“They've had the best team in college football,” Stoops said then. “They haven't had the whole best conference.”
But it isn't just the Alabamas and the LSUs that are appealing to recruits.
“It's a big deal just to play in the conference,” Norman North quarterback and Alabama commit David Cornwell said. “When you're at a Vanderbilt or a lower-level school, they're still great and hold their own but you're going against those guys and if you pull out a win there (in places like Alabama), that's special. You're a legend at that school. You never get a break in the SEC.”
Lemming sees that play out when he talks to recruits around the country.
“You talk to prospects and they don't even have a preference to which SEC school they go to,” Lemming said. “If they have a chance to go play in the SEC, that's appealing. I'm not saying SEC schools are batting 1.000, but I do think now more than ever, that conference affiliation does matter. It's like a badge of honor.”
Arkansas wide receivers coach Michael Smith, who was at Kansas State until this year, has noticed the effect.
“It's helped,” Smith said of moving over to the SEC. “Kids want to play in the Southeastern Conference. In the states that I recruit, to go out there and have an SEC logo and a Razorback on my shirt, for whatever reason those eyes get a little bit wider.”
Even players who wound up in the Big 12 say the pull of the SEC is strong.
Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon had plenty of SEC offers, including from Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU. In the end he decided to play for his hometown school.
“That's all you hear about is the SEC schools coming out of high school, the SEC has this guy coming out in the first round, that guy coming out,” Dixon said. “It's really just the national exposure that you get when you're in the SEC that is the difference.”
So how does the Big 12 close the gap?
Dixon said they don't necessarily have to.
“It's just two different styles that will never get close,” he said. “We're speed and they're power, so it is what it is.”
For Smith, the answer is simple, yet difficult.
“Win some national championships I guess,” Smith said. “I think college football is good. I think college football's a great game. Those kids have tremendous opportunities to do some special things in their lives wherever they are. But what can those schools do to catch up? I guess win a championship.”