Take it from a sportswriter who has covered both leagues: The "new guys" are narrowing the gridiron gap in many ways, and even jumping ahead at times, but the culture of SEC football offers an advantage any ACC basketball fan can understand completely.
By Jon Solomon
Birmingham (Ala.) News
June 29, 2006
Six months of covering the Southeastern Conference, after seven years in the Atlantic Coast Conference, has taught me a valuable lesson: Think of SEC football like ACC basketball.
Each sport is its conference's traditional bread-and-butter, the one with countless storylines and intense rivalries -- some real, others manufactured. But as the ACC and SEC try to evolve into more complete leagues, the ability to decipher the elite sport in each conference is blurring.
In May, ACC commissioner John Swofford boasted at his league's spring meetings how expansion has significantly helped football. Some folks on Tobacco Road are coming awfully close to touting their conference as the premier football league in the country.
A couple weeks later at the SEC spring meetings, South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier walked into a hotel conference room filled with reporters gathered around a basketball coach. They were interviewing Florida coach Billy Donovan, who won this year's national title on the hoops side.
"Is this where the Billy Donovan Show is?" asked Spurrier, who then proceeded to wait until enough reporters engulfed him before answering questions while wearing sunglasses.
There is a fierce struggle going on between the ACC and the SEC, in every sport.
The ACC recently boasted having four baseball teams in the College World Series, matching the SEC's single-season record (1997, 2004) for a conference. At the SEC baseball tournament in May, an SEC official was disappointed upon hearing that the ACC was webcasting its tournament games, and quickly fired off an e-mail of the news to his colleagues.
The ACC raised the bar with expansion, clearly helping its case in football. Many ACC basketball coaches worried that their sport would be hurt, and in the first year of the 12-team ACC, the conference received only four NCAA Tournament bids.
Meanwhile, the SEC is trying to build up publicity surrounding its basketball teams. Placing two schools in the Final Four and winning the national championship was a nice start. Beginning in 2007, the SEC will play an annual four-game basketball challenge against the Big East, similar to the popular ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Ultimately, though, the ACC-SEC battle for money, exposure and supremacy will be waged in football -- America's new national pastime. The SEC has a major head start with its tradition. But know this: The SEC is keeping a watchful eye on the ACC.
"Who knows?" Spurrier said, when asked if the ACC has caught up to the SEC. "Obviously, the ACC had a lot more guys drafted. Of course, FSU wins the ACC and Florida beats them pretty good. Interleague play, it's pretty close.
"I think it's real close. I don't say we're the best. I'd say it's real close."
There is no definitive way to definitively say the ACC or SEC is better. But it's worth debating, given the amount of money ACC and SEC institutions of higher education are putting into football.
Head to head. Nothing tells more about a rivalry than the results on the field. In this case, the ACC now is holding its own, although the SEC won the season series in both 2005 (4-2) and 2004 (3-2).
From 2002-05, the ACC went 14-14 against the SEC. That followed a 22-35-1 record for the ACC versus the SEC from 1993-2001. Over the last six seasons, the leagues have split 48 games.
However, the SEC whipped some of the ACC's elite teams in 2005. LSU routed Miami 40-3 at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, and Florida cruised past Florida State 34-7 during the regular season. On the other hand, Georgia Tech defeated Auburn twice in the past three seasons and lost by only a touchdown in 2005 to SEC champion Georgia.
There will be at least eight ACC-SEC matchups in 2006: Clemson-South Carolina, Duke-Alabama, Duke-Vanderbilt, Florida State-Florida, Georgia Tech-Georgia, Wake Forest-Mississippi, and the Chick-Fil-A (formerly Peach) and Music City bowls.
The ACC and SEC tied for the most teams ranked in the final 2005 polls. That illustrates that the ACC's depth, which now rivals the SEC's, clearly is better than in the days of Florida State and the Eight Dwarfs. But the ACC's elite teams have not consistently stayed on the level of the SEC's elite.
BCS success. The ACC won't be considered better than the SEC until it fares better in the Bowl Championship Series. After eight years of the BCS, the ACC and the Big East are the only BCS conferences still searching for their first at-large bid -- and the extra millions of dollars that come with it.
The ACC is 1-7 in BCS games, with the lone victory by Florida State in 2000 to win the national championship. The SEC is 7-3 in BCS games, with two titles during the BCS era.
Starting this year, a non-BCS team can get into the series if it is ranked in the top 15 and a BCS champion is ranked No. 16 or worse. This actually would have happened last year, giving No. 14 Texas Christian an at-large berth because ACC champion FSU finished No. 22.
While the ACC traditionally has struggled in the BCS, the SEC finds itself in a recent slump. After securing BCS at-large bids in three of the first four years, the SEC now has gone four straight seasons without one.
Over the last four years, only the Big Ten and Big 12 have received multiple at-large bids. More at-large bids will be available this season, with one more BCS game, and the ACC and SEC are thirsty to find another spot and net the extra millions.
NFL talent. Many eyebrows were raised across the country in April by the ACC's record 51 NFL draft picks, including 12 first-round choices. That trumped the SEC by 14 overall picks and eight first-rounders.
And you'd better believe the ACC is using those numbers in recruiting circles.
"For the longest time, the image has always been in the Deep South that the SEC has the best talent and the best competition," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden told reporters at the ACC spring meetings.
"Now you can go into a home where a kid is being recruited by Georgia, Florida and South Carolina and say, Hey, come play in the most talented conference in the country.' We didn't just have two or three more draft choices. We had a bunch more."
Often, these types of occurrences go in cycles. Just a year ago, the SEC placed 10 players in the first round, doubling the total of the ACC, which at the time had two fewer schools.
But keep this in mind: Before this year, the SEC had the highest number of draft picks in seven of the previous eight seasons. The ACC loaded up on 21 picks from Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College in 2006, with the new members accounting for 41 percent of the league's selections. At the same time, nine of 12 ACC teams had at least three draft picks, compared to six of 12 SEC teams with that many.
With all that talent, it's fair to ask: Did the ACC underachieve? How did Florida State (four first-round picks) and N.C. State (three first-round picks) each lose five games? Why can't a conference this talented become more of a player in the national championship race?
If the ACC continues to churn out this type of talent without better results, the underachieving label will stick. Such is life when you're the new kid on the football block.
Attendance. More than anything else, this is where SEC football mirrors ACC basketball, and ACC football reflects SEC basketball. Each conference has very good products in football and basketball, but the trick is selling it to fan bases devoted to one sport.
Football attendance remains the SEC's greatest advantage. SEC football is essentially the professional league in the South, and the SEC capitalized in 1992 by becoming the first conference to stage a league championship game.
The SEC led the nation in attendance last season, with 5.5 million people pouring through the gates, an average of 74,579 per game. The SEC averaged 2,000 fans more per game than the Big Ten, the next-closest conference.
The ACC attracted 3.8 million fans and averaged 52,242 per game. While the SEC's average essentially stayed the same from 2004, the ACC dropped 3,493 from its average -- the only BCS conference to show a decrease, according to NCAA statistics.
Five SEC teams ranked in the top 10 for average attendance, while the ACC leader (Florida State) was No. 12. To put the discrepancy in context, 10 SEC teams had higher averages than the ACC's league-wide average.
Private schools Miami and Boston College may be good on the field, but they don't bring much to the gate. Miami (45,310) and BC (39,429) each drew fewer fans than lowly Mississippi State.
Television. The ACC is making significant progress. But the SEC still has its own lucrative television contract with CBS, a la Notre Dame's exclusive deal with NBC.
The ACC reportedly had its best overall television numbers in 2005. The league announced it was the top-rated conference on ESPN (2.2 rating).
Three of ESPN's top-five rated games involved the ACC. The Florida State-Miami game on Labor Day night was ABC's highest-rated regular-season game in 2005.
Then again, SEC games on ESPN ranked second with a 2.1 rating, making the ACC's win almost a wash. The SEC defeated the ACC on ESPN2, with a 1.5 to 1.3 ratings edge.
The SEC is the only league that each week has its own nationally televised Saturday afternoon game. And those within the SEC point out that the conference remained competitive in the attendance and TV ratings races despite the impact of Hurricane Katrina displacing fans in the South.
"I still believe the SEC is on top, but, yes, the ACC is now a formidable opponent," Georgia athletic director Damon Evans said. "The expansion has helped them tremendously. Their presence on TV and the top programs they have is much stronger."
Recruiting. Ultimately, this category will determine which conference holds the on-field advantage in future years.
Already, there are signs that the ACC is making in-roads against the SEC. For instance, in February, Clemson landed running back C.J. Spiller, one of the top recruits in the state of Florida, over the Gators.
Rankings from recruiting analysts always are dangerous to analyze. Prized recruits today can become duds tomorrow, and vice versa. But the one thing they do demonstrate is who's winning the perception battle of their recruits.
In its 2006 top 25 rankings, Rivals.com chose eight SEC teams and three ACC teams. The SEC representatives were No. 2 Florida, No. 4 Georgia, No. 7 LSU, No. 10 Auburn, No. 11 Alabama, No. 16 Mississippi, No. 23 Tennessee and No. 24 South Carolina. The ACC schools were No. 3 Florida State, No. 14 Miami and No. 15 Clemson.
By that standard, the SEC still reigns supreme -- unless the analysts are underestimating the ACC's crop. Virginia Tech and Boston College typically are among the nation's top 25 teams, but often they don't find themselves in the recruiting rankings.
Infractions. The SEC certainly holds this dubious edge. It helps to explain how a Mississippi State can come out of nowhere and compete for the SEC.
Lately, the ACC has joined the mix. Maryland received a one-year probation in 2003. Georgia Tech was placed on two years of probation in November for using 17 academically ineligible athletes in four sports, including 11 football players.
Georgia Tech reduced its 2005 and 2006 signing classes in football by six each year. The NCAA added a limit of 79 scholarships in 2006-07 and 2007-08, down from the normal limit of 85.
The SEC has Mississippi State and South Carolina on probation in football, and Alabama is nearly done with its five-year probation. SEC commissioner Mike Slive was hired to clean up the league's rogue image and set a goal of every school off probation by 2008.
Slip-ups by major ACC or SEC programs always can change the competitiveness of both conferences.
Coaching. For the first time since 1988, the SEC did not change a single head coach during the offseason. Give it a year, and the cycle likely will get going again.
Which conference has better head coaches? There's no way to quantify such an answer. Georgia's Mark Richt and Auburn's Tommy Tuberville generally are considered the best in the SEC now; in the ACC, it might be Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer and Boston College's Tom O'Brien.
The SEC is going through an unusual period now, with many new faces. Traditional powers Florida, LSU and Alabama all have added coaches within the last three years. The ACC still is anchored by Florida State's Bobby Bowden.
The pressure to win now affects all major conferences. As ACC schools pour more money into their football programs, coaches such as Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey, Maryland's Ralph Friedgen, N.C. State's Chuck Amato, Virginia's Al Groh and Clemson's Bowden have felt some heat.
But nothing compares to the pressure of SEC football coaches. Picture Matt Doherty's time at North Carolina -- and then turn it up a couple notches.
Among public schools in 2004-05, five of the 11 highest-paid football coaching staffs in the country came from the SEC. Florida State ($3.3 million) was the first ACC staff, at No. 13, according to data collected by the Indianapolis Star newspaper.
Auburn, which secretly interviewed another coach in 2003, paid Tuberville and his staff the most in the nation at $4.9 million. After that, the SEC had No. 3 Tennessee ($4.2 million), No. 5 LSU ($4.2 million), No. 9 Georgia ($3.7 million) and No. 11 Florida ($3.6 million).
Maryland turned up at No. 14, with $3.2 million to its coaches. The Terrapins again are seriously exploring the idea of expanding Byrd Stadium. Is it any wonder that Friedgen is now calling the plays, after consecutive losing seasons?
The market determines coaches' prices. And the ACC is testing the market more and more. The result, undoubtedly, will be great gains and disappointing setbacks.
Then, like the SEC, they will pay for the next one.
Revenue. The SEC's 11 public schools reported a combined $209 million profit from football in 2004-05. Seven of the nation's top 11 money-making football programs came from the SEC.
The ACC's eight public schools reported profiting $37.1 million. Break it down by average, and each SEC public school made $19 million, compared to $4.6 million for each ACC public school.
Seventy percent of SEC revenue comes from football. Last year, the SEC brought in $47.4 million from football television, $20.7 million from bowls and $13.2 million from its football championship game.
SEC basketball, meanwhile, took in $12.1 million from television and $4.4 million from the conference tournament. Another $18.3 million came from NCAA championships.
The SEC takes great pride in announcing its record financial payouts each year. The ACC has touted its unmatched payout -- on a per school basis -- for many years. This year, the SEC's haul was $116.1 million. The SEC distributed $27.7 million in 1992, the first year with 12 full members and a football championship game.
If there is a financial model for the ACC to emulate, it is the SEC's. The question becomes: Can the ACC run the SEC's model, with a few wrinkles, better than the SEC can? Only time will tell.
The SEC has a valuable head start. But success can change, conferences can catch up, and -- as is the case in every major SEC and ACC sport -- some day we might say, "Remember when the SEC ruled Southern football?"
Jon Solomon, a long-time contributor to the ACC Sports Journal, previously covered the ACC for the Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail and the Columbia (S.C.) State.