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SEC laid groundwork for its college football dominance in 2003 postseason

As Eli Manning and Ole Miss gunned down Oklahoma State and Nick Saban's LSU team ended OU's title hopes, change was in the air in college football. In retrospect, the SEC was making an early statement toward what was to come: Total domination.
by John Helsley Modified: August 25, 2013 at 3:00 pm •  Published: August 25, 2013

January blew a harsh damper of defeat across Oklahoma as the calendar flipped beyond 2003.

A Sooners' late-season collapse concluded in a BCS Championship defeat, with Nick Saban and LSU shoving aside OU's shot at an elusive eighth national title inside the Superdome.

Down in Dallas, the Cowboys' best team since the great Barry Sanders Heismanland run was gunned down by Eli Manning and Ole Miss in the Cotton Bowl.

At the time, those setbacks were difficult to digest. And the 10-year itch on those games may hint at something more.

In retrospect, the SEC was making an early statement, especially in New Orleans, where LSU's conquest earned the conference its first of eight BCS titles in a 10-year span. And while we may not have recognized it at the time, the SEC was likely laying the groundwork for what would come:

Total domination of the college game.

By 2006, the SEC had secured its roots toward becoming the greatest conference on earth.

And if you don't believe it, or stubbornly cling to resisting the notion, they'll tell you all about it.

“Shoot,” said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, “we had a few (teams) that could have had some fun in that (BCS Championship) game last year.”

Of course, in that game last year, Alabama routed Notre Dame 42-14. And SEC squads filled the final Associated Press top 10, with Georgia No. 5, Texas A&M No. 6, South Carolina No. 8 and Florida No. 9.

That's half of the top 10, with LSU and Vanderbilt — Vanderbilt — claiming poll positions, too, at No. 14 and 23, respectively.

Alabama's title run, its third in four years, gave the SEC its seventh straight national championship claim.

Where and how did it all begin?

Evidence suggests 2003, and with Saban.

“Nick Saban comes into the league and changes things, as Coach Spurrier did when he first came back,” said former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer. “There's some really, really outstanding coaches and I think the league is deeper than it's ever been.”

Before 2003, no SEC team had even appeared in a BCS title game since Tennessee won the inaugural matchup in 1998. After that, the Big 12, ACC and Big East dominated play. Florida State and Miami (Fla.) both made a pair of appearances, each winning once. OU won for the 2000 season. Nebraska earned another trip for the Big 12 and lost. Ohio State represented the Big Ten with a title.

Then concluding the 2003 season, the Sooners were back and looking for more in the Sugar Bowl — the title game wasn't officially called the BCS Championship until 2006 — albeit as a questionable entry, having just been popped by Kansas State, 35-7, in the Big 12 championship game.

More questions arose as OU ran into LSU, then coached by Saban, who was in his third season on the Bayou. And the Tigers won, 21-14, stamping Saban's star as on the rise and changing the playing field in the SEC.

And eventually, across all of college football.

Saban would leave LSU, opening the door for Les Miles to bolt Stillwater for Baton Rouge. But after a short stint in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins, he'd be back, building Bama's latest powerhouse run and upping the ante leaguewide.

“Let's not kid ourselves,” said Todd Monken, the former OSU assistant who went to LSU with Miles back in 2004, “the guy has won four national titles.”

Urban Meyer won two at Florida. Auburn has one. LSU has added another under Miles.

And plenty of other SEC teams want one. And believe they can get one.

“When I got to LSU, you had literally six programs in that league that really expect every year to win it,” said Monken, now the head coach at Southern Miss. “You can't find another league where you could have six teams that have had that kind of success and that kind of tradition, to where those six teams legitimately believe they have a chance to win.”

The Georgia Bulldogs might have gotten theirs last January, if they just could have punched in a late score against Alabama in the SEC title game.

Then, as Spurrier suggested, it might have been the Dawgs knocking off Notre Dame.

“We got here by 5 yards — Georgia was 5 yards from scoring,” Saban said after the championship game. “It's a pretty tough league we play in.”

And it wasn't just Georgia knocking on the door; the Gators and Gamecocks were close, too.

Saban's impact on the league, while mighty, isn't the only factor in this shift of power to the deep South.

Credit SEC commissioner Mike Slive for orchestrating a conference that operates with a perceived unified appeal. Whether real or imagined, it's almost as if ultimately, despite the inside rivalries and coaching barbs and jabs, all 14 programs are in it together.

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by John Helsley
OSU Reporter Sr.
John Helsley grew up in Del City, reading all the newspapers and sports magazines he could get his hands on. And Saturday afternoons, when the Major League Game of the Week was on, he'd keep a scorecard for the game. So the sports appeal was was...
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