SEC goes for four straight championships

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Julio Jones was asked about the Texas defense and repeated the answer that so many of his Alabama teammates have given leading up to the BCS national championship game.

"It's just like an SEC team, how they play the game," the Tide receiver said earlier this week.

As if there was no greater compliment than comparing the Longhorns to South Carolina or Kentucky. As if the greatest praise one could bestow upon on a college football team is declaring that, yes, this team could play in the Southeastern Conference.

Competing in a league that has produced three consecutive national champions -- something never done before -- certainly helps justify Alabama's high opinion of the SEC.

And it's a feeling shared by many, though somewhat begrudgingly.

"The SEC is the best conference," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said Wednesday. "But I do sense just from a fan's perspective once you get outside the region, it is the SEC versus the world."

So it's safe to say that more than just Texas fans would like to see the Longhorns take Alabama -- and with it the SEC -- down a peg Thursday night in the Rose Bowl, denying the league a fourth straight title.

SEC football dates back to 1933 and in many ways it unifies the Deep South like nothing else. As fierce as the rivalries are within the conference, fans and players are passionate in their support for each other when teams step outside the league.

"It's almost become a fraternity of the South," Alabama tight end Colin Peek said. "I have a lot of friends at Florida who all want to see us win. They almost want to say the national championship game is decided on Dec. 5 in Atlanta."

SEC football has never been more popular or more lucrative. The conference distributed $132.5 million to its 12 members last year, the majority of which came from the television rights for football.

Those figures are a lock to go up this year as the money starts pouring in from the league's new 15-year TV deals with ESPN and CBS.

"I think one of the things that sort of sets the SEC out a little bit is the great TV package and great exposure that we get with having as many as three games on national TV every week," Tide coach Nick Saban said.

On TV and at the bank, the SEC can claim another season as No. 1 in college football. Saban said the SEC's depth is what separates it from other leagues.

"Where most leagues have two or three or four good teams, our league seems to have seven, eight or nine or 10 sometimes," he said.

This year, while Alabama and Florida have clearly been among the top three or four teams in the country all along, though the rest of the league hasn't been quite so scary.

Heading into the bowl season, in fact, LSU was the only other SEC team ranked in the AP Top 25.

And this hasn't been a banner postseason for the SEC. The league put 10 teams in bowls and its record stands at 5-4 heading into the BCS championship game. That includes Arkansas' overtime victory against an East Carolina team that missed four field goals and Auburn's overtime win as a touchdown-favorite against Northwestern.

But the bottom line is that an SEC team, again, will play for the national title on the final night of the season.

"Our most difficult challenge is maintaining the success we've had over the years," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said.

Last year, the Big 12 seemed as if it might have surpassed the SEC, but a disappointing bowl season combined with Florida's victory against Oklahoma in the BCS title game made it hard to dispute that King Football still reigned in the South.

This season, the Big 12 slipped even further than the SEC, with Oklahoma and Texas Tech unable to match last year's success.

The Big 12's troubles led to increased scrutiny of Texas. Some critics even questioned whether the Longhorns were indeed one of the two best teams in the country, especially after Texas' 13-12 victory against Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game.

Following that game Texas coach Mack Brown made sure to point out that in the SEC that type of defensive struggle would be touted as a thing of beauty.

"We have not had as many good teams in the Big 12 (as in the SEC)," said Brown, who grew up in Tennessee. "We've had some great teams."

The problem for the Big 12 -- and the Big Ten and the Pac-10, etc., etc. -- is that lately the very best teams have played in the SEC.