July 19, 2010
Introducing the Doc's SEC Week.
SEC fans will never tire of reminding everyone else that SEC teams have taken four straight BCS championships, and that it's overwhelmingly favored to make it five in a row come January. To the extent that it's perceived as the premiere football conference in the nation, though, that exalted status probably hinges less on the dominance at the top of the polls than the sheer number of teams that have enjoyed it: Five different SEC programs have finished No. 1 or No. 2 in the year-end Associated Press poll since 2004, including LSU and Georgia, which finished No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in 2007. Alabama and Florida nearly matched that last year by finishing first and third.
The "murderer's row" mentality in the SEC has always depended on the sense of extreme parity and turnover at the top. The league hasn't had a repeat champion in the BCS era (Tennessee was the last to turn the trick, in 1997-98), and before Alabama and Florida the last two years, hadn't featured a rematch in the conference championship game since Gene Stallings' Tide met Steve Spurrier's Gators three years in a row from 1992-94. In fact, if you count undefeated Auburn as the SEC West champ in 1993 (the probation-wracked Tigers were technically ineligible for the title), there had never been a back-to-back champion out of the West before Alabama won it the last two years.
Compare that to the turnover at the top of the other marquee conferences: The Big Ten championship has gone to either Ohio State or Penn State each of the last five years; Oklahoma and Texas have divvied up the last six titles in the Big 12; and USC ruled the Pac-10 with an iron fist for seven straight seasons before finally giving way last year. (Of course, the Trojans are a strong favorite to return to the top this fall.) Virginia Tech, even when not taking the ACC championship, has finished as the conference's highest-ranked team in the final polls in five of the six seasons since it defected from the Big East in 2004. (The Hokies finished one spot behind conference champ Wake Forest in 2006, despite handling the Demon Deacons by three touchdowns in the regular season.)
That kind of uninterrupted run had been unthinkable in the SEC since Tennessee ended Florida's streak of five straight championships in 1998. But the reality going into 2010 is that Alabama and Florida are 31-1 against the rest of the conference over the last two years, and literally every preseason magazine and poll in the country expects the Tide-Gator duopoly to be renewed for a third season.
Unlike last year, those assumptions aren't based on the most overwhelming collections of talent since the first two Godfathers. These are lineups wracked by attrition: Florida lost a staggering nine starters to the draft, seven of them (including the most prolific force-of-nature quarterback in SEC history) in the first three rounds; Alabama bid sayonara to 10 regular starters from the best defense in the country, four of whom went in the draft's first two rounds. As touted as their replacements may be, that kind of exodus is precisely the kind of red flag that usually signals an imminent (if temporary) decline. And in the SEC, it means pundits will take the opportunity to tout another, equally blue-chip-laden outfit with fewer question marks.
But for once, there aren't any equally talented outfits: Even the momentarily weakened, "reloading" editions of the Gators and Tide are more attractive than the alternatives. Actually, they're far more attractive. Three years removed from finishing in the top two spots nationally, LSU and Georgia are both trying to ward off ever-encroaching "hot seat" chatter after back-to-back disappointments. Tennessee is in an unprecedented state of disarray on almost every level. High-flying Arkansas remains saddled with the league's worst defense. Auburn, for all of its optimism going into the year, is still 5-11 in SEC games over the last two. South Carolina is, well, South Carolina.
The short answer to question in the headline is obviously "Nick Saban and Urban Meyer happened." But their success doesn't explain the decline in the competition at LSU and Georgia over the last three years, to say nothing of the turmoil that's helped undercut Auburn and Tennessee.
As wide as the gap between the top and the rest of the conference was last year – the highest-ranked team behind Alabama and Florida in the final AP poll was LSU at No. 17, the first time the SEC failed to put at least four teams in the top 15 since 2002 – there's no indication it's going to significantly narrow this fall. If somehow it does, given the advance hype for the Tide and Gators as prime national contenders again, it will probably be hailed as yet more evidence of the depth and top-to-bottom strength of the entire conference. Really, it's more likely to be a case of the league heavies falling back to the pack. And this year, that looks like a longer, harder fall that's been in these parts in many, many years.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.