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Teams consider SEC second to none
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ATLANTA — Excuse the Southeastern Conference if it views the national championship race as a rather private affair — neighbor against neighbor, battling it out through the fall until there are only two teams left standing, setting up a final showdown in Atlanta on the first Saturday in December.

Oh sure, there's still that little formality known as the BCS championship game. But down in Dixie, that extra contest is viewed as nothing more than a chance to really rub it in, just in case anyone wishes to defy this indisputable gospel:

When it comes to college football, the SEC is SECond to none.

"Every team in the conference takes pride in being in the SEC, and we're not afraid to say that," Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams said. "We feel like we're in the best conference, and that's where the best competition is. Not to take anything away from great teams in other conferences, but that's just how we feel as a conference."

The case is compelling.

The last four national champions have come from the same conference: Florida, LSU, Florida again, then Alabama last season — a streak of dominance unmatched in the 74-year history of The Associated Press rankings, much less the far-shorter history of the Bowl Championship Series.

The last two seasons, Alabama and Florida faced off in the SEC championship game ranked No. 1 and No. 2, their Georgia Dome showdown serving as a de facto national title game, even if both had to wait another month and win one more time to be officially crowned.

"In football, it's about winning," Tennessee defensive end Chris Walker said. "There's obviously talent in other conferences, but if you want to go by winning, I think we're it."

No argument there.

Last season, the SEC had the best outside record among the six BCS conferences (47-10, .825), easily outpacing the next-best Big East (36-10, .783), as well as the two leagues generally considered its main challengers, the Big Ten (36-15, .706) and Big 12 (39-17, .696).

To those who think the SEC beefs up its out-of-conference credentials against cupcake opposition, that argument was snuffed out by a 15-8 mark against schools from other BCS leagues. The Big East (11-9) was the only other conference to finish above .500 in that category, while the Atlantic Conference (12-15), Big Ten (9-11), Pac-10 (9-11) and Big 12 (8-10) lagged far behind.

LSU senior safety Jai Eugene notices a striking contrast when the Tigers play outside the conference.

"There is a difference in game speed," he said. "Everything moves a little faster in the SEC. Also, the SEC is definitely more physical."

The biggest battles are played out inside the SEC. Auburn-Alabama. Alabama-Tennessee. Tennessee-Florida. Florida-Georgia. Georgia-Auburn. Auburn-LSU. LSU-Arkansas.

"The passion and tradition of each program is so strong, it makes those rivalries just huge," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "Every game you play feels like a big, big game. When I was at Florida State (as an assistant), that wasn't always the case. It didn't seem like every game we played was a big monster game, but every game we play now feels like a monster. It's very difficult to stay at that peak performance week in and week out. But if you don't, you're going to be in trouble."

What makes the SEC the nation's top college football conference? Here are a few theories:

— Tradition. Everyone knows that success tends to breed more success, and no league has a deeper group of teams that have been to the mountaintop. Half of the SEC's 12 members have captured at least one Associated Press national title, led by Alabama with seven. In fact, four different schools (Alabama, Florida, LSU and Tennessee) have finished No. 1 in the AP poll over the last 12 years. No other league can match that depth — or the urgency among the rank-and-file to keep winning titles. Fans get a little greedy once they've seen their team hoist the biggest trophy of all.

— Coaching. The best are drawn to the SEC like moths to light, spurred by the chance to win championships and the willingness of schools to dole out big money in hopes of keeping up with their neighbors. Nick Saban left the NFL for a $4 million-a-year job at Alabama and needed all of three seasons to lead the Crimson Tide back to the top. Urban Meyer is an offensive mastermind who restored the tradition established at Florida by Steve Spurrier. Les Miles picked up where Saban left off at LSU, Richt has guided Georgia to a pair of SEC titles, and Bobby Petrino appears on the verge of taking Arkansas to national prominence.

— Big money. The SEC is rolling in dough, thanks to huge television packages (a $2.25 billion contract with ESPN, a $55 million-a-year deal with CBS) and some of the largest stadiums in the country, which are generally filled to capacity. Tennessee's Neyland Stadium and Alabama's Bryant-Denny hold more than 100,000, Georgia's Sanford Stadium and LSU's Tiger Stadium seat more than 92,000, while Florida, Auburn and South Carolina all have facilities that can accommodate at least 80,000. Only two stadiums in the conference seat fewer than 60,000.

— Talent, talent and more talent. Some of the best high school football in the country is played right in the SEC's backyard. Florida has a bountiful recruiting base in the Sunshine State, while Georgia rarely has to venture outside of its boundaries to put together one of the nation's top teams. Alabama and Louisiana also churn out plenty of top prospects each year, many of whom choose to play close to home.

— Leadership at the top. The last two guys running the conference office — former commissioner Roy Kramer, current commish Mike Slive — are wily administrators who've used their power and influence to keep the SEC at the head of the pack. Think expansion is something new? Way back in the early 1990s, Kramer sought out Arkansas and South Carolina as new members, giving the league the 12 schools it needed to launch college football's first conference championship game. Slive wisely followed in Kramer's footsteps, aggressively taking the SEC into a brave new multimedia world.

— Passion. The Deep South certainly doesn't hold a monopoly when it comes to loving football, but one could make a pretty compelling argument that no other region has such an affection for the college game. The sport cemented its hold during the civil rights era — first as a source of segregated pride for white-only teams, then as an inevitable tool for breaking down racial barriers. Also, major league sports were a relatively late arrival, allowing the fan base to remain monolithic in its affections. Even now, a city such as Atlanta, with teams in all four major professional leagues, is still viewed by many as a college town at heart. Five of the nine states within the SEC's footprint — Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Kentucky and Arkansas — have never had a major professional franchise.

"Growing up in the South, everybody is a huge SEC football fan," said Georgia's Hutson Mason, a freshman quarterback. "You're almost forced into it."

While offense wows the fans, it's defense that wins championships. And the SEC appears to put special emphasis on that side of the ball.

Last season, Alabama gave up the second-fewest points in the country (11.7 per game), Florida ranked fourth and LSU was 11th. At NFL draft time, seven of the first 26 picks came from the SEC — five of those were defensive players, more than any other conference in the opening round.

"The SEC has great defenses," LSU center T-Bob Hebert said. "Defense is the key to every championship team. Some of the defensive linemen and linebackers in the SEC are really special players. A lot of them end up in the NFL. I don't know what it is, but the SEC teams can recruit some defensive studs."

Maybe it's the climate. There can be some sweltering, un-football-like conditions on game day — they don't call Florida's home field "The Swamp" for nothing — but Richt believes those long stretches of warm, sunny days contributes to the SEC's success.

"The weather in this part of the country allows kids to do things outside more than inside most of the year as they're growing up," Richt said.

Over the past few months, the SEC appeared caught off guard when other conferences, most notably the Pac-10 and Big Ten, moved boldly to add new members. When the dust settled, the shake-up wasn't as dramatic as some thought it might be — the Big Ten added Nebraska, the Pac-10 picked off Utah and Colorado.

Each of those leagues can now set up their own conference championship game, which might help narrow the gap on the SEC.

But for now, one league stands alone.

The SEC — SECond to none.


AP Sports Writers Brett Martel in New Orleans, Noah Trister in Little Rock, Ark., Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., and John Zenor in Montgomery, Ala., contributed to this report.