NEW ORLEANS — A few months ago, when there were rumblings that Virginia Tech might be jumping to the Southeastern Conference, Eddie Whitley and his teammates got excited.
"Everyone was like, 'Man, I would love to play there!'" the Hokies senior safety said, his eyes lighting up. "I was like, 'Man, I wish I was a freshman now!'"
The switch never happened. Virginia Tech stayed put, at least for the time being, in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But Whitley's account sums up what just about everyone else in the nation has been forced to concede: Love it or hate, no one plays college football like the SEC.
Look no further than Monday night's BCS title game between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama. For the first time under this format, two teams from the same league — heck, the same division — are facing off in a no-lose situation for the SEC. Before one strand of confetti falls to Superdome floor, the conference is assured of its sixth straight national title. No other conference has won more than three in a row.
"You've got the best athletes in the nation going to one conference," Whitley marveled. "Alabama's got linebackers that are 260, 270 (pounds). Our defensive TACKLES are 270."
The SEC's dominance has been decades in the making.
Many point to the SEC's revolutionary decision in the early 1990s to expand from 10 to 12 teams, allowing it to become the first conference to split into divisions and set up its own championship game. Other factors, everything from an exclusive national television deal with CBS to top coaches such as LSU's Les Miles and Alabama's Nick Saban to the abundance of high school talent in the Deep South, help keep the SEC on top year after year.
But the real roots of the SEC's breakaway can be traced to the turbulent '60s, when the region was ripped apart by the struggle for civil rights and its universities were still clinging to the notion of only letting whites through the schoolhouse door.
In 1966, Alabama posted a perfect 11-0 record with an all-white team but still finished third in The Associated Press poll behind Notre Dame and Michigan State, which had played to a 10-10 tie. The feeling at the time, and one that is even more apparent with the hindsight of history, was that both the Fighting Irish and the Spartans were superior programs because they had African-Americans players and faced teams that allowed them on the field, too.
"There were athletes who were qualified and capable and had the ability to play in the SEC, but they were not recruited because they were black," said Wilbur Hackett, a longtime conference referee who, in the late '60s, became the first African-American captain when he played at Kentucky, persevering through intense racial prejudice.
When it became clear that integration was inevitable, the SEC finally tapped into a whole new pool of talent, gaining the inside track to huge numbers of immensely qualified locals who had always been forced to sign with historically black schools or venture far from home, to the Big Ten or the Pacific Coast, if they wanted to play at the highest level.
Today, every SEC roster is filled with black players. Their influence on the game is undeniable.
"The league was strong, but it could have been stronger if they had integrated sooner," Hackett said. "Look at the Tennessee States and the Jackson States and the Gramblings, all the players from those schools that went on to play in the NFL. Now, those schools don't put players in the NFL because all those players are in the SEC."
Over the last 10 years, a staggering 72 players from SEC schools have been first-round draft picks. The Big 12 is next on the list, far behind at 51.
With Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton leading the way, the SEC had five of the top six picks in 2011. The odd man out was Von Miller from Texas A&M — which is joining the league next fall.
"There's a lot of talent down there and they do a good job of coaching a lot of talent," said Al Borges, the offensive coordinator at Michigan who formerly coached at Auburn. "That's all there is to it."