CHICAGO — Nebraska has won at least nine games in each of the last five seasons. Only Alabama, Boise State and Oregon can say the same.
The Cornhuskers have won four AP national championships. Their honor roll includes three Heisman Trophy winners. They play in front of packed houses every week, often on national television.
So coach Bo Pelini isn’t too fond of those questions about the Big Ten versus the Southeastern Conference.
“I guarantee there are a lot of teams in the SEC that aren’t Alabama that wish they were Nebraska, that wish they were Michigan, wish they were Ohio State,” Pelini said Thursday at Big Ten media days, “so don’t talk to me about the SEC. Talk to me about, let’s compare specific programs.
“The whole SEC isn’t Alabama, isn’t LSU and isn’t Georgia. Every year is different.”
Like it or not, right now the comparison point for the major college football conferences is the powerful SEC, and the business is quite good in the home of Nick Saban, Les Miles and Mark Richt.
The Crimson Tide trounced Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS championship in January, earning the SEC’s seventh consecutive national title. Newcomer Texas A&M (Cotton), South Carolina (Outback), Georgia (Capital One) and Mississippi (BBVA Compass) helped the SEC to a 6-3 bowl record, the highest win total for any conference.
The SEC won two of its three bowl matchups against the Big Ten, with the lone loss going to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl against — gasp — Northwestern. The improving Wildcats, once one of the Big Ten’s worst programs, beat the Bulldogs 34-20 for their first bowl victory since 1949 and one of two for the conference’s seven bowl teams.
Looking back a bit further, the strength of the SEC compared to the Big Ten is a more slight advantage. The SEC is 21-16 against the Big Ten since 2003, according to STATS.
“There’s definitely some programs that stand out in the SEC. There’s definitely some programs that stand out in the Big Ten,” said Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who threw for 76 yards and rushed for 74 in the bowl win.
“It’s hard to compare conference to conference but we have a lot of tradition. We’ve done a lot of good things academically and athletically, so that’s something to be proud of.”
It’s crystal clear which conference is the NFL’s favorite. The SEC produced an astounding 63 selections in the April draft, more than double the next highest total of 31 for the ACC.
The Big Ten had 22 selections.
So on the eve of the 2013 season, it looks as if everyone is looking up at the SEC. And Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has an idea why.
“We’ve had fast guys in our conference. We’ve had a lot of skill players get drafted throughout the years,” he said. “But if you just study recruiting, I mean I think of the population swing right now to California, the South, warm weather states.
“There’s differences, and there’s a lot of ways to be effective and to be successful and you have to figure out what’s best for you at your school or conference and then just try to maximize it.”
While high school football is strong in the South, some of the traditional recruiting corridors for the Big Ten aren’t what they used to be.
“When you go out and recruit now, I remember northeast Ohio, Western PA, still great football, fantastic football, but a perfect example (is) where I’m from,” said Urban Meyer, who coached Florida to two national titles before taking over at Ohio State. “I’m from Ashtabula, Ohio, and my high school class, graduating class, I think had 15 people this year.”
Sitting at a table in a downtown Chicago hotel, Meyer then began to move his hands together in a constricting motion.
“That’s alarming because it’s great people, great communities and really great athletes in that part of the state, but it’s just dried up a little bit,” he said.
Meyer and the Buckeyes could have the best chance this year of ending the SEC’s run of national championships. Quarterback Braxton Miller leads a strong group of returning players on offense, and the defense also should be solid.
Miller, a former prep star in Ohio, said it’s difficult to draw any general comparisons between the SEC and Big Ten, but he likes his team.
“I feel like our competition on the Ohio State level, we can compete with anybody,” Miller said.