S-E-C! S-E-C! To the chagrin of most of America, it's Alabama-Georgia for all the marbles

NEW ORLEANS — The chant boomed out early in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and then again late, and a third time even later for good measure. And although it’s enough to trigger a collective gag reflex in 39 states plus several U.S. territories, it’s a fact-based champion’s chant.

“S-E-C! S-E-C!” the Alabama fans thundered, when the final score of the Rose Bowl was announced and league brethren Georgia had advanced to the College Football Playoff title game.

“S-E-C! S-E-C!” the Crimson Tide faithful thundered in the fourth quarter, when it was apparent that their team would win the Sugar Bowl and join the Bulldogs in that title game.

“S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!”

Deal with it, non-Southern America.

You may hate the chant. You may detest the league. You may lament the way they schedule and loathe the way they collectively brag, with middling programs like Kentucky and Mississippi wrapping themselves in reflected glory. You may have howled at the previously unprecedented playoff inclusion of two teams from said league, and scoffed anew when the conference went an underwhelming 2-5 during the non-playoff bowl games. You may be a Big Ten fan who watched your league go 7-1 in bowls after being snubbed by the playoff selection committee, and have righteous indignation coursing through your cold-weather veins.

But when playoff prove-it time arrived on Monday, the Southeastern Conference stepped up and offered a stadium cup of shut-up to its critics. Georgia won a double-overtime classic over Oklahoma, 54-48. Then Alabama totally dominated Clemson, 24-6.

Alabama defensive lineman Raekwon Davis (99) gestures after a stop in the first half of the Sugar Bowl win over Clemson. (AP)

And now the SEC will have the final stage to itself again, and will win its ninth national title in the last 12 years. In an incestuous twist, Alabama legend Nick Saban will take on his protégé and former assistant Kirby Smart – the one guy from the Saban coaching tree who is succeeding at the highest level. A championship played in the unofficial capital of the South will be more authentically, annoyingly Dixie than Waffle House and ‘Bama bangs.

And so the chant will echo around Atlanta next week, grating upon Midwestern and Northeastern and Far Western ears the way all that Whoville noise-noise-noise-noise irritates the Grinch every Christmas.

Sorry for winning, says the South.

Fact is, the SEC lacks its customary depth this year. The middle class is smaller than usual and the lower class is as bad as it’s been in a long time. But the top is still really good – good enough to sweep the semifinals.

“I think sometimes people try to put a little hate on the SEC because of the success we’ve had,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday night. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

If you’re among the haters, look on the bright side: An expanded playoff might now be closer to reality.

Fear and loathing of an SEC planet spurred the remodeling of the postseason once before. When Alabama and LSU played in the BCS Championship Game for the 2011 national championship, the commissioners holding out against a playoff rolled over. Thus the College Football Playoff was born.

So now that the four-team tournament has resulted in another all-SEC title game, can another expansion be far behind?

We’ll find out.

Conference commissioner Greg Sankey was flying back from the Rose Bowl to headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama, late Monday – presumably on an airplane, but perhaps under the power of his own bliss. He took time to issue a disappointingly magnanimous statement here via league administrators.

“Congratulations to Georgia and Alabama on wins today in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl,” Sankey said. “I’m excited for their student-athletes, coaches and fans. We will be proud to watch two great SEC universities compete for the national championship in Atlanta.”

His predecessor, Mike Slive, probably wouldn’t have resisted a little crowing. Maybe Sankey will warm to the task of talking a little trash by the time he gets to Atlanta.

Alabama’s players, who had been Sankey-esque in the days leading up to this playoff rubber match against Clemson, let down their guard a little after this beatdown was over. Not a lot, but a little.

“We needed to make a statement,” said defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand. “We felt like we were disrespected.”

Alabama head coach Nick Saban celebrates after his team won the Sugar Bowl against Clemson. (AP)

Ever since Selection Sunday, Dec. 3, the Tide has heard criticism of their inclusion in the playoff. They didn’t win their division, didn’t win their league, didn’t beat anybody during the regular season, didn’t schedule aggressively enough out of conference, didn’t look like the ‘Bama of old. The players said they weren’t listening, but in reality (of course) they were.

“It’s kind of annoying, to be honest,” said running back Damien Harris. “We felt challenged as men, and we had to do something about it.”

Here’s what they did about it: Prepare with “laser focus.” That was the phrase used by both Hand and receiver Calvin Ridley. Squeaking into the bracket ahead of Big Ten champion Ohio State gave the Tide new life, and they were determined to justify it.

“We didn’t want to take this situation for granted,” linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “We wanted to take advantage of it.”

In order to do so, both Alabama and Georgia got huge plays from the league’s strongest natural resource: Amazingly athletic defensive players. The Bulldogs got their big chance in double OT when 6-foot-6 linebacker Lorenzo Carter soared up to block an Oklahoma field goal and break serve, so to speak. The Tide broke open its game against Clemson with three great plays in the third quarter.

The first was by 308-pound defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne, who grabbed a wobbly pass caused by a hit on Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant by linebacker Anfernee Jennings. Seven plays later, Payne made his second great play. He completed what had to be an unprecedented fat-man flurry by catching a touchdown pass out of the backfield – even tapping his toes like a pachydermal ballerina as he made the catch near the sideline.

The third play effectively ended the game. Alabama cornerback Levi Wallace stuck a hand in to knock a slant pass away from wide receiver Deon Cain, and the deflection landed in the hands of linebacker Mack Wilson. He returned it to the end zone to make the score 24-6, busting through Bryant’s tackle attempt at the goal line.

“I’m not going to let no quarterback stop me,” Wilson said to himself as he neared the end zone.

Alabama certainly stopped that quarterback. Clemson was held to a season-low 188 yards of offense and failed to score a touchdown for the first time since November 2014. A team that ended the regular season riddled with injuries got healthy – and angry – at just the right time.

“Just because we won the game tonight doesn’t mean people didn’t say what they said,” Harris insisted. “At the end of the day, there’s still people who wrote us off after we lost to Auburn.”

People wrote off the Southeastern Conference several times during this season, and even more often during the bowl games. But when the playoff dust settled in Pasadena and New Orleans, the SEC got the last laugh. And the loudest chant.

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