty to go around on both sides. Arkansas–without quality quarterbacking, it must be said–has managed to pound the ball on the ground with sustained consistency over the last several years. The Hogs didn’t win many games in 2005, but still amassed a huge amount of rushing yards. Houston Nutt might not be able to avoid soap operas from consuming his program, but he sure can teach the running game and how to block it. The Washington Redskins don’t play in Fayetteville, but the image of the “Hogs” is truly evoked by the Razorbacks’ annual success with between-the-tackles running. If the SEC speed myth has a particularly weak point, it is provided by one of the conference’s newest members.

And on the other side of the divide, Wisconsin showed against this very same Arkansas team that the big dogs in the Big Ten can run with an upper-division SEC team. Penn State showed the very same ability against Tennessee. The Capital One and Outback bowls, could–in and of themselves–put to rest any and all of these grossly exaggerated myths that have been allowed to persist for a long time.

Over in the Big Ten, funky offenses are popping up all over the place. New Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner uses a spread offense and slings the ball around the ballpark. Northwestern has been using a finesse offense for some time. Ron Zook, over at Illinois, allowed Juice Williams to run loose from a spread look. When endowed with the horsepower that can ring up big numbers, Purdue coach Joe Tiller plays basketball on grass with his spread passing game. And of course, Ohio State has made Woody Ball (and its recent equivalent, Craig Krenzel Ball) obsolete with the multi-receiver sets that helped Troy Smith put together his Heisman-winning season.

It’s pretty clear that there are considerable excesses and untruths associated with the speed and size myths that linger over the SEC and Big Ten, respectively.

Hold on, you say. The SEC still has the best athletes. We see these guys knock heads every Saturday.

Well, there’s some merit to that line of thought. Time to enter the lovely land of “Nuance World,” where attention to detail becomes the ultimate arbiter in a football discussion.

The SEC probably does possess the best athletes in all of college football, but only in a cumulative or aggregate sense. The talent (read: speed) on display in the SEC isn’t necessarily a higher grade of talent in comparison with the best of other conferences and regions. It’s just that the SEC will, on balance, have a few more talented bodies than other leagues will. This is partly due to the fertile recruiting areas in the South. With more states providing competitive and concentrated talent pools from which prime players will emerge, SEC coaches are more uniquely positioned to snare top performers. While California claims the West, Texas the Southern Plains, and the Ohio Valley the Midwest and portions of the Northeast, the Deep South has more states from which to choose. Factor in the football-first culture at these SEC schools, and you have a dynamic in which the South’s best talent is likely to stay not necessarily in its home state, but definitely in its home region.

A little more must be said about the football-first culture at SEC schools. It does more than merely keep recruits in the conference. What it also does is add extra juice to the SEC schedule, providing Southern football fans (and coaches) with their most credible argument in defense of the league they love.

The biggest argument made by SEC fans about the quality of their conference–and the one that is upheld on an unfailingly annual basis–is that if opposing teams had to negotiate a full SEC slate, they’d get bloodied and bruised. Where things get tricky in a comparison between the Big Ten and the SEC is that such a statement might seem to refer, on the surface, to disparities in talent and speed. “Speed kills, and those slow Big Ten teams would get obliterated by the SEC’s talent.” That last statement is a falsehood, though, because if you looked at Michigan or Ohio State, you’d see the playmaking ability and athleticism on the edges that would rival the skills of any SEC team. When Wisconsin and Arkansas fought on the same field, it wasn’t easy to distinguish the “big” team from the “fast” team, the “size guys” from the speed merchants.

Yes, it’s probably still true that the prospect of an SEC schedule would deal at least one, maybe two, body blows to any team in the land… even the Buckeyes from Columbus. What’s important to understand, though, is that this is not a question of talent or speed.

The reason why Ohio State, or other top teams outside the South, would get dinged up in SEC play is that college football is a sport ruled by emotions and, more specifically, emotion swings. Any top coach will tell you that his team will play with peak focus and intensity in three or four games a season. It’s simply a fact of human nature–especially among hormone-addled 19-year-old males–that attention spans will waver and motivation levels will fluctuate. We see it every year in this sport, but for some reason, lots of folks remained surprised or–worse–irritated when Florida would struggle to a close-shave win. The picture-perfect performance is the goal of every coach, but the reality of football and the wounds associated with the sport suggest that the ultimate virtue of a football team is its ability to win in the seven or eight games when perfect technique or maximum motivation (or both) turn out to be sorely lacking. Florida won almost all of those games in 2006, and that’s why the Gators are playing Ohio State for the title. The Buckeyes might beat Florida, but it will be in a one-shot deal with 50 days to prepare. Get OSU in an eight-game SEC schedule, and you could count on the Bucks to stop somewhere. Emotions would fell them at some point.

Boise State, in fact, showed the entire nation what can happen in a one-shot situation. The Broncos might not be physical enough to beat SEC teams every week, but in one adrenaline-fed performance, the boys from Boise were the legitimate physical equal of Oklahoma in the trenches. There wasn’t much of a speed differential between the WAC champs and Bob Stoops’ troops, either. Emotions can lift the little guy in a one-game season, and conversely, they’d topple a titan in an eight-game SEC slate.

The football-first culture of the SEC, which is markedly more pronounced than in any other collegiate conference, affects the emotional dynamic of an SEC season. The holy wars known as rivalry games are particularly savage affairs in the South, but the border battles and divisional deathmatches are so numerous in this football-loving league that almost every Saturday turns into a fight for survival. As a result, the constant pounding and unrelenting pressure associated with every Autumnal Saturday are what eventually topple each SEC team in most seasons. This line of thought helps explain the rightful outrage Auburn fans felt when their undefeated Tigers failed to reach the BCS title game after the 2004 regular season.

Coaches always hope that their teams can approach each game in the same way, but they know–as do the rest of us–that that just won’t happen. Florida will treat LSU differently from Kentucky, Tennessee differently from Vandy. In the years when the weaker teams are especially weak, an SEC team could get something of a breather… maybe. In most years, however, you just can’t take the proverbial week off. The depth residing in the middle of the conference–owing to the ample amount of talent that stays in the South as mentioned above–is substantial enough that top teams can and will get ambushed if they’re not wakeful enough on a sleepy Saturday.

From this past season, one of the most instructive games I watched was Auburn-LSU. I witnessed this contest not just as an SEC observer and a GC columnist, but as a national writer with CFN responsibilities. Played in mid-September, this game was an accurate barometer not of each team’s playbooks–they were very much in their embryonic stages, as the final 7-3 score indicated–but of each squad’s overall assemblage of athletes, given the relative freshness of each team in the just-beginning season.

After sixty minutes of mortal combat in Jordan-Hare Stadium, I was astonished by the ferocity of hitting in this game. Auburn and LSU played with the kind of physicality and muscle that would put the big uglies of Wisconsin and Michigan to shame. If the size myth in the Big Ten ever got stood on its head in 2006, Auburn and LSU did the deed. The two teams of Tiger toughs played Midwestern smashmouth football on overdrive.

LSU took a month and a half to finally recover emotionally from that loss. Auburn never truly recovered physically from that win. That one contest killed two birds with one stone: it blew up the notion that the SEC is just a “speed league,” along with the companion idea that the Big Ten is the only place where trench warfare is conducted by beefy linemen. More importantly, however, that game set the tone for a classic SEC season in which the winners of September showdowns still lost before the journey through Autumn was over. Auburn and LSU tested each other in a conference collision in September; ditto for Florida and Tennessee.

Michigan and Ohio State, on the other hand, faced difficult September games from non-conference opposition; the meat of their league schedules never remotely threatened them in advance of their season-ending battle in Columbus.

The nature of the 2006 season indicates three basic realities about the Big Ten and the SEC, relative to the “size” and “speed” myths that have enveloped the two conferences in recent years:

1) The SEC can play physical football, while the Big Ten can definitely run around the field on both offense and defense.

2) The SEC has the best athletes, but only in a cumulative sense; Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin have substantial amounts of athleticism. The only difference is that a few more good athletes populate a few more SEC rosters than in the Big Ten.

3) The football-first culture at SEC schools makes each league season a war of attrition that isn’t quite matched by the Big Ten or other leagues.

So yeah, SEC fans: on balance, you’re probably right… but not by much. Moreover, it’s all a lot more detailed and complicated than some of the surface arguments suggest.