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Big Ten beating SEC

Did you hear the one about Ohio State drawing nearly 100,000 people for a football scrimmage?

No, seriously. There is no punch line. The Buckeyes packed 99,391 fans into Ohio Stadium Saturday for their annual spring game, an all-time college football record for spring games.

That's only supposed to happen within the confines of the SEC, which could stage an extended recruiting conversation in most of its schools' stadiums and still draw a crowd of thousands.

But 100,000 people for a spring game, when many of the marquee players were either being held out for injury concerns or playing only a fraction of the time?

Announced attendance at Ohio State's spring game was 99,391, setting a national spring game record. Greg Bartram/USA TODAY Sports

That's pretty heady stuff.

It's not just the defending national champion Buckeyes, either. The top three spring game crowds this year all belong to Big Ten teams. Nebraska announced a crowd of 76,881 and Penn State a crowd of 68,000. Michigan was way up there, too, with a crowd of 60,000.

Meanwhile, Alabama had a  turnout of "only"  65,175 last week for its spring game. The Tide raked in crowds of more than 90,000 in 2007, 2010 and 2011. Auburn had 62,143 at its spring game.

Enough with the sarcasm. For two glorified scrimmages in the same state on the same day — with rain in the forecast at both places — those are impressive numbers.

But who else finds it interesting that the Big Ten seems to be out-SECing the SEC in a number of areas lately? First there was Ohio State taking out Alabama on the field in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Then there were the spring game crowds. And now Big Ten coaches are taking advantage of NCAA loopholes to gain an edge in recruiting.

Urban Meyer knows a thing or two about how they roll in the SEC. He won a pair of national championships at Florida in 2006 and 2008. He won another one last season at Ohio State and hasn't been shy about wandering into the SEC's footprint to lure top players to the Horseshoe.

Guys like Joey Bosa (Fort Lauderdale, Florida), Vonn Bell (Rossville, Georgia) and Raekwon McMillan (Hinesville, Georgia) come to mind, while 2015 ESPN 300 signees Torrance Gibson (Plantation, Florida) and K.J. Hill (North Little Rock, Arkansas) also fit that bill. And he's just getting started with the 2016 and 2017 classes.

Meyer shook it up in the Big Ten when he arrived in 2012 by going after players already committed to other Big Ten schools. He had the audacity to violate the so-called gentlemen's agreement in the Big Ten that players already committed are off-limits to other Big Ten schools.

Two words you'll rarely hear in the same sentence in the SEC are "gentlemen" and "recruiting."

And with Jim Harbaugh now at Michigan, not to mention James Franklin starting his second season at Penn State, look for the Big Ten to turn up the heat on its scorched-earth recruiting practices.

It started when Ohio State took down Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, and the Big Ten has been rolling on and off the field ever since. John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports

The latest example of this has Big Ten coaches working at "satellite camps" all over the country. (NCAA bylaws state that football programs must host camps either on their campus, inside their state or within 50 miles of campus if it happens to be out of state. However, there's a loophole that allows coaches to "guest coach" at another school's camps in order to get outside that 50-mile radius.) If you haven't heard, this isn't sitting too well with certain SEC coaches, who are banned by conference rules from doing likewise. 

You have to give it to the Big Ten coaches for being creative. Franklin, who ruffled a few feathers in the SEC while leading Vanderbilt to unprecedented back-to-back nine-win seasons, started the ball rolling last year with the satellite camps by going into Florida and Georgia as a guest. He's doing the same thing this year with stops in Georgia and North Carolina among other places.

Harbaugh even has a catchy name for his traveling show — the Football Summer Swarm Tour — and one of the nine stops will be in Prattville, Alabama.

Alabama coach Nick Saban's reaction was what you might expect. He said it was "ridiculous" that coaches weren't allowed to go to all-star games, but could go to satellite camps "all over the country."

Translation: It's a huge competitive disadvantage for the SEC.

The ironic thing is Saban has been as clever as anybody when it comes to being a step or two ahead of recruiting rules. He's the same guy who set up video conferences with recruits when head coaches were taken off the road recruiting during the May evaluation period several years ago.

Whether the loophole with the satellite camps will ever be closed, the bottom line is this: The Big Ten isn't sitting back, not with Meyer, Harbaugh and Franklin playing for keeps. In many ways, they're copying the SEC model and using it against the conference everybody loves to hate.

The SEC better be ready to fight back, and fight hard, or it just may get beat at its own game.

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