Sweetness And Light

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The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

SEC Football: It's The Heart Of Dixie

In this divisive election year, at least in sport we have one issue where virtually everybody — well, everybody except for the numbskulls in charge — is in agreement. Choosing the college football champion by having one title game played by teams chosen by computers and polls is unfair, un-American and, well, idiotic.

There are many reasons for this, all of which the guy sitting next to you at the bar can passionately enumerate, but it's time to add one more: The system penalizes the teams who play in our premier college football league — the Southeastern Conference. In college basketball, power may shift, but indisputably, year after year, the SEC is by far the strongest on the old gridiron.

And this is as it should be. A lot of Americans love college football — especially in those rustic precincts unstained by an NFL franchise — but, hey, the Southerners love it more. Football is just plain made for Dixie.

Two scholarly studies are particularly illuminating. The late Grady McWhiney and Forrest McDonald wrote several years ago how the inland South differed from the rest of the country because it was so predominately settled by Celts, from the border shires of Scotland and England and Northern Ireland, who tended to be pretty mean critters. A favorite sport called "rough and tumble" was an American Celtic signature and about as vicious as anything since the Roman gladiator games. Professor McForest told me sometime ago that, in the Southern tradition, "football is the idealized ritual substitute for actual warfare."

David Hackett Fischer later expanded on the subject of American geographical settlement in his brilliant work Albion's Seed. He too emphasized many of the Southern Celtic influences, but also wrote of the aristocratic cavaliers who set the cultural pattern for the plantation South. In that hierarchal society, the leader of men — the general in battle, the coach in football — is a more paramount figure. Nick Saban at Alabama is Stonewall Jackson, Steve Spurrier at South Carolina is Jeb Stuart. (Can't be any Robert E. Lee, because Bear Bryant took that with him to the grave.) So, you add the Celtic warrior ethic to the great leader concept and ... listen here, y'all got yourself one whale of a football team.

Obviously, descendants of the British Isles make up only a small part of the population of any U.S. region today. After all, African-Americans are now the bulwark of the SEC. But Professor Fischer maintains that regions generally hold to their original ethnic heritage. Also, of course, the South is simply more populated now, with a larger athletic pool.

There are just too many top teams in the SEC. Good grief, even Vanderbilt — li'l Vandy! — is undefeated now. They all beat up on each other, so the computers and the pollsters are seduced into promoting Yankee and prairie teams with easier schedules. In this cockeyed system, the deck is stacked against the Southeastern Conference.

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Sweetness And Light

Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light

The Score On Sports With Frank Deford