Percy Harvin grew up north of the Sun Belt, a Virginia high school football phenom who had his choice of college powerhouses. He picked Florida, in part, because of the allure of playing in the uber-competitive Southeastern Conference, which former Gators coach Urban Meyer used in his recruiting sales pitch.
"He came and told me that if you want to play the best ball," Harvin said, "the SEC is where it's at."
The SEC remains the undisputed king of college football. Beginning with Harvin's freshman season at Florida, the conference has won six consecutive BCS national championships. Four schools -- Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Louisiana State -- claimed titles in that span.
By just about any measure, the SEC's quality of football, particularly since 2006, trumps every other conference -- national championships, All-Americas, recruiting rankings, record in BCS games, nonconference winning percentage, NFL draft picks, etc.
The league's dominance never was more evident than last season, when Alabama and LSU played for the BCS crown. Alabama won the title, avenging a loss to LSU during the regular season.
"It's easier to win the national championship than the SEC," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier joked to reporters at media day this summer. "Ask Nick Saban."
Surprise, surprise, Saban's Alabama team is loaded again this season, which is true for the entire conference, top to bottom. Five SEC teams are ranked in the top 10 in the Associated Press preseason poll.
How strong is the SEC? Arkansas is ranked No. 10 and features a collection of talent on offense that strikes fear in opponents. The Razorbacks are picked to finish third in their division, the SEC West, behind LSU and Alabama.
Even long-time league doormat Vanderbilt finally is serious about football. Led by brash second-year coach James Franklin, the Commodores earned a bowl trip last season, signed the 29th-ranked recruiting class nationally and soon will move into a new $31 million indoor practice facility.
"In our league, it's all hard," second-year Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "Where you play them, when you play them, it's difficult, a good league."
The league became even more difficult and deeper with the arrival of Missouri and Texas A&M this season. The former Big 12 members made the jump in search of more conference stability -- and revenue -- along with a higher national profile that SEC football provides. Texas A&M was placed in the SEC West, along with LSU, Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn.
"What's my assessment?" Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said about his team's new home. "It's a pretty damn hard league. How is that? You can argue all you want, but there's some of the best coaches in the country in the SEC. Combine that with big, fast guys, some of the best players in the country, it doesn't get any better than that."
College football revolves around high-scoring, fast-break offenses. The SEC puts equal emphasis on the other side of the ball. Four SEC teams finished in the top five nationally in total defense last season.
"In the Big 12, we put our best athletes on offense," Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe said. "[In the SEC], they put their best athletes on defense."
Moe figures the SEC also offers other perks besides better competition.
"They say the girls are prettier, the air's fresher and the toilet paper is thicker," he said.
Eat and sleep football
The SEC long ago secured its place at the top of the college football food chain. The sport is woven into the fabric of daily life for southerners. Not unlike oxygen, it's a necessity. SEC fans really recognize only two seasons on the calendar -- football season and spring football -- and they understand certain tenets: Don't die or get married during the season, at least not the week of a rivalry game.
That passion and tradition -- and inherent pressure to keep up with the pack -- mandates a certain commitment and understanding by schools that SEC is big-boy football and even bigger business. Complacency is intolerable because Alabama, LSU or someone else is busy raising the bar higher.
"I think that's one of the things that separates the SEC from the other leagues in this country, there's so many good football teams you're going to play week in, week out," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "That's what defines the league."
Rival conferences point to the SEC's natural recruiting base as a primary driving force behind the league's depth and sustained success. Southern states, particularly Florida, are fertile ground for blue-chip prospects. SEC coaches don't have to travel too far to stockpile cream-of-the-crop talent. The best prospects can stay close to home, play in the premier conference and have a chance to compete for national titles. What's the incentive to leave?
"The teams in the SEC that are known for having good records are attractive to a lot of kids, especially the down south schools," Harvin said.
Fast track to NFL
That talent is reflected in the league's pipeline to the pros. More SEC players made NFL rosters in the past five seasons than any other conference. Since 2006, the conference has produced 46 first-round selections and more overall draft picks than any conference, an average of 40 per draft.
"When you have a recruiting base like we have, like they have in the state of Texas, it makes our job a little bit -- I don't want to use the word 'easier' -- but it makes it better because you have such a great recruiting base," said Florida's Muschamp.
The conference's recruiting base should expand with the addition of Texas A&M because the Lone Star State, another hotbed for high school talent, now rests in the SEC footprint. If SEC coaches didn't recruit that state previously, they're probably tempted to do so now.
"We'll be able to go in and say to them, 'If you want to play in that conference like Texas A&M, certainly LSU and those other schools in our conference would represent that,' " LSU coach Les Miles said. "I think there will be a little bit more open door policy in Texas. I think there will be an understanding by the Texas high school coach [that] this is a nice choice or prospect for my player. We've been in Texas pretty continually. I think we'll just be in Texas more."
And the rich will get richer. That's life in the SEC though, something Missouri and A&M will experience for the first time this season. The new kids on the block are tired of hearing the hype, but they realize they must prove they belong.
"People act like we've been playing a bunch of high school teams," Pinkel said. "We've played in a pretty big league. Bottom line, you got to go out and prove yourself. I have no problem with it. You have to go out and compete and earn respect and win. Only way you're going to get respect is winning games."