Sitting just outside Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., is a larger-than-life statue of Alabama coach Nick Saban.
The sculpture was made by Oklahoma City's MTM Recognition, the old Midwest Trophy company. We once produced our own college football champions in this part of the country; now we just make graven images for the Southeastern Conference.
If you can't beat 'em, bronze 'em.
And make no mistake. No one is beating the SEC.
Seven straight national titles – three by Alabama, two by Florida, one each by LSU and Auburn – have lifted the SEC into never-before-reached heights in college football.
The SEC monopoly has shoved the Big Ten and the ACC and the Pac-12 and most definitely the Big 12 into second-tier status. Be it conference expansion or television contracts or the soon-to-arrive four-team playoff, the SEC is calling the shots.
And the only solution for the Big 12 is daunting.
Win. The Big 12 has to start beating the SEC.
“We ask no quarter and give none,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said with dignity. “We think we can play with anybody in the country, but it's impossible to call yourself the best league in college football unless you can win the national championship. Aspirationally, that's what we want to do.”
OSU coach Mike Gundy was much more succinct.
“What we've got to do in this league is we have to win it,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “We've got to get in and beat 'em. It's like the old title fights; you're going to have to beat that guy to take his belt. If you're going to leave it up to the judges, they're probably not going to give it to you.
“That's where we're at in this league, and I really believe that. We've got to get there. And then we've got to win the game. .
“Right now, they've got seven in a row. We can sit and talk about it all we want, but it's not going to change until somebody knocks them off the top.”
It's not just the national titles, though. It's that, clearly, with the Big 12 losing three straight Big Bowls to the SEC – OU-LSU for the 2003 title, OU-Florida 2008 and Texas-Alabama 2009. But the Big 12 also has lost nine of the last 10 Cotton Bowls, an annual Big 12/SEC matchup.
The 2012 Big 12 season ended in dubious fashion – Texas A&M's 41-13 trouncing of the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl, a stunning domination by a school that was the epitome of mediocrity in the Big 12. The Aggies were 37-44 their final 10 seasons in the Big 12 and finished above .500 only thrice. Then A&M jumped leagues, struck gold with Johnny Football, beat Alabama and now is SEC royalty.
The Big 12 gets some early shots at the SEC. On Opening Saturday, OSU plays Mississippi State in Houston, where victory would help a little, and TCU plays LSU in Arlington, where victory would help a lot.
But it's going to take January success to reverse the SEC domination.
Until then, Gundy is right. Talk won't help.
Not inane talk like came from Baylor coach Art Briles – “I'm a Big 12 guy; I think it's the best league in American without question.” – or Bob Stoops' propaganda declaration during the offseason, which was at least rooted in some truth.
Until the Big 12 wins, it's the SEC's world, and the Big 12 is just along for the ride. From the pivotal to the trivial, the SEC calls the shots. To the victor goes the spoils.
Recruiting momentum is going the SEC's way. A&M's success has made College Station a destination point, making it harder for OU, Texas and OSU to get Texas kids.
Heck, even coach recruiting is going the SEC's way. Arkansas hired Bret Bielema as head coach in the offseason. The same Bret Bielema who had taken Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls. The same Bielema who a few years ago famously told The Sporting News, “We at the Big Ten don't want to be like the SEC in any way, shape or form.”
More pivotal: In the BCS formulating, the unwritten rule is clear. Tie goes to the SEC. Alabama-Oregon in 2012, Alabama-OSU in 2011, LSU-Virginia Tech in 2007. It's automatic, the SEC gets the nod.
Gone are the days of 2004, when an unbeaten OU and an unbeaten Southern Cal could nudge out an unbeaten Auburn for spots in the two-team playoff. Now, the SEC is automatically anointed.
“The perception on camera and the way people see them kept us out of the championship game two years ago,” Gundy said. “It's just a fact, in my opinion.
“The team we had, the margin of victory we had, and the circumstances (fatal plane crash) we were under when we fell short…
“So I think there's a serious issue with our league.”
And in a clear case of if-you-can't-beat-‘em-join-‘em, the Big 12 signed an alliance with the SEC to send their champions (or a representative, if the champs are in the playoff) to a bowl game. That bowl? The Sugar in New Orleans, hallowed SEC ground.
The Saban statue. And the College Football Hall of Fame moves this year from South Bend, Ind., to Atlanta. Symbolism at its best.
The SEC monopoly has forced the Big 12 to take stock of its football. The Big 12 is trying. New stadiums. New facilities. New coaches. New schemes.
But so far, nothing has worked. And nothing short of beating the SEC will work.
“I don't think you can be the best without playing the best,” Bowlsby said. “So we believe in the best playing the best, and I don't think you can lay claim to it unless you can beat them.”
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.