The SEC has secured an upper hand in college football.
The conference has won the last five BCS National Championships and finished last season with six schools ranked in The Associated Press Top 25, one more than any other conference.
The Big Ten, which has appeared in two BCS National Championship Games, is one of the conferences vying for second billing.
The facts point to an SEC advantage on the field, and this advantage might start in the classroom.
Compared to schools in the Big Ten, most SEC institutions fall short academically.
U.S. News & World Report ranks every university in the country each year based on average acceptance rate, retention rate, graduation rate and SAT and ACT scores, among other criteria. In these rankings, SEC universities fall short of those in the Big Ten.
The average ranking for an SEC school is 99th. Big Ten schools come in at an average of 53rd. Michigan State, the lowest ranked school in the Big Ten, is tied for 79th nationally with the fourth-best SEC school, Alabama. The Big Ten consists of 11 universities and the SEC has 12 institutions.
These lower academic standards might be an asset in recruiting high school players as they lengthen the list of available recruits and therefore directly affect on-field performance.
“What the SEC will do is several teams will sign more borderline kids. They take more chances on kids that may or may not qualify,” said Scott Kennedy, director of scouting for Scout.com. “A Big Ten team doesn’t want to have three or four borderline kids on their list.”
Steve Helwagen, staff writer for recruiting website Bucknuts.com, agreed.
“I think that that is pretty obvious that some of those (SEC) schools can get the at-risk kids,” Helwagen said. “It doesn’t take a math wizard to realize that gives them an incredible competitive advantage if they are able to pull from a larger pool of players to build their roster.”
SEC schools hauled in 73 of Rivals’ top 250 high school prospects in the 2011 class, compared to only 27 for Big Ten schools.
Despite the apparent correlation between poorer academic performance and better recruiting classes, Ohio State coaches don’t see a problem.
“I don’t think our admissions policies have hindered us at all,” quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano said. “We try to do our best to recruit the best student-athletes we can find.”
Besides college rankings, the SEC also falls short in the Academic Progress Rate.
APR is “a term-by-term measure of eligibility and retention for Division I student-athletes that was developed as an early indicator of eventual graduation rates,” according to the NCAA website.
Big Ten schools rank 46th on average in APR, versus a 53rd-place average for SEC universities.
One SEC coach said academic deficiencies are not an advantage.
“Illinois, Ohio State, they are going to recruit the same kids that we recruit,” Auburn safeties coach Tommy Thigpen said. “All of us fall in the same line. With the exceptions of the Stanfords and the Dukes of the world, we all go after the same kids.”
Thigpen, a Rivals 2011 top 25 recruiter, has recruited in both conferences. He was on the Illinois staff from 2003–04.
Coaches from Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee declined to speak with The Lantern.
Barry Every, a national analyst for Rivals, also fails to see any advantage from academics.
“The SEC schools still have to meet the minimum standards to get into school as the Big Ten schools,” he said. “They have the same standards as Michigan State and Michigan.”
The NCAA Division I requires a student-athlete to have a minimum of a 2.0 high school GPA and a sum ACT score of 86, averaging to a 21.5 on the 36-point scale, to be eligible, according to the organization’s website.
Though these marks are uniform across all D-I schools, individual university requirements are often much higher. For example, Michigan’s most recent freshman class averaged an ACT score between 28 and 32, according to the university’s website.
Thigpen admitted Auburn’s willingness to “hold a kid’s hand,” but said the school would not do so for an entire team of athletes.
OSU running backs coach Dick Tressel, differing from his fellow OSU assistant, Siciliano, indicated that the school’s higher academic standards help focus the staff’s recruiting.
“Early on in the process, there are so many prospects that we have directed away from (at-risk recruits) a little bit,” Tressel said. “Hey, we’ve got these higher standards so we just have some early decisions to make.”
Though the role of academics might be disputed, the idea that SEC schools gain an advantage from their location faces little opposition.
The seven states that house SEC schools produced 87 top 250 recruits in this year’s class compared to just 38 from the seven states representing the Big Ten.
As recruits are added to the list, the disparity becomes further magnified.
“It’s just where they are located,” Every said. “Approximately 2,500 high school players a year sign D-I; 500 of them are coming from two states (Florida and Georgia) from the Southeast.”
SEC coaches have taken notice.
“For us,” Thigpen said, “the pool is bigger of skilled athletes.”
Location aside, academics do seem to play a factor. The top-five-ranked schools in the SEC and Big Ten (Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State), as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, secured only 12 top 250 recruits. The top two schools, Vanderbilt and Northwestern, did not manage one.
Though it might not be the biggest point of emphasis, the willingness and ability of the schools in the SEC to recruit student-athletes with lower academic results might help them on the field.
“The standards are almost exactly the same for everyone,” Kennedy said. “The leniency of the schools to sign those players and wait for them to see if they will get in is a little more lenient in the south.”