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SEC Football: Conference Enters 2021 Stronger Than Ever

The manner in which the league has dealt with the pandemic proves the saying — in the SEC, it really does mean more
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey

As COVID-19 shut the sports world down last March, and we all figured out the Zoom boom, the athletic directors of the SEC relied on the old-fashioned conference call. Their monthly phone gatherings became daily events. While a level of panic pervaded the nation, 14 sports bosses just talked it out.

“We didn’t lose our head, didn’t lose our cool,” says Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin. “We didn’t make rash decisions. Sometimes there was a little unknown, but every little step we took collectively. I think wise decisions were made.”

It was not perfect for the SEC in 2020. There were positive COVID tests — including Alabama head coach Nick Saban and even Stricklin himself — and postponed games. There were some unwise comments, including Florida head coach Dan Mullen suggesting a fully packed Swamp after a narrow road loss to Texas A&M. As it turned out, he and some of his own players were about to test positive for the virus in the hours after he spoke up.

But overall, the conference emerged with a national championship and a sense of validation. The SEC did not stop and start again like the Big Ten. It wasn’t flooded with opt-outs. The games went on, for the most part, and now there is a lucrative new deal with ESPN. The league motto “It just means more” has morphed into a Twitter punchline, but in this strange time, it’s found a new meaning.

“We don’t necessarily tie to the NCAA every day,” Stricklin says. “We tie into the conference. That’s your family, your brothers and sisters. I think our league has managed it well.”

The SEC is arguably as strong as ever, even amid the lingering fear and uncertainty of a pandemic that continued to take lives and cost sporting and life events deep into 2021. There is reason to believe that the conference will only get stronger. That’s obviously good for the group, but is it good for the sport? And does that really matter?

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Start at the Atlanta airport and pick a direction, any direction. Within 600 miles you will reach the campuses of all the college football national champions since 2005. That includes one Big Ten team (Ohio State), two ACC teams (Florida State, Clemson) and four SEC teams (Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU). Now maybe you can dismiss this as fun with geography rather than a trend, but the fact is it’s been a long time since a Pac-12 or a Big 12 or a non-Ohio Big Ten team won the whole bowl of Tostitos. The College Football Hall of Fame is in Atlanta, and so is an epicenter of recent domination.

Now consider another, unrelated shift toward the Southeast. SEC states including Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina and Florida all saw an especially high rate of new residents in 2020, according to US News and World Report. South Carolina had an “inbound migration percentage” of greater than 60 percent, and Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas all saw a reversal of declining trends from the year prior.

Then add economic forces. The cluster of SEC states faced a relatively milder downturn during the height of the pandemic, according to the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

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“Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina are among the best 10,” says Michael Ettlinger, director of the Carsey School. “As a group, the SEC states are doing better than any other big conference group of states.” Most of the SEC states dealt with a drop of three to four percent job loss, and even Florida (down 6.4 percent) fared well compared to similarly sized northern and western states.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis has been a cheerleader for sports, showing up at high school football games, pushing for a “full Super Bowl” as far back as September and lobbying (via state CFO Jimmy Patronis) for the Olympics to come to Florida if Japan couldn’t proceed. And the NBA bubble, held on Disney property in Orlando, proved a model for how to keep the games going in the COVID era.

None of this means the Southeast unequivocally led the nation in pandemic response. Florida ranked fourth in total deaths from COVID-19, and Georgia ranked eighth (as of this writing).

The Southern states were extremely fortunate to have warmer temperatures and better options in terms of year-round outdoor (and thus more COVID-safe) activities. And of course, some of the demographic trends toward the South were already in progress. But perception is often reality, and the perception is: sunshine and sports. Throw in the work-from-home shift that took place across the nation, and you’ve got several reasons the SEC has a post-pandemic runway that other conferences may not immediately get.

“I don’t know that we ever could have imagined the conference getting any stronger, but it did get stronger,” says SEC Network analyst and former Gator wide receiver Chris Doering. “Part of it is the way [commissioner] Greg Sankey is viewed as a leader. The reason we played sports in general is because of his leadership. The way people view him is even more positive.”

It’s all fuel for optimism — albeit the same optimism many had a year ago that proved to be ill-fated. “Had you asked me … a year ago, I would have said, we’ll have full stadiums, we’ll play a 12-game schedule, we’ll start on Labor Day Weekend, and I will say the same to you right now,” Sankey said before the SEC basketball tournament in March. “Whether that’s optimism or not, one will have to evaluate. I think that’s reality.”

That statement came on the heels of the University of Alabama announcing plans for in-person learning “without restrictions to classroom capacity” in the fall. And that, in turn, prompted athletics director Greg Byrne to tweet: “We are moving forward with plans to have a full stadium in the fall and will monitor medical guidelines as we have all along.”

Will fans show up in droves as in years past? Well, just look at the “limited” attendance last year in places like Georgia and Texas A&M, which often felt more like 200,000 than 20,000. “The SEC? They’re coming back,” says Lou Moore, Grand Valley State professor and author of We Will Win the Day. “If they say 100,000 are allowed, there will be 100,000. And with people vaccinated? These are young people. There will be a level of comfort.”

So it sounds a lot like back-to-normal, right? But there are some parts of the pandemic response that the SEC might bring along to the next normal. In a lot of situations, a crisis shakes up an organization’s thinking, and that seems to have happened to the conference.

The most prominent example: the conference-only schedule in 2020 and what it could mean for the future.

“We had been having conversations [about conference play],” Stricklin says. “The current format — is that the right format?

We may try to find a way to see each other more often. It’s the same seven teams every year; is there a way to create access to play one another more often? We added two [last] year; we saw Texas A&M and Arkansas. I think there’s something healthy about that. We can adapt and work to perfect things.”

One of the advantages the SEC has — at least lately — is that no one on the playoff committee ever seems to question the strength of schedule. Winning the conference is a de facto ticket to the playoff, and coming in second has been a de facto ticket to heavy consideration. So more in-conference games doesn’t really have a downside — especially when a game against a non-traditional, in-conference opponent can feel like a special event.

Keep in mind that although 14 teams feels a little large for those who still aren’t used to Missouri and Texas A&M as members, the original SEC from the 1930s had 13 teams — including Tulane, Georgia Tech and Sewanee. And the conference didn’t have a set number of in-league games until the 1970s. Add the fact that five of the eight most represented home states for current NFL players are SEC states — Florida, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana — and it seems that the conference can continue to grow without growing its travel budget.

And speaking of budget, the conference will emerge from the pandemic with a raft of new TV money.

Disney’s new $3 billion deal, announced last December, may mean the SEC “could overtake the Big Ten Conference as the richest league in college sports,” according to The New York Times. Starting in 2024, ABC will air an SEC game every weekend and may feature the SEC on Saturday night for the first time. How impactful might that be? The Times reports that the conference distributed $624 million to its 14 schools for the 2018-19 fiscal year, compared to $132.5 million for 12 schools a decade earlier.

The payoff will come in more subtle ways, too. “We’re gonna be able to communicate game times much earlier for more games,” Stricklin says. “College football might be the only sport where game times aren’t set months in advance. It’s the only sport where we have negotiated that away. Part of this deal is we got more of that back. It’s much more fan-friendly.” Lots of fans know the frustration of booking a hotel or even a plane flight based on a game time that shifts after the credit card is swiped, so perhaps this will have a knock-on effect in terms of attendance. That’s the hope, anyway.

Pretty much all of this is good for the SEC, but is it good for the sport? There are at least two ways of looking at that.

On the negative side, it’s becoming distressingly clear that parity is slipping away. While college basketball thrives because of its Cinderellas and its Madness, football is going in the other direction. It seems the most unknown element of a season is whether Alabama will wear white or crimson in its annual playoff game against Clemson. Non-New Year’s Six bowl games have become afterthoughts, full of yawning sections of grandstands, and opt-outs are becoming more common, not less. (When’s the last time a college basketball player opted out of March Madness?)

Last year’s title game blowout brought a ratings plummet of 27 percent from the year before. Some of that is probably pandemic-related, but most of it is probably due to having to watch an annual SEC rerun on live television.

Expanding the playoff to eight teams feels inevitable, but even that’s not certain to help much. Allowing a non-Power 5 team into the mix could be healthy, but it’s about as appealing to the sport’s elitists as another Oprah interview is to Queen Elizabeth.

So instead of turning into the next NBA, college football seems more destined to be the next NASCAR.

That’s the negative perspective. The positive perspective relies in part on the possibility that college football benefits when a particular conference leads.

The decentralization of authority really hurt the sport last year, as the various conferences couldn’t seem to find a common mindset — even when it came to scientific data. But in a calmer time, it might actually be better if each conference forages for itself.

The Big Ten certainly led a small-scale revolution when it started its own TV network, for example. And a lot of loosely aligned organizations benefit when various factions try to keep up with the Joneses. It’s all about competition, right? Yes, Alabama is torching the field now, but history shows that the sport’s dynasties don’t tend to last.

Remember how USC was left for dead, playing in an old stadium, before the Pete Carroll era? It wasn’t that long ago; USC hired Carroll in 2001.

“At the end of the day,” Doering says, “it’s everybody’s responsibility to raise their level of play.”

The rest of the positive perspective relies on the singularity of college football. Pretty much every other sport has nationalized and individualized. Allegiance to NBA teams has given ground to fidelity to NBA players. Loyalty to NFL teams has ceded power to devotion to fantasy football. Even baseball has lost a lot of its regional flavor in the interleague era. College football, however, is different.

“College football is still an event,” says Mike Lewis, professor of marketing at Emory University. “It’s not driving downtown on a Tuesday evening. The whole day is built around it. The community is permanent.”

And in a time of societal upheaval, people tend to romanticize regionalism. They tend to drift toward tradition. And college football — especially of the SEC variety — has plenty of both.

“Despite national recruiting and fan bases, it still remains a regional game,” says bestselling author John U. Bacon. “The Packers have a national following; the [Wisconsin] Badgers don’t.”

And regionalism has always been very strong in the South — particularly the Southeast. That goes all the way back to the founding of the country.

“It’s the only place where S-E-C is a chant,” Bacon says. “They have the strongest cultural identity. They’re not the ones with the team in upstate New York. And there’s no region in the country that so values high school football.”

So the SEC-as-destination may have literal and metaphorical meanings post-pandemic. Literal, as people continue to move South, and metaphorical, as fans treat a college football weekend as a long-lost experience especially worth savoring — and spending.

The conference is hardly pristine — the embarrassing behavior of Les Miles at LSU is only one example — but coaches, players and fans rarely get grass-is-greener feelings when they come to SEC country. Even Gus Malzahn stayed in the southeast after getting fired at Auburn.

“We cheer for one another,” says Doering, the Gator great. “Even Georgia, we’re cheering our hearts out for those guys. When Oklahoma played Georgia [in the 2018 Rose Bowl], I was cheering for Georgia as hard as Florida in that game. Everybody is the same, everybody has that great tradition.”

Asked if he has any concerns that Alabama will keep winning, and TV ratings won’t match the conference’s trajectory, Doering is ready with a very SEC quip:

“I’m not concerned about it,” he says, “because I’m on the winning side.”

To the rest of the country, what makes the SEC different is not always good. Sometimes, in fact, it can be quite toxic. But it’s always been so much easier for that particular conference to move past the real world than to move past a losing season. And not in a long time have so many college football fans wanted to move past the real world.

The SEC wants everyone to know it’s still in business after a sad and scary 2020, and it will make that perfectly clear every Saturday starting in September — even if the rest of the country is tired of hearing it.

— Written by Eric Adelson (@eric_adelson) for Athlon Sports' 2021 SEC Football Magazine.

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