Thursday, May 31, 2012

English: Greg Davis talking to Colt McCoy befo...
English: Greg Davis talking to Colt McCoy before the 2010 BCS National Championship Game. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the SEC and other Southern and West coast teams have been dominating the rankings more and more, one wonders just how the balance of football power has shifted so drastically...or has it?

At one point last year the SEC had the three top ranked teams in the BCS standings with Arkansas, LSU and Alabama. The national championship game featured two SEC teams and national champion Alabama was the eighth SEC team to win the national championship out of the 14 BCS games that have been played. In BCS National Championship games the SEC has only lost once, and that was last year, so in reality the SEC has never lost to another conference in a national championship game. In fact, the only national championship winning team that hasn't come from a warmer climate has been Ohio State, who won way back in 2002.

With that evidence to work with, how could one possibly argue that the warm weather teams, and the SEC in particular, aren't head and shoulders above conferences like the Big Ten? To some extent, it has to do with the weather.

The weather? Yes, the weather. For years teams in the Big Ten have been constructing teams designed to win in the home stretch of the Big Ten schedule. That means your team better be able to line up on a 29 degree November afternoon in whipping wind and snow and be able to move the ball. This means your team's emphasis has to be on owning the trenches. Wisconsin has moved into a perennial contender by bullying Big Ten teams with their insanely huge offensive line and power running game. They recruit to this and it gets them to elite bowl games nearly every year. What happens at those bowl games, often times, is a different story, though. Take last year for example, as Wisconsin played against Oregon, a team built to contend with SEC teams (narrowly losing to Auburn in the 2011 BCS title game). The weather was warm and for three quarters the teams traded touchdowns. Wisconsin largely lined up and ran right over the smaller Oregon defense, while Oregon routinely got the corner and made huge gains against the slower Wisconsin defense.

One can only wonder how this game would have played out on a blustery snowy day in Madison, where ball control was essential and good footing was hard to come by. Surely Oregon would have still broken some big plays, but over the course of four quarters, Wisconsin's 350 pound lineman would have likely made a larger impact in a straight ahead, smash mouth game.

To be fair, teams like USC, Alabama, LSU, Texas and Oklahoma have certainly put together stacked teams with strong offenses and defenses that would also thrive in cold climates. But the point remains, to get to big games, teams from colder climates need to build teams and have a style of play that can work in their environment. Therefore, teams like Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State need to have power running games to score points. There's a reason these teams don't run fancy pro style passing attacks or the spread option, it's too risky if you play three or four games in terrible weather. It will be interesting to see how Rich Rodriguez is able to fair with his spread option in the warmer confines of Arizona. Given a few years of controlled climate football and we may see Rich-Rod playing in meaningful bowl games again.

It's easy to give the cold weather conferences a hard time for their failures on a national level, but the truth is, these teams continue to produce NFL players at as good of a clip as the other major conferences ( For disparity, people like to point out Ohio State's failures in recent BCS games where they have been routed by SEC teams. Some have argued that Jim Tressel's coaching against the likes of Urban Meyer were largely to blame as opposed to the talent disparity.

Likewise, Michigan's Lloyd Carr gave a shining example in the 2008 Capital One Bowl of what happens when a talented Big 10 team breaks the mold and plays warm weather football. That Michigan team had a tremendously disappointing year leading up to the bowl game including a loss to Division 1AA Appalachian State. But with an offense that included overall number one draft pick Jake Long on the offensive line, and fellow draft picks Chad Henne, Shawn Crable, Mario Manningham, Mike Hart and Adrian Arrington. With five NFL draft picks on offense, in Lloyd Carr's final game of his career, he unleashed a shotgun spread offense that he hadn't used the entire season, finally leveraging the skills of Henne and his two NFL-worthy wideouts.

Despite four turnovers (possibly related to the new offensive system in place) the Wolverines moved the ball at will against the favored Tim Tebow-led Gators and torched the Florida defense for 524 yards, including 373 through the air. One wonders what that offense could have produced the entire season had Carr expanded the playbook to fit his talent rather than driving a square peg into a round hole all year long.

While the SEC, Big XII and Pac 12 continue dominating the rankings, it is worth considering how much a team's environment accounts for how they play and who they spend time recruiting. Further, it will be interesting to see how new coaching blood at traditionally strong recruiting outposts like Ohio State change their fortunes on the national scene. Urban Meyer won in the Mountain West and then in the much tougher SEC. Should Ohio State win a title in the next few years at Ohio State, with predominantly midwestern players, perhaps this argument can be put to bed. Otherwise, fans of schools like Wisconsin should probably begin clamoring for a home and home for the Rose Bowl.

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