The debate was so entertaining because, like asking Mom to name her favorite child, no right answer existed. It was the long-standing SEC vs. Big Ten football debate. South vs. North. Speed vs. size. The two most powerful conferences.
The argument reached a crescendo when Florida and Michigan each made legitimate cases to play Ohio State in the national title game. That debate seems ancient now, doesn’t it?
It was less than two years ago. Two years. And to think, several Chinese gymnasts weren’t even alive to experience it.
We all know what happened. Florida pummeled Ohio State in the national championship game to conclude the 2006 season after Michigan got spanked by Southern Cal. In the 2007 season opener, Michigan lost to Appalachian State. Minnesota lost to Bowling Green and North Dakota State.
And perhaps the biggest indictment on the conference: Ron Zook, a failure at Florida, won Big Ten Coach of the Year honors for being, apparently, the very best coach in the league.
The once-powerful Big Ten seemed to lose its way. LSU pounded Ohio State in last season’s national title game, and that was it — the SEC was better. The argument, handed down from generation to generation, was settled.
I bring this up because I got the chance to hear ESPN college football analyst and former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit and his colleague, former Florida quarterback Jesse Palmer, debate the merits of the SEC and Big Ten.
Both attempted to defend the Big Ten. Palmer noted the lack of a major talent gap: The SEC had six first rounders in last April’s NFL Draft and 35 picked overall, and the Big Ten had four first-rounders and 28 selections with one fewer team.
Herbstreit, who turned 39 on Tuesday, said conference strength is cyclical and the lousy perception of the Big Ten isn’t reality. He did say the SEC was the dominant conference and featured much more athleticism among defensive linemen and linebackers.
But Herbstreit said the coolest advantage for the SEC over the Big Ten and one of its best sells nationally, and this is a great point, is the brotherhood between schools.
Remember when Appalachian State beat Michigan, and Ohio State fans bought entire wardrobes of Mountaineers gear?
“Instead of being embarrassed this happened to a Big Ten school, they’re cheering,” Herbstreit said.
That does not happen in the SEC. In the SEC, during nonconference games, everyone is family. I remember going bar-to-bar in Chattanooga during the Florida-Ohio State title game for a column, and every SEC fan was cheering for the Gators.
“Even the teams that hate each other, if their rival is playing somebody outside of the conference, they’re like an extension of them,” Herbstreit said. “SEC fans wanted Florida to kill Ohio State. And what always happens after wins like that? You hear that S-E-C chant. There’s such a brotherhood among the teams and coaches and fans.
“As a Big Ten guy, I’m flat-out jealous. It’s the most amazing thing. The SEC fans get it.”
I’m reminded of a story former Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley told writer Tony Barnhart for his book. In 1965, Georgia beat Michigan in Ann Arbor. And Dooley said, “I didn’t just hear from Georgia people, but from people all over the South. To go up there and invade the North and come back a winner was the greatest thing for a lot of people. It was as if we had had a chance to go to Gettysburg again.”
So, maybe, it’s a Southern sense of pride, a cultural tightness, that makes SEC rivals so close when they’re not playing each other.
“I’d love to see the Big Ten adopt that,” Herbstreit said. “But I don’t think it’s possible. The Big Ten needs to realize it’s become a punch line nationally. They need to cheer for their teams in nonconference and put their bias aside and cheer for their conference brothers. But it won’t happen.”
Conference strength, as Herbstreit suggests, might be cyclical. The Big Ten might surpass the SEC one day, but the bond between SEC schools will probably never change. And that is pretty cool.