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Conference Challenge: SEC leads the way

ATLANTA -- Autauga (Ala.) Academy tight end O.J. Howard's college choice left him with a tough decision between his childhood favorite and the school that felt like home.
But his conference choice was never in doubt. He knew that as far back as ninth grade.
"If I was going to have the ability to play Division I, it was going to be SEC all the way no matter what," said Howard, a former Auburn fan who committed to Alabama last summer.
Most of the other participants in this weekend's inaugural Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge didn't make up their minds that early, but plenty of them eventually reached the same conclusion.
The two-day event that kicks off Saturday features 17 players already committed to SEC schools. No other conference had more than nine commitments from the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge field.
That shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
The conference that has produced the last six national championships has proved equally dominant on the recruiting trail.
Four of the top five teams in the 2013 Rivals.com recruiting rankings are SEC schools: No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Florida, No. 4 Texas A&M and No. 5 Georgia. The rest of the top 20 includes No. 8 LSU, No. 11 Auburn, No. 12 South Carolina, No. 16 Vanderbilt, No. 18 Missouri and No. 20 Ole Miss. Arkansas and Kentucky are the only SEC teams outside the top 30.
Consider it a case of the rich getting richer.
"I've always been a competitor," said New Orleans (La.) Edna Carr cornerback Noel Ellis, who committed to Texas A&M earlier this month. "I'd like to be in a competitive conference -- and this is the most competitive conference."
The most remarkable thing about the SEC's domination of this event is how much of the league is represented.
For example, 10 participants in the Challenge have committed to Pac-12 schools, but eight of them chose USC. Four of the eight Big Ten commitments here this weekend picked Michigan. All eight of the Challenge participants committed to Big 12 schools chose either Texas or Oklahoma.
But the 17 SEC commitments here this weekend plan to play for nine different conference schools (Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt). Auburn leads the way with four commitments: Lawrenceville (Ga.) Central Gwinnett linebacker Trey Johnson, Alpharetta (Ga.) Milton defensive end Carl Lawson, Muscle Shoals (Ala.) defensive end Dee Liner and Pinson Valley (Ala.) wide receiver Earnest Robinson.
Of course, those committed recruits picked a particular school and not a conference. But many of them said conference affiliation played a major role in their decisions.
"It had to be an SEC school," said Crescent City (Fla.) defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, who committed to Florida in January. "I want to play at the highest level. Basically, I feel if I play in the SEC, I have a shot at the NFL. If I ball out, I can be a first-rounder. Plus, it gets you ready for the NFL because you're playing the next-best thing."
One notable element of the SEC's 2013 recruiting thus far is that it has landed some notable players from well outside its home base. Rivals100 quarterback Cooper Bateman of Salt Lake City (Utah) Cottonwood announced he would enroll at Alabama. LSU received a commitment from Rivals100 quarterback Hayden Rettig of Los Angeles (Calf.) Cathedral.
Neither of those quarterbacks are in Atlanta this weekend. The SEC's Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge contingent instead features southern players who grew up cheering for SEC schools.
Howard is one obvious example. He rooted for Auburn as a kid before ultimately deciding he felt more comfortable at Alabama.
"I grew up watching a lot of football and basically a lot of Auburn, Alabama games," Howard said. "Those guys were tough in the SEC. I watched a lot of other conferences, and they were good and everything, but I felt the SEC was more dominant. You want to play in a conference like that, that gets you ready for the next level."
Batesville (Miss.) South Panola offensive guard Deon Mix also knew immediately he didn't want to play anywhere else. Mix grew up an Alabama fan but committed to Mississippi State.
"It's just the physicality, the way they play and the way the fans are in the SEC," Mix said. "There's nothing like it. I love the SEC."
Now all these guys get a brief jump start on their SEC careers. These next two days will give them an up-close look at many of their future conference rivals.
By the end of the weekend, they'll have a better idea of what aspects of their game they need to improve before they start their college careers.
"It's going to be an opportunity for me to get better," Mix said. "I think it will really make me better, so I know what I need to look for when I'm in college."
Mix is just one of many participants who rank among the nation's best players in their class.
So it's only natural that many of these prospects are headed to the nation's best conference.
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