How Gary Danielson Changed the SEC
By Matt Smith
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Many conferences choose to feature their respective star players and coaches on the covers of their football media guides.
The SEC took a different approach, devoting the entire cover to one number: 5. Five, as in the number of consecutive national titles won by the league. Never has a conference dominated college football like the SEC is currently doing. However, not too long ago, the SEC was not perceived by all parties as the best conference in college football. That all changed on the evening of December 2nd, 2006.
Two weeks earlier, #1 Ohio State beat #2 Michigan in 2006’s “Game of the Century”, leaving the Buckeyes as the only major conference unbeaten team. They would be headed to Glendale for the BCS Championship Game, but who would be their opponent? Would Michigan get a rematch, or would USC get a chance to win their third title in four years? Earlier on December 2nd, the mighty Trojans were upset by UCLA, and the rematch between the Buckeyes and Wolverines looked likely. Then, something happened.
As Florida was about to complete a comeback win over Arkansas to clinch the SEC title, the focus of the commentary turned to the following day’s announcement of the final BCS rankings. CBS displayed a graphic showing the list of victories by the Gators, as well as Michigan. Gary Danielson went down the list, comparing the quality of wins by the two teams.
As Danielson noted, the Wolverines had two respectable victories, beating Notre Dame and Wisconsin teams that beefed up their records with easy schedules. Florida, on the other hand, had won in Knoxville against #17 Tennessee, beaten #4 LSU by two touchdowns, beat a Georgia team who had just upset two teams ranked in the Top 15, and won an SEC Championship Game against eighth-ranked Arkansas. After analyzing the graphic, Danielson left one question in the minds of the nationwide audience. Why was Michigan just seemingly being handed the #2 ranking?
In addition, do we need to see Ohio State play Michigan again? Didn’t the Buckeyes prove they were a better team two weeks prior? As the Arkansas-Florida game was the last meaningful game prior to the final poll, Danielson got the last word in with the voters. The next day, it was the Gators, not the Wolverines, who jumped to #2 in the polls, and subsequently #2 in the BCS rankings. In a scenario that was a long shot 24 hours earlier, Florida would be playing Ohio State for the national title.
Oddsmakers were not sold on the Gators, as the Buckeyes were installed as a seven-point favorite, after having been only a six-point favorite at home against Michigan. Five weeks later, Urban Meyer led Florida to a one-sided 41-14 victory and the school’s second national title. While not a major upset, the manner in which the Gators exerted their dominance was shocking. Florida’s defensive front, led by Derrick Harvey, was no match for what was thought to be a quality Ohio State offensive line, as Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith was sacked more times than he completed a pass. The perception of the SEC, and college football as a whole, changed that evening in Arizona, going from an elite conference to the undoubted best in college football. Yes, Jason White, Reggie Bush, and Vince Young were outstanding college football players, but championship games are won up front. Cam Newton had one of the most memorable individual seasons in the modern era in 2010, but when the Auburn offense turned in a sub-par performance in the BCS Championship Game, it was Nick Fairley and the defensive line that slowed down the vaunted Oregon offense, and led the Tigers to the national title.
Today, the idea of an SEC champion being a touchdown underdog on a neutral field is almost comical. In consecutive years in 2008 and 2009, Florida and Alabama dueled for the SEC championship as the #1 and #2 ranked teams in the country. The conference is 8-2 in BCS bowls since 2006. More importantly, in a sport that has been subject to human judgment far too often, the SEC now gets the benefit of the doubt. In 2007, LSU was chosen to play Ohio State for the national title over Oklahoma. Even though LSU’s last loss was later than Oklahoma’s, and that the Sooners had just whipped #1 Missouri by 21 points on the same day the Tigers had just squeaked by #14 Tennessee, LSU having conquered the SEC was the deciding factor. Had Florida not gotten the chance to overpower Ohio State a year earlier, LSU may not have been able to do the same. Jim Tressel may have three national titles instead of one. Ever since, the BCS crystal ball has remained in the SEC’s hands.
So, as we head into the 2011 season with eight teams from the SEC ranked in the preseason Top 25, remember, just a few years ago, the SEC was just one of three or four top conferences in college football. Then, Gary Danielson displayed his political talents to the nation, and led a successful campaign for Florida’s election to play for the 2006 national title. So while the names Meyer, Tebow, Saban, and Malzahn also have plenty to do with allowing the SEC to proudly display the number 5 on its media guide cover, it was Danielson’s strong stand in December 2006 that ignited the SEC’s current reign over college football.