ARLINGTON, Texas – R.J. Washington was an innocent soul at the OU-Florida Big Bowl four years ago. Then a redshirting freshman, Washington had no clue the impact of conference status upon his sport.
“I didn't really realize coming out of high school, the stigma that the SEC and the Big 12, the beef they had,” Washington said. “Then we lost, and everybody started chanting ‘SEC.'”
Now the Sooners face their first SEC foe since that Florida game, Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl on Friday night, and make no mistake. This is a game for conference pride and conference honor.
The SEC has won six straight national championships and bathes in a superiority complex.
“I think whatever conference you play in, there's always pride, especially when it comes to bowl season,” said OU split end Justin Brown, who played for Penn State the previous three seasons. “You find yourself watching games, cheering for your conference, no matter what team it is. You want your team to be the best conference. This is one of the times time when you can prove it, the bowl season.”
Plus the plot twist of A&M's exodus from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference. The Aggies proudly proclaim how much bigger and better is the SEC.
“Definitely conference pride” at stake, said OU halfback Brennan Clay. “Especially with them (the Aggies) leaving. It's going to be a test. They're now in the SEC. We know that. We've got to represent the Big 12 well.”
Some discount the import of conference debate.
“I don't look at it that way,” Bob Stoops said. “It all is propaganda and what the media does. We need to win for other reasons. I'm not worried about the media war … I don't get into that stuff.”
He should. Stoops is right. It is propaganda. It is a media war. But it's completely relevant and absolutely impactful.
Conference status matters in college football. Here's an example. In 2006, when the Big Ten clamored for an Ohio State-Michigan rematch in the national title game, the SEC argued otherwise, saying one-loss Florida deserved a shot at the Buckeyes. The voters were convinced by the SEC argument.
Five years later – and five SEC national titles later – the SEC argued the counter, saying an Alabama-LSU rematch was proper. And this time, the voters switched policy, bypassing one-loss Oklahoma State for a rematch.
And reigning in the runaway mine train that is the SEC's reputation is even more important with the four-team tournament coming with the 2014 season. The propaganda already is being groomed for the SEC to get two of the four slots annually.
“We hear a lot during the year about how our conference has this, how we're stronger or weaker on defense, or stronger on offense,” said OU co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell. “I don't think there's any question we feel like we play a high brand of football in our league. And we want to represent the Big 12 strongly.”
There's even more at stake in this game: A&M's move to the SEC has opened the city gates to Texas recruiting. SEC West schools now can tell Texas kids they'll be playing in their home state every other year. And A&M can pitch the best-conference line to blue-chippers from Brownwood to Baytown.
“It's a lot of pride going against an SEC team, representing the Big 12, let ‘em know we can play with anybody,” said OU cornerback Demontre Hurst.
The only way to stem the SEC avalanche is start beating the SEC monsters. And this bowl season has gotten off to a good start. The SEC is just 3-3 in bowls, with Clemson beating LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Louisville beating Florida in the Sugar and Northwestern beating Mississippi State in the Gator.
Notre Dame could do the most damage to the SEC's status with a Big Bowl upset of Alabama, but OU can help while also retaining some Big 12 honor with a victory over the SEC school that got away.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.