League perceptions real or imagined

Even before teams of rival leagues play, the outcome is predicted based on conference perception. Patrick Green/Icon SMI

Rutgers beat Princeton 6-4 on Nov. 6, 1869, in the first intercollegiate football game recorded, thereby proving that those boys from central New Jersey were soft. At least through the lens of college football fandom today, that would have been the reaction.

When teams from different regions play, we extrapolate grand conclusions from the results. Heck, we do the same even when they don't play, weaving together twisting arguments of hypotheticals and transitive properties. When the sport is debated at a conference level, even the casual observer is aware of the negative stereotypes rival fans use to tweak each other: The Big Ten is slow. The Pac-12 is finesse. The Big 12 doesn't play defense. The SEC doesn't play offense. The ACC is basketball-first.

In pro sports, rooting is only about the home team. In college football, it's home team first, conference second. That's because college football combines local, regional and national interests like no other sport. As a nation, partisan politics aside, we are more the same culturally than ever before, yet college football resists that, at least at a fan level.

If you say "Big Ten" in a watering hole in Atlanta, you are likely to get a very different reaction than if you said it in Detroit. Speak of "SEC dominance" in Austin, Texas, or Seattle, and you'll be greeted by rolled eyes and microanalysis that proves -- proves! -- that perception is a creation of ESPN and the unfair BCS system.

"Everybody wants a word -- one word -- to apply to everybody in a conference," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "Such as, 'The Big Ten is a power conference.' You look at the Big Ten with Ohio State and Wisconsin. Those guys are power schools. Is Northwestern? Probably not. Then there's the word 'spread' -- what does that mean? I don't even know what that means. The Oklahoma State version of the spread is going to be different than us. Washington State is going to be different than Auburn. Everybody wants one word to apply to everyone."

The South rises

During conference media days a few weeks ago, ESPN polled anonymous players about what word or phrase comes to mind when they think of other conferences. They mostly played along with general fan perceptions.

• ACC: Duke-North Carolina basketball ... a step down from the SEC ... underachieving.

• Big Ten: Cold weather ... a power conference ... the running game ... slow.

• Big 12: Spread offenses ... very fast, athletic guys ... competitive.

• Pac-12: Spread offenses ... quick, smaller linemen ... a 7-on-7 conference.

• SEC: Defense ... smashmouth ... dominance ... overrated.

These perceptions have mostly developed during the BCS era, but they also are outgrowths of long-term demographic and societal changes. Desegregation across the South and population migration from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt laid the groundwork for a transformation in the college football power structure. Then TV raised an eyebrow.

Yet the roots of college football's obsessive regionalism truly began four years before Princeton and Rutgers suited up to play that first game. It started when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. Although college football undoubtedly would have developed regional rivalries had the Civil War never occurred, the "War of Northern Aggression" created a specific and potent "us versus them" mentality that still thrives in the South.

Michael Oriard played offensive line for Notre Dame in the 1960s and the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1970s. He also is a recently retired English professor and associate dean of the college of liberal arts at Oregon State and has written several notable books about college and professional football.

"The South pretty early on got recognized for a kind of extreme passion, for hard-nosed toughness," Oriard said. "Civil War metaphors were abundant. Every game a Southern team played a Northern team was a reenactment of the Civil War."

Football in the South became a secular religion. That, of course, made the games seem bigger and more colorful. The intersectional contests were about more than X's and O's. They were about contrasting regions and ways of life and even worldviews. It will surprise no one that the media picked up and ran with the notion, ascribing to Southern football a special sort of feral ferocity, even if it wandered into the realm of hyperbole.

Oriard, in "King Football: Sport & Spectacle in the Golden Age of Radio & Newsreels, Movies & Magazines, the Weekly & the Daily Press," writes: "Southerners likely competed with no more intensity than players elsewhere, but sportswriters both within and outside the region preferred to set them apart, and to attribute their fervor to the undying spirit of the Old South."

That's fun and quaint when national championships are scattered across the country, when Notre Dame, USC, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Michigan and Texas are at least sharing the stage with Alabama and the SEC.

It becomes something else entirely when the Southern obsessiveness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the SEC begins to dominate the sport. Extreme conference pride took root first with the SEC, and other conferences seemed to take up the trash-talking only as a reaction against SEC solidarity. And its winning.

"It's hard as hell to root for USC, but if it's USC versus the SEC, of course I'm rooting for USC," Oriard said with a laugh, recalling the words of a former Notre Dame player.

Toss in the Internet and social media's growth in the BCS era, and you have a perfect smorgasbord for battling regional perceptions.

Further, when that perception of SEC superiority -- both real and exaggerated -- becomes monetized, as it has in the BCS era and might be to an ever-greater degree as we move to a four-team playoff, things aren't so fun and quaint anymore among the other conferences.

Perception and reality

It's difficult to make much of an argument that the SEC isn't the best conference based on national championships, recruiting rankings and NFL draft numbers. Although there might be some subjective areas to score points on the periphery of that assertion, seven consecutive national titles and a record 63 NFL draft picks this past spring -- more than double any other conference -- provide a powerful dose of hush-up.

But which common perceptions about conferences hit the mark and which miss?

The first advantage given to the SEC is team speed, and that typically holds true when you review NFL combine numbers, particularly on the defensive line. Seven of the 25 fastest defensive ends and five of the top-10 defensive tackles at the 2013 combine played in the SEC.

What also holds true: The SEC is the biggest on both lines. Consider the figures heading into 2013-14.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, SEC offensive linemen average 303 pounds. The next biggest linemen are in the Big 12 at 298.4. Perhaps surprisingly, the Big Ten is the "smallest" at 294.9.

SEC defensive linemen average 274.5 pounds. The next biggest is the Pac-12 at 271.4 The Big 12 is smallest at 265.8.

Big 12 defensive lines might be smaller by necessity because Big 12 offenses play the fastest, running an average of 75 plays per game over the past two seasons. Pac-12 teams ran the second most plays per game over that span -- 71.8 -- and the SEC ran the fewest at 66.8.

The national trend is to play the game faster. The average number of plays over the 2004 and 2005 seasons was 70.2. It increased to 71.5 over the past two years. In 2004, only 16 teams ran 75-plus plays per game. In 2012, it was 31.

But the SEC -- the line-of-scrimmage league -- hasn't followed that trend. In 2004-05, the SEC average was 66.9, 0.1 more plays per game than in the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

ESPN Stats & Information also broke down the 2012 season using the best metric for measuring a team's overall efficiency: EPA (expected points added). The SEC had six of the top 14 teams in EPA. The Big 12 had six of the top 22, and the Pac-12 had six of the top 24.

When you rate just offense and defense, the Big 12 rules offense, with seven of the top 14 teams in the nation, and the SEC rules defense, with seven in the top 22. Does this upend any preconceptions? Probably not. How about this: Which offensive powerhouse had the nation's sixth-most efficient defense in 2012, superior to Notre Dame, South Carolina, Florida State and LSU? That would be Oregon.

Beyond the numbers

As college football moves toward a playoff in 2014, perception will matter more than ever. That's inspiring some restlessness across the country that the tie will always go to the SEC, that an 11-1 SEC team will always get the edge over an 11-1 team from another major conference. Or even, in some cases, maybe an undefeated team. This had some coaches shooting from the hip this offseason, directly taking on the perception of SEC superiority. Much of it came from the Big 12, with Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Texas' Mack Brown noting that the SEC is top-heavy.

"So you're listening to a lot of propaganda that gets fed out to you," Stoops was quoted as saying in the Tulsa World. "You're more than smart enough to figure it out. Again, you can look at the top two, three, four, five, six teams, and you can look at the bottom six, seven, eight, whatever they are. How well are they all doing?"

Brown, after lauding Big 12 offenses as "the most difficult to defend in the country," followed that up at Big 12 media days.

"Everybody else can beat anybody else in the [Big 12] on a given day, and that's not happening across the country," he said. "You saw in the SEC, the top seven beat the bottom seven 30-0, and that's not happening in our league. Our league is very challenging."

Stoops and Brown also probably were thinking of a Texas A&M team that went 4-5 in the Big 12 in 2011 going 6-2 in the SEC in 2012.

Not surprisingly, this sort of reasoning drew some chortles down South: The Big 12's selling point was that its mediocre-to-bad teams were better than the SEC's mediocre-to-bad teams.

Still, perceptions of top-to-bottom depth are grounds for reasonable debate between conference adherents -- and, eventually, playoff selection committees.

What about NFL perceptions of college football conferences? The 2013 draft seemingly would have spoken in that regard, but that could have been a serendipitous alignment of circumstances, such as the top SEC teams losing many top stars at the same time. As recently as 2008, the Pac-12 produced significantly more drafted players per team than the SEC (3.4 per team vs. 2.92). In 2012, the much-maligned Big Ten had 41 players drafted, just one fewer than the SEC.

As for established NFL stars, the Pac-12 placed nine position players on 2012 first- and second-team All-Pro rosters, the SEC had eight, the Big 12 seven, and the ACC and the Big Ten six (not realigning players from teams such as Missouri, Texas A&M, TCU and Utah with conferences they never played in).

Phil Savage coached at Alabama and UCLA and was the Cleveland Browns' general manager from 2005 to 2008. Before that, he was the Baltimore Ravens' director of college scouting and director of player personnel. At present, he's Alabama's color analyst and the director of the Senior Bowl. So, when it comes to evaluating players, he has been around and seen a lot.

He said NFL evaluators don't pay much attention to which conference or school a player comes from unless it's a non-AQ conference.

"We always used the phrase, 'Grade the player, not the school,'" he said. "I cannot recall a single time where players were so evenly matched in every aspects that we took a player because of the school he attended versus another one."

Then there's the player level.

Savage noted: "There's a lot more respect among the players [from different conferences] than fans. A lot of these guys know each other, went to camps together and were recruited together."

Defensive back Josh Shaw saw significant action at Florida as a redshirt freshman before transferring to USC for family reasons. The California native admitted there was some back-and-forth between players from California and Florida -- on both teams -- about who plays better high school football.

"But both states are loaded with talent -- I've seen that after transferring," he said. "I wanted to see what the difference was going to be, but there really was no drop-off at all. Both schools recruit four- and five-star guys."

That said, the SEC and Pac-12 are different, and not just because SEC stadiums are bigger.

"Out there in the SEC, it's really a line-of-scrimmage type of league," he said. "Out here, you've got a lot more skill guys and the offenses are more spread out than the SEC. As far as athletes, both conferences definitely have great athletes. I just think the style of play is different."

The future

There's a grudging respect for the SEC among the other conferences, mostly because the BCS era has spoken so loudly. But there's also a growing concern with the advent of a four-team playoff that subjective perceptions of the league's superiority, even within a selection committee, could give it an unfair advantage in terms of always receiving one or two or even three spots.

"As long as the process is subjective, we're going to have issues," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "If the tie always goes to the SEC, none of the other conferences are going to be in agreement with that. We have to have something that all the conferences agree with."

Shaw, like many coaches across the country, said he believes an eight-team playoff would water down many subjective elements. There's also the issue of self-fulfilling prophecy. If the SEC continues to dominate and defy the cyclical nature of college football dynasties, the other conferences will battle another perception: minor leagues.

"You've got kids you're recruiting on the West Coast who are like, 'Wow, I've got to go to the SEC,'" new California coach Sonny Dykes said. "'They've got more games on prime-time TV, and they've got more guys getting drafted. They've got this, and they've got that.' When that starts to happen, it has an impact on your program."

In other words, there's significant concern about a regional perception becoming the long-term national consensus. And then the enduring reality, a Civil War the South ends up winning.