How The SEC's Rise, Big Ten's Fall Started With a Fumbled Arkansas Punt

Published on: April 25, 2013 | Written by: Clay Travis

Remember seven years ago when USC lost to UCLA and for a brief moment it appeared possible there would be a rematch of number one Ohio State and number two Michigan for the BCS title?

It was 2006, the SEC had won two titles in the BCS era, Tennessee in 1998 and LSU in 2003. The Big Ten had nearly matched that haul with Ohio State's 2002 title and for a moment it appeared the 2006 title would be the Big Ten's possession as well. This would mean that the Big Ten and the SEC were still on equal footing, the two lions of the college football universe, still staring across at one another.

Who knows what might have happened if Ohio State and Michigan had played for the 2006 title? Imagine if Michigan had won the game, does Lloyd Carr hang on longer, does the disastrous Rich Rodriguez regime never happen? Does Jim Tressel, now with two titles in his belt, not feel the need to go all in with Terrelle Pryor and the resulting shenanigans that led to his downfall never happen? (Although, Ohio State fans would probably rather have Urban Meyer, so maybe the scandal worked to their benefit). If Arkansas's Reggie Fish just lets the ball roll into the end zone for a touchback, do Urban Meyer's Gators still become dominant? Remember Meyer only won a single other SEC title, in Tebow's junior year, 2008. Hell, if Houston Nutt wins the 2006 SEC title is there any way he gets run out of Arkansas? Is he still there? Where does Bobby Petrino end up?

It has been over seven years now since the Big Ten reached its high water mark of the BCS era.

In fact, I'll tell you exactly when the high water mark for Big Ten football in the BCS era happened.

With 3:58 remaining in the third quarter of the 2006 SEC title game Arkansas is leading Florida 21-17. Urban Meyer, having just faked a punt from 4th and 10 at his own 15, burns a timeout and now must punt on the ensuing series of downs. The Razorbacks prepare to return the kick, poised to snag their first ever SEC football title, a long drive away from taking a two score lead into the fourth quarter.

Just prior to the snap it appears that Michigan and Ohio State will play for the BCS title, that Florida and USC will both lose and that the Big Ten will become the first conference to have two teams playing for the title.

The Big Ten is poised to dominate college football as no conference has ever dominated college football.

But then Gator punter Eric Wilbur uncorks a massive punt that Arkansas's Reggie Fish inexplicably attempts to field while running backwards at full speed into his own end zone. It's a disastrous decision. He fumbles the kick, the Gators pounce on it for a touchdown and it's suddenly 24-21 Florida.

 You can scroll to 2:15 in this clip if you want to review that awful play. It's still one of the dumbest plays I've ever witnessed in person, basically a one-play synopsis of everything a coach tells a punt-returner not to do. A symphony of punt-return futility.

The Gators never relinquish the lead and go on to win 38-28.

Meanwhile, Gary Danielson on CBS makes the most eloquent case for the Gators advancing to the BCS title game in college football history. Every voter, every prognosticator, every individual who matters in college football is watching this CBS national game. As the final minutes of the Gator's SEC title come to a close, Danielson turns into Henry Clay in the well of the Senate, waxing eloquent on the Gator's deserving a spot in the BCS title game. Danielson pulls out a telestration pen, crosses out Michigan, explains why the Gators deserve to jump the Wolverines.

Danielson, a former Big Ten quarterback at Purdue, doesn't know it, but he's signing the Big Ten's football death warrant.

His pitch to the nation works, Florida jumps idle Michigan in the BCS standings and a little over a month later the Gators swamp Ohio State 41-14 in a massive bowl upset.

Since that time the SEC has won every title, and the Big Ten has appeared just once in the title game again, losing to LSU by 14 points to finish off the 2007 season.

What's more, every year since then the SEC has widened the gap between itself and its erstwhile foe. That gap is the most pronounced this year, when the SEC could have as many as 14 first round picks, which would be the most in league history, and the Big Ten probably won't have a single first round pick. As if that wasn't enough the SEC finished with six teams in the top ten of the BCS standings, that made 2012 by far the most dominant year by any conference in the history of college football.

Think that dominance is changing?

Not hardly.

It's increasing.

In 2013 Kentucky had the 29th best recruiting class in the country according to Rivals.

You know where that ranked in the SEC?

13th.

13th!

You know where Kentucky's class would have ranked in the Big Ten?

Fourth.

Fourth!

Outside of Michigan and Ohio State, who recently are recruiting like SEC schools, the rest of the Big Ten recruits like the MAC.

Believe it or not the 2014 recruiting season is off and running already, several schools are nearing half full on their classes. Guess how the SEC is doing this year? The SEC already has five of the top seven classes in the country according to 24/7 Sports.

2012 was the best year in SEC history and 2013 was the best recruiting class in SEC history. Now the 2013 draft is poised to be the most NFL draft picks in history.

You can trace this rise all the way back to that high water mark, when the Big Ten seemed poised to still challenge the SEC for college football dominance.

Now that's a pipe dream.

Why?

Because in the past seven years the SEC has cemented its status as the second most valuable football brand in the country behind the NFL. The SEC has won seven consecutive BCS titles and its recruiting classes are actually getting better every year. The collection of talent the league signed in 2013 represented the greatest class of players any conference has ever signed.

And every year it's getting easier to extend that dominance.

Why?

Think about the age of the recruits.

The class of 2014 was born in 1996.

When does your average kid start paying legitimate attention to college football? Probably nine or ten years old, right? What have these recruits seen in their formative years? The SEC has won every title since these kids were nine or ten years old. The SEC already had a massive recruiting advantage because it produces better players than any other region of the country -- good luck convincing Southern boys to move to the cold -- but now the SEC is cherry-picking the best recruits from other regions of the country too, the places where kids have grown up seeing SEC football as the best in the land.

Tonight the SEC will dominate the first round of the NFL draft. Every year since 2004 the SEC has had the most players drafted. A record is likely to be set this year. Meanwhile, the Big Ten will produce its worst collection of talent ever.  

And young football stars all over the country will be watching.

The connection in these recruit's minds is clear. The SEC is where you win titles and get drafted. If you're the best, you play in the SEC.

And that, my friends, is a self fulfilling prophecy. I call it the SEC's Google effect. Why is Google search so good? Because everyone believes it's so good. Why is SEC football so good? Because everyone believes it's so good.

Once a brand's value is embedded in your mind, it's pretty hard to erase it.

And the SEC's brand has never been more valuable.

And the SEC rise, which now seems inevitable, and the Big Ten's collapse, which now also seems inevitable, all started with an inexplicable fumbled punt late in the third quarter of the SEC title game.

What would have happened if Reggie Fish just lets that ball roll into the end zone.

We'll never know.

But it's hard to believe the result could have been any better for the SEC or any worse for the Big Ten.

Think about that fumble tonight as the SEC notches a new all-time record of first round draft picks, and the Big Ten notches a new low for first round draft picks.

It all started with Arkansas's Reggie Fish and his disastrous decision to field that punt.