LSU isn't any faster than Ohio State. Why does everyone insist otherwise?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Jan. 4 2008 10:46 AM

The Southern Speed Myth

LSU isn't any faster than Ohio State. Why does everyone insist otherwise?

Ohio State will face LSU on Monday night in college football's BCS Championship game. This is the second consecutive visit to the BCS title game for the Buckeyes, with both games coming against SEC teams. The Buckeyes' loss to Florida by a 27-point margin in last year's title game, which extended the team's losing streak against SEC teams in bowl games to eight, had many commentators arguing that the Southerners had superior speed. In 2002, after Miami trounced Nebraska 37-14, Jonathan Chait explained why this geographical speed gap is (mostly) a myth. The article is reprinted below.

If you watched any 2-minute span of the Rose Bowl last week, you probably heard a TV commentator rhapsodizing about Miami's superior speed. "There's no question right now," declared color man Tim Brant, echoing his theme of the evening, "the difference in this ballgame is pure speed." Indeed, the sports media made this the lesson not only of the Rose Bowl but of the entire bowl season. The notion has been afoot for several years that college football teams from the North are usually too slow to compete with teams from the South—or, as ESPN commentator Lee Corso calls the region, "the speed states." This season, with Southern schools beating Northern opponents in several high-profile games—the SEC won all three matchups against the Big 10—the idea seems to have been vindicated.

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The operating theory here isn't the familiar idea that blacks run faster than whites—Northern teams have about the same racial composition as Southern teams—but that the South in general, and Florida in particular, is faster than the North. To those who don't follow college football, the idea that there is such a thing as "speed states" may sound nothing short of bizarre. I, for instance, hail from a "slow" Northern state, yet I've spent plenty of time in Florida, and in my time there I failed to detect any pattern of pedestrians striding past me on the sidewalk or whizzing by as I jog along the beach. There's no historical record of Confederate troops using superior speed to outflank their plodding Union foes during the Civil War. College football fans, though, take it as an article of faith. Often the argument takes on quasi-genetic undertones. "Northern kids, by and large, can't run with kids from Florida," writes Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon.

Like many myths, this one contains a bit of truth. Southern teams play outside their region only during two parts of the year: in September nonconference games, and in the bowls. Since the former take place when it's warm everywhere, and the latter almost always take place in a warm-weather climate, that means Southern college football teams, unlike their NFL counterparts, never play in cold weather. As a result, many of them play a more wide-open, pass-oriented style than Northern teams, which need players and systems that can succeed in the snow as well as in the sun. So, while the Southern style of football certainly looks faster, that doesn't mean that the players actually run faster. After all, the few Northern teams that run wide-open spread offenses—such as Purdue and Northwestern—look fast, too.

Southern teams and their fans have perpetuated the myth by making a fetish of their recruits' dazzling 40-yard dash times—which have become as much a part of the culture of hard-core college football fans as batting averages are to baseball fans. But the 40-yard dash times reported by players and coaches, alas, are notoriously unreliable, since both have an incentive to exaggerate. The only objective measure available for college athletes is the electronic timing performed by pro scouts at the NFL Draft Combine. Casey Calder, an Internet college football analyst, compared the times of skill position players from Northern schools versus those who played in the South. He found that wide receivers from Northern schools actually outran their Southern counterparts: The Northerners, on average, ran the 40 in 4.502 seconds, while the Southerners ran it in 4.548. Southern and Northern cornerbacks finished in a virtual dead heat, 4.535 to 4.555, respectively.

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