Keith Strudler: The South Rises
For all that say the south will rise again, perhaps you need wait no longer. Because right now, they’ve already risen to the top of the college football playoff rankings, with three of the four top teams hailing from Alabama and Mississippi, all three from the western division of the Southeastern Conference. The fourth team currently in that mix is Atlantic Coast Conference leader Florida State, located in the north Florida town of Tallahassee, a state where the more north you go, the more south you go. So if the season were to end today, which it won’t, the four team playoff would consist of schools that could meet for lunch and still make it home for tea.
The three SEC schools – Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Auburn – can’t all make the final ranking, since they will inevitably play each other out. Optimistically, perhaps two could make the final ranking. And in case they need it, traditional power University of Alabama is stilling in the lurks. Only Oregon has, the lone pacific west power, has managed to break the top five ranked teams, the only team outside the south to be close to the playoff, much less the final prize.
There’s been a fair amount of analysis on why this has happened. Some of it is simple demographic shift. Where Georgia used to be sparsely populated, simple population growth has helped its ascendancy. The same can be said for Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and the host of Sun Belt states, where football players are now born and bred. Conversely, the American Rust Belt, home of the Big 10 Football Conference, loses bodies each and every year. So Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania have fewer athletes to choose from each fall. And those that do hail from that part of the country are increasingly likely to head south and join the revolution. No place is better at sending athletes to the NFL than schools from the SEC. So playing for Alabama isn’t just a random decision. It’s a smart career move. Add to that the burgeoning SEC television network, and budding football stars don’t see the Deep South as Dixie Land. Instead, it’s the promise land.
Critics – including fans, sports writers, coaches, even those in academia – have questioned the health of college football if all the best teams hail from a group of southern states best known for Bar-B-Q and country music. This isn’t your father’s college football, where teams had pedigree and alumni drank wine spritzers at tailgate parties. Could college football still be a national sport played on a regional scale? Can people care if all the teams in the title race can visit each other by bicycle?
The answer to that is complicated. College football, perhaps the most regionalized game outside of baseball, has figured out the concept of brand. In other words, LSU isn’t really about Louisiana any more. And Alabama isn’t just for folks from Tuscaloosa. They’re national brands, teams that draw support far out of their region. So it’s likely kids from Iowa can watch the Florida Gators, and North Dakota folks can cheer for the Georgia Bulldogs. That’s the same formula that works for the NFL, where the Dallas Cowboys are truly America’s team, and the Denver Broncos are so popular, my own kid had their logo on his most recent birthday cake. And he’s never even been to Colorado. That’s the success formula for modern sports. Place is irrelevant. That’s something baseball can’t conquer, at least if you look at this year’s World Series ratings.
The Southeastern Conference right now is anything but, which is why their recent network launch was the most successful in American sports television history. And even if the Big 10, or American Athletic Conference doesn’t like it, well, that’s kind of too bad. In the early 1900’s, the sport was dominated by Ivy League schools in the Northeast. Just think of this as payback.
It’s hard to know how long this will last. But, I’d guess it’s not a short term deal. Minnesota winters aren’t getting any warmer – well, technically, I guess they are – and the rust belt’s glory days are more rear view than right ahead. College football’s elite will hail from the south, perhaps these two very states, for some time to come. And believe it or not, that won’t kill the game. Now, concussions, or grade scandals – that’s another issue. But barring that, just consider that the south, for now, has risen.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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