Henning: SEC towers over Big Ten in football

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
MSU's Demetrious Cox walks off as Crimson Tide's Derek Kief leaps onto Derrick Henry after Henry's fourth quarter touchdown.

Dallas — This is a debate only if you want it to be a debate.

And only if you want to believe that something patently and statistically true is somehow not true.

It has to do with the Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten. And why one football conference (the SEC) is General Motors and the other (the Big Ten) is Hyundai.

As for the automotive analogy, good vehicles are marketed by either entity. But there are more good cars, and more good brands, under GM's flagship than is the case with a competitor that can't quite match a bigger and more muscular rival.

It's not a knock on either side, corporately, or athletically, these dual comparisons. But what happened in Thursday night's alleged national semifinal game between Alabama and Michigan State at the Cotton Bowl, a 38-0 assault by the Crimson Tide, is but an extreme example of how different two leagues can be in terms of power, depth, speed, and any other physical measurement by which you assess conference football.

It's all there. The head-to-head historical records (heavily loaded in the SEC's favor). The score differentials (generally from 3 to 11 points during most years, advantage SEC).

The SEC is simply wider, deeper, and stronger from top to bottom than is the gang from the north.

The odd success

It doesn't mean the best of the Big Ten can't compete, on occasion, with the SEC's heavyweights. Quite obviously, it can. Ohio State evicted Alabama from last year's first-ever college playoffs.

Michigan on Friday destroyed Florida in the Citrus Bowl. It showed that one of the land's traditional elites is still just that and can handle, in most years, any SEC partner with which it's matched.

But the above citations aren't a comprehensive study. They're an attractive, and deceiving, sampling.

Wojo: Spartans smacked with reality they're not yet elite

Nor is this a statement about year-round superiority. The Big Ten has its counterpoint there. It's called basketball season. The Big Ten is as rough on the SEC during winter as the reverse is true during autumn's grid duels.

As for reasons why this is true — this football dominance that is anything but an example of southern hospitality — causes have been explained.

There are greater concentrations of gifted athletes sufficient to stock college football rosters in the South. In the north, it's a different story. You can more easily draw a dozen elite recruits to your basketball rolls than you can gather 85 to compete, at least with national championship thoughts, in football.

Players tend to stay closer to home when picking a school. It means Texas, Florida, and Georgia, and other states, towns, and hamlets throughout the Deep South, are in sweet position to offer their wares to all those SEC cardholders: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Missouri, and even Vanderbilt (at least when James Franklin was there).

The Big Ten cleans out Ohio and other, less-blessed football hatcheries in its Midwest radius and learns, no surprise, there aren't as many thoroughbreds as you find 1,000 miles away.

Competitive imbalance

And so you can end up with something along the lines of Thursday's devastation at AT&T Stadium, even if New Year's Eve was an extreme instance of cruelty and imbalance that rarely is displayed during a SEC-Big Ten bowl game.

There are moments, plenty of them, when one can see a certain equivalency in programs. The Big Ten wins a bowl game, as the Wolverines did Friday. It gets an occasional September victory in an intersectional game.

No one is suggesting the north can't beat the south. It occurred in a different context 150 years ago. And it happens on occasion when two region's football schools resurrect a more benign version of an old war.

But, again, what is gleaned over time, statistically, physically, competitively?

You see the SEC bringing all that heft and speed and roster depth to a field on which a Big Ten team with its lesser inventories tries to match up.

It doesn't happen, not with sufficient frequency to argue that these two conferences are close to being co-equals.

The NFL has known this for years. Its annual drafts confirm as much.

Which is why this remains a debate only for those who prefer the sport of opinion-spewing, minus any deep concern for fact.

Otherwise, it's apparent. And routinely confirmed.

In that most endearing of all sports, college football, the SEC's geography and culture are too much for the Big Ten.