Longtime readers know I bristle at the (frequently self-proclaimed) assumption of SEC dominance in college football, though after six consecutive BCS championships, holding on to that skepticism usually leaves me feeling like Henry Fonda at the beginning of "12 Angry Men." All the evidence points to the same conclusion, except where it doesn't.
But the narrative left the "critical" phase in the dust a long time ago. Even Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has seen fit to concede on-field superiority to the SEC the last two years, despite his league's perfectly respectable record head-to-head. (Aside from Ohio State's back-to-back flops in the 2007-08 championship games, Big Ten teams have won nine games against SEC foes and lost ten since the beginning of the SEC's championship run in 2006, and have won at least one January bowl game against the SEC all six years.) At this point, it's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy: Why are there two SEC teams in the championship game? Because the SEC is so good! Why does everyone assume the SEC is so good? Well, what other conference could put two teams in the championship game?
The answer, of course, is that none of them could; they don't have the reputation. And though the SEC skeptics may lament, say, the arbitrary exclusion of Oklahoma State in favor of Alabama… or the fact that the 2007 and 2008 championships claimed by LSU and Florida, respectively, could have both been reasonably split at least four different ways… or that Alabama got an impotent zombie version of Texas after Colt McCoy's early shoulder injury in 2009… it's blindingly obvious that that only one thing can reverse the tidal wave of opinion: Someone else to win the BCS Championship Game. It may not be the best way to measure conference superiority — in fact, considering it's just one team among a dozen, playing in just one game among hundreds, it's probably one of the worst — but it's obviously the only one anyone seems to care about.
That assumption may hold just as true whether an SEC team actually loses the championship game or not. In 2012, the end of the reign is just as likely to come from within the conference from without. LSU may be the consensus favorite to top the preseason polls this summer, but the Tigers are facing a new starting quarterback and a significant exodus of talent to the NFL. Between them, LSU and Alabama will somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen players taken in April's draft, the vast majority of them in the first two rounds. Arkansas is replacing virtually its entire receiving corps and the better half of its already-mediocre defense. South Carolina has no passing game; Georgia has lost nine straight against teams that finished in the final polls. Auburn and Florida and both starting over with new coordinators and no notable stars on either side of the ball.
Along with newcomers Missouri and Texas A&M, that may well add up to better depth than the conference has boasted in years. But there is no team — even LSU, undisputed king of the "pre-preseason" polls — that looks invulnerable or destined to run the table. At some point, the carousel of powerhouses must give way to parity, and this may be the year that the SEC goes back to eating its own.
If it's not, the contenders from outside the conference aren't necessarily any more inspiring, with the possible exception of USC and golden boy quarterback Matt Barkley, the likes of whom no SEC defense faced in 2011 and probably will not face in 2012 unless one of them draws the Trojans in the championship game. Oregon has dynamic playmakers but is also replacing a key veteran in every position group. Oklahoma was ravaged on defense. Boise State, Oklahoma State and Stanford are nowhere to be found in the national discussion after losing their prolific quarterbacks and the cores of the greatest multi-year runs in their respective histories. Ohio State may be back as the best team in the Big Ten, but it's ineligible for anything that might make it official. Florida State is… well, Florida State.
One way or another, someone in that group is going to emerge as the next challenger to the throne by next winter, at which point conference affiliation will be utterly irrelevant (as always) to which side actually takes home the title with the better game in Miami on Jan. 7. It will mean everything, however, to the ongoing, chest-thumping narrative of SEC superiority. Until then, the beat is only going to keep getting louder.