How the South Was Won as a College Football Powerhouse

Story by Wyatt Vaugh, freshman at Nicholls State University.

It’s easy to mistake the South’s passion for college football as merely a trend. Or a byproduct of fair-weather fans following the recent successes of southern teams. But college football has been a dominant part of southern life since at least the late ‘90s, embedded in the region’s heart and soul. And it shows.

From Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide to Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators to Mack Brown’s Texas Longhorns to Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers, college football is strongest in the South. But it wasn’t always that way. 

In the ‘70s and ‘80s teams like Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Notre Dame, and USC dominated the college football scene. But the landscape of college football shifted in the late ‘90s. Of the 20 teams that were in the College Football Playoff in the past five years, a whopping 75 percent of them were from the South. But how and why did this seismic shift happen?

In the ‘60s a lot of the Southern football programs were still segregated. While teams in the North and West were fully integrated, it wasn’t until the mid ‘70s that some Southern schools started to integrate their roster, and it took until the late ‘90s for the South to catch up to the rest of the country. It was teams like Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri who were tired of getting drummed by fullyintegrated teams like Penn State, or USC. 

Ron Higgins, a Baton Rouge-based SEC columnist, said, “Integration made them take off because there were a lot of great African-American athletes and they were all going to predominantly black schools [in the South] before this.” It is clear that once integration started happening, the South started to slowly catch up to, and then pass all the other schools in the country.

Another big reason that the South has been so good in college football recently is the geography and the weather. Down in the South the weather is normally pretty warm and it allows for teams to train all year-round. You can’t say the same thing for players who are from Washington or New York. This allows high school football in the South to be miles ahead of other states—simply because they have more time to work on their game.

And then, from there, you can see everything as a kind of big chain reaction.

Good weather encourages a lot of talent to come out of the region at the high school level. Of the last seven high school football national championship teams, five of them have come from the South. And of the top 34 best high school players in the country, a whopping 26 of them reside in the South. In the South, children are taught to play football from an early age since they can do it all year round. In other places they might go for basketball, baseball, or hockey due to the climate. But down South, football is a way of life, available whenever.

And, logically, good regional high school players lead to good high school recruiting from regional colleges. Of the 34 five-star high school recruits in the 2019 class, 26 of them are from the South, per 247 Sports. Of those 26, 22 of them went to southern colleges. And of the eight players not from Southern states, exactly half of them made the decision to play college ball in the South. And that’s just 2019—the southern recruiting revolution has been happening since the mid-1990s.

Since 2006, there have been 449 five-star recruits that came out of high school and nearly 300 of them ended up at a southern school, making up a whopping 66 percent. With 66 percent of the best players in the country going to 15 percent of the colleges in the country, the southern college football revolution was bound to happen.

And when good recruits are involved, so follows good coaching talent. Of the top 25 or 30 coaches in the entire country, about a third of them are coaches of southern schools. Of the CBS-ranked top 10 coaches in the country, seven of them reside in the South.

Coaching is no small measure. Coaches have a kind of overarching influence on how a team performs. Not only do they get the best recruits, but they are better adept at developing those recruits into the best they can be. Coaches can find a place for their well-molded recruits within a system to help them win games, which has an immeasurable impact once you go pro.

Not only that, but good coaches at good college football programs can also take chances on lower-ranked players in high school to develop them into players that no one thought they could be.

A school that only has great players doesn’t always fit the bill for a great team. The editor of The Athletic, Dallas Mike Piellucci said, “It’s such an advantage to have an all-time coach like Nick Saban, or Dabo Swinney because they run the entire program.” Coaches are also able to help with the budget—if a coach does well without a bunch of money, they can then push the faculty to give more and more until the program gets better and better in order to contend for the playoffs.

Just look at Dabo Swinney, he built Clemson, a southern school, into a top-two program in all of college football by way of recruiting and having a fantastic coaching staff. There are many reasons why the South is so good, but coaching is definitely one of the top reasons.

Some people make the argument that the recent uptick in southern success has been the result of some big time programs struggling. For instance Miami, Florida State, USC, and UCLA.

But as Piellucci puts it, “if USC is good right now, they get guys like Elias Ricks, Justin Flowe, Bijan Robinson and some more and they have one of the best [recruiting] classes right now.” The players Piellucci refers to are all recruits who live near USC, but yet they all decided to look down South for college.

Football in the South is just different than the rest of the country. From birth, children are groomed to be football players, coaches, and fans. The love of the game has always been here, but after schools became fully integrated, the South was able to unlock its full potential as a football powerhouse. Everything else just fell into place.

In the South, college football is—and was—a way of life. You can try and cook up your chicken-or-the-egg scenarios, but the roots of college football’s success lies in the culture. It is a weekly gathering, where every Saturday everyone can put away their issues and just watch some good college football. College football in the South is unlike anything else in the country, and it will continue to be one of the defining traits of life in the South.