SEC football keeps making its mark

Jonathan Banks is a sure-fire first-round NFL draft prospect, with All-America honors to his credit and the Jim Thorpe Award — given annually to the nation’s best defensive back — on his mantel.

But before that, the former Mississippi State cornerback figures his résumé was already made by one important fact: He played four seasons in the Southeastern Conference.

“It’s the next-best thing to the NFL,” said Banks, who was here with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and several other national award winners who will be honored before the BCS Championship Game.

It was once said the sun never set on the British Empire.

Well, going into Monday night’s title tilt between Alabama and Notre Dame at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, the rest of the college football world is wondering when the sun will set on the SEC’s empire, which is sitting on six straight BCS titles and is poised for a seventh.

College football expert Tony Barnhart of CBSSports.com says there’s no way to put an expiration date on the SEC as the game’s only true superpower.

“The luck of the draw says that there will come a time when the SEC champion doesn’t play well,” he said.

“It could be broken for one year, for two years. But long term, the fundamentals are in place for them to continue to dominate. They’re the best conference located in the place where there are more great players where there are people who care about the sport. It’ll go on for a while.”

The reason, say Barnhart and Banks, is simple: total commitment.

With apologies to Kentucky basketball, college football always has been the currency in which the SEC’s reputation as a power conference has been measured.

It was the league of Pistol Pete and Adolph Rupp, to be sure. But more than that, it was the league of The Bear and of Bo Jackson and the Chinese Bandits.

Football defined the SEC for its first 60 years — or at least it seemed to. Then in 1992, the SEC decided to expand from the 10 members it had since Tulane and Georgia Tech left in the 1960s back to 12 with the additions of Arkansas and South Carolina and the first-of-its-kind conference championship game.

Naysayers insisted the SEC would never win another national title. But to Barnhart, that’s when the conference’s true potential as a football power was set into motion.

“I think it goes back to 1992 when Commissioner (Roy) Kramer made the decision to go to divisional play and start pumping more money into football,” Barnhart said. “You look at what’s happened since 1992 — more exposure, more TV money.”

Alabama survived that 1992 season unbeaten — including an SEC Championship Game victory over Florida — and capped a 13-0 season with a thorough 34-13 thrashing of Miami in the Sugar Bowl.

Since then, the SEC’s strength has only grown.

SEC teams have won half of the past 20 national championships, including eight of the 14 BCS titles contested since the 1998 season. (Tennessee won the first one over Florida State.) The only other conference to win as many as two BCS titles is the Big 12 (Oklahoma in 2000, Texas in 2005).

The past two seasons have confirmed the SEC’s strength. LSU and Alabama played for the BCS championship a year ago in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. This season, six of the top 10 teams in the final BCS standings were SEC-grown.

Everyone in the SEC is pouring money into its football programs — even Vanderbilt, long the conference’s doormat but now enjoying a renaissance after back-to-back bowls and its first nine-win season in 97 years.

“It’s a commitment,” Banks said. “It doesn’t matter who you play; you know you’re going to be in a dogfight. LSU, Alabama, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt — it’s going to be exciting.”

Excitement was personified by one of the SEC’s latest acquisition. Texas A&M and Missouri joined the conference in 2012, and immediately Aggies freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel captured the nation’s imagination and the Heisman — the SEC’s fourth winner in the past six years.

Both schools are planning expansions of their football stadiums. Expansion is already under way at LSU to make Tiger Stadium a 100,000-seat venue by 2014.

The name of the game is talent, and raw talent is the crude oil that drives the SEC’s football engine, making the conference the game’s version of the Middle East.

According to the NFL, the SEC had 576 players drafted in the 20-year period from 1992-2011. The Big Ten was a distant second with 396. From 2007-11, only Southern California with 42 had more draft picks than LSU’s 30.

Alabama punter and Lafayette native Cody Mandell knows what every other SEC player knows: If you succeed in the SEC against the talent massed against you, you’ve done something.

“It’s known as the fastest, hardest-hitting conference,” said Mandell, who attended Acadiana High School. “You step on the field with a bunch of SEC guys, (and) you know you’re about to get the best game you can get.

“I know I can go out there and punt against a Jeff Demps or a Patrick Peterson. Those are big-name guys in the (NFL) right now. Knowing I’ve been on the same field with them gives me hope I can be in the league one day.”

SEC bashers hope Monday is the day the SEC’s string of championships ends, even if it means pulling for a Notre Dame team that many fans love to hate.

For the Fighting Irish, competing for their storied program’s first national title in 24 years, there is no talk of their return to national prominence without also mentioning the SEC’s prominence as well.

“You can’t argue with it,” Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin said. “They’ve won six titles in a row. They deserve everything they’ve got. We’re going to do our best to break that (streak), but they’ve been great the last six, seven years.”

When it comes to football, the SEC not only wins championships but influences the way those championships will be decided.

There was a constant simmer of debate over a college football playoff for decades, but it was the “horror” of an all-SEC BCS final a year ago that fast-tracked playoff talk from “it’ll never happen” right over a potential plus-one model to the four-team playoff that will debut after the 2014 season.

As was the case with SEC expansion in 1992, some say the four-team playoff will make it harder for the conference to win the national championship. Kramer doesn’t agree, especially since the new playoff system doesn’t cap the number of teams from one conference at two as the current rules do.

“The SEC could very well end up with three of the four playoff teams in any given year,” Kramer told The Associated Press.

The rest of college football groans at the thought of more SEC titles, starting with the prospect of a seventh straight this season.

“Seven straight — let’s be honest, people are probably getting tired of us,” Alabama center Barrett Jones said. “That’s all right; we don’t really mind. We enjoy being the top dog and enjoy kind of having that target on our back — and we love our conference.”