TAMPA, Fla. — Iowa defensive back and Louisiana native Lance Tillison attended camp at LSU, finished his prep career in Florida after his family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina and moved to the Midwest to play football.
So Tillison is well qualified to weigh in on the tortoise-and-hare debate that always seems to unfold at bowl games featuring teams from the SEC, the supposed speed capital of the college football world, and the plodding Big Ten.
And according to Tillison, it’s no contest: the SEC by several strides.
“It’s not really a drop-off (in the Big Ten), but it wasn’t just spread across the board like random people just fast,” Tillison said. “In certain areas it was speedy, but when I was down here it was just like all across the board — athletes and speed.”
Faster does not always mean better, but that has been the case of late. On college football’s biggest stage the past two seasons, Florida and LSU ran by Ohio State in the BCS title game.
The Gators whipped the Buckeyes 41-14 two years ago before Ohio State fell to LSU 38-24 last year in New Orleans.
Those losses and the Big Ten’s bowl performance overall — the conference has not posted a winning bowl record since 2002 — has given fodder to critics who have made dumping on the Big Ten a new holiday tradition.
“As far as I remember, Ohio State’s been pretty good for the last 50, 60, 70 years,” Iowa defensive tackle Mitch King said. “So I don’t think Ohio State’s been hurting the Big Ten’s reputation by any means.”
But it’s not just the Buckeyes who have been bowled over in bowls. The Big Ten was 3-5 last year in bowl games, and started this bowl season on a sour note when Wisconsin was mauled by Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Meanwhile, the SEC was 7-2 in bowl games last season, its fifth consecutive year with a winning bowl record.
“Last year at this time I don’t even remember because we weren’t involved. I think I went into hibernation,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, whose Hawkeyes went 6-6 in 2007 and did not receive a bowl bid.
“We’ve done OK through the years. I don’t think anybody in our conference is ashamed, and I know nobody in the SEC is.”
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said the SEC has had bragging rights the past two seasons because of Florida and LSU. And while the Gators have a chance to give the SEC its third consecutive national championship with a win against Oklahoma, Spurrier believes the conference was top heavy this season.
Only four SEC schools won as many as eight games and the conference failed to fill all nine of its bowl slots.
“I really think overall we were down a little bit this year. That’s obvious,” Spurrier said Sunday. “The SEC wasn’t quite what we’ve been the past two or three years.”
Spurrier, who is 4-1 versus the Big Ten, said his lone loss against a Big Ten school showed him the conference is not saddled with slow-pokes. During Michigan State’s 37-34 win against Spurrier’s Florida team in the 2000 Citrus Bowl, a Gators’ kickoff returner, who was an Olympic sprinter, was run down during a long return.
Of course, the Michigan State player who caught him was Plaxico Burress, now a star with the New York Giants.
“Speed is everywhere,” Spurrier said. “Not just in the South.”
The flipside of the argument is that the Big Ten boasts stronger, more physical players than other conferences — something USC receiver Kenny McKinley might attest to after watching Iowa’s offensive line walk into a welcome dinner Friday night.
“I was like, ‘Golly, these boys look like they’re in the NFL,’ ” McKinley said. “A lot of guys 6-7 and just big. I want to see our D-line match up against those big guys.”
Gamecocks defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said the weather in the Midwest has contributed to the Big Ten’s reputation as a power running conference.
“You don’t want to run a certain offense that requires throwing the ball around a lot when you’re going to get 30 mile-an-hour winds and ice two of your games,” Johnson said.
When USC safeties coach Ron Cooper, who coached at two Big Ten schools, made sure his players saw the snow flurries in the video of Iowa’s upset of Penn State in November.
“I said, ‘Here’s what I want you to look at. How many guys do you see out there in long sleeves?’ We bundle up here when it’s 50 degrees,” Cooper said. “I said you got to understand these are tough, hard-nosed, hit-you-in-the-mouth guys.”
So will it be the SEC speed or Big Ten toughness that prevails in the Outback Bowl? Fans will find out Thursday.
In the meantime, Ferentz said “it gives everybody something to talk about.”
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.