When LSU and Alabama played for the 2011 national championship, Les Miles called it big-boy football.
If there's one thing ol' Les knows, it's big-boy football. He's a Michigan Man, a Bo Schembechler disciple, and Bo would be proud of the style Miles' LSU team plays.
Same style Miles' Oklahoma State teams played in the early 2000s, only with better players. Tough. Hard-nosed. Run the ball. Stop the run. Plenty of fullbacks and tight ends and snot-eating linebackers and defensive linemen on a collision course with the NFL.
You know. The kind of football you don't see anymore in the Big 12.
Believe it or not, the biggest difference between the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 is not the disparity in recent national titles – the SEC having won seven straight. The biggest difference is style of play.
The Big 12 plays a video-game brand of football. Players spread all over the field, quarterbacks flinging the ball quickly and accurately, scores looking more like you'd find in a gymnasium than a gridiron: 70-63, 56-50, 51-48, 52-45, 50-49, 48-45, 47-42, 59-38. Those are finals just from last season.
“In the Big 12, there's guys on offense trying to score every snap,” said Baylor coach Art Briles, who is one of those guys. “Maybe it's not the same way it is in the old Lone Star Conference or Missouri Valley Conference, but I know it's that way in the Big 12.”
Lone Star? Missouri Valley? Briles is dating himself. Surprised he didn't trot out the Southwest Conference, which existed back in the day when college football shared its national championship around a variety of leagues.
Back in the day when several conferences played defense, and most had some wishbone teams and some power-I teams and some quarterbacks who could throw it around a little bit.
Unlike today, when the Big 12 seems to have cornered the market on cosmic elements of the game and the SEC has the monopoly on he-man football.
“It is big-boy football, as in really big players playing the game,” Ray Glier wrote in his book, “How the SEC Became Goliath.”
“Big people beat up little people. That's what the SEC believes in; football that is played from the inside out, tackle to tackle, and coveting the defensive lineman over the wide receiver all day, every day.”
Hard to argue with Glier. The SEC is dominating all of college football, but the Big 12 especially is being bullied. The Big 12 has lost nine of the last 10 Cotton Bowls, which typically pits the No. 2 or No. 3 Big 12 team against the No. 3 or No. 4 SEC team. The SEC has beaten the Big 12 in their last three national-championship showdowns.
And more often than not, those high-flying Big 12 offenses go splat against a top-tier SEC defense.
“It's the best conference and the most physical conference in college football,” said LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson. “When you look at it, the SEC has won a national championship every year since I've been looking at college football. You think powerhouse when you think about the SEC."
Powerhouse and power. The SEC style of play is so dominant, both literally and in the reputation-matters world of college football, that its biggest proponents can't even agree on the source of SEC supremacy.
Alabama center Ryan Kelly: “I think it's the speed, honestly. Obviously, I haven't been in any other conference, but the speed down here…”
Glier, the author: “People always talk about the speed of the SEC. It's not just the speed. It's the size and the speed and the versatility of the offense and defense. That's why the SEC is Goliath. It has taken an imprint of the NFL and laid it over the top of its programs.”
Don't get the wrong idea about the SEC. Just because Alabama and LSU played two epic yawners in the 2011 season – LSU won 9-6 in overtime, then Bama won 21-0 in the title game, and one meaningless touchdown was scored in both games combined – doesn't mean the SEC can't produce offense.
In fact, don't look now, but the SEC clearly will trump the Big 12 in quality quarterbacking for 2013. Georgia's Aaron Murray, Alabama's A.J. McCarron, South Carolina's Connor Shaw, LSU's Zach Mettenberger and the frisky little guy down in College Station that perhaps has caught your eye, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel.
The SEC's dominance prompted Texas coach Mack Brown to adopt an if-you-can't-beat-‘em-join-‘em philosophy. After UT's 2009 title game loss to Alabama, in which spread-formation quarterback Colt McCoy was injured, Brown decided to move the Longhorns to more of a power-based offense, ala the SEC.
“I've never really said I want to be SEClike,” Brown said. “I think people said that because we wanted to run the ball better, and the SEC is a league that runs the ball really well. The Big 12 has been known for passing.”
“With Colt, when he got hurt in the national championship game against Alabama in '09, they had two backs rush for 100 yards, and we couldn't run the ball. When we were playing a freshman quarterback, it had us at a true disadvantage in a championship game.
“Our key at that time was to go back and run the ball better, and that hasn't changed.”
That's all that hasn't changed for the ‘Horns. After three seasons that range from disastrous (5-7 in 2010) to so-so (8-5, 9-4), Brown has again claimed the if-you-can't-beat-‘em-join-‘em philosophy. He has Texas running the uptempo, no-huddle that is predominant in the Big 12.
While SEC teams huddle up so they can chant things like fee-fi-fo-fum, Big 12 offenses turn the game into a hockey match, with frantic substitutions and quick snaps. They wouldn't huddle if a dust storm blew in.
It's a fascinating contrast of styles, and clearly, the SEC's style is winning. Has the style created the dominance? Or has the dominance elevated the style?
It's not like the SEC hasn't won with spread offenses. Urban Meyer coached Florida to two national titles with the spread. And Auburn's Cam Newton in 2010 was a quarterback phenom to rival the likes of Vince Young and Robert Griffin III.
But those teams, like LSU in 2007 and Alabama three of the last four years, also had those burly offensive linemen and hard-charging tailbacks and defensive linemen that made NFL scouts drool.
A bunch of big ol' boys who played big-boy football and still do.