The back-to-back mythical championship runs by Florida Alabame over the last two years have been first-rate fodder for S-E-C! fans who relish beating their chests over the conference's perceived superiority, but they haven't been as kind to perceptions of its once-vaunted depth. For years, it was just too tough to make it out of the SEC meat grinder unscathed, but as ESPN's Chris Low pointed out Tuesday, the Gators and Tide are 31-1 against the rest of the conference over the last two years, with no end to their dominance in sight: Alabama remains the overwhelming favorite to repeat as BCS champion in January, while Florida is emerging again as the likely frontrunner for the third year in a row in a meh-looking East Division.
Another Gator-Tide showdown in Atlanta looks again like the inevitable conclusion from the preseason prognostoscenti, and it's hard to argue otherwise on paper, even if the "duopoly" at the top stands to further erode the league's formerly prized reputation for extreme parity – already at a low ebb after a pair of division races in '09 that were more or less foregone conclusions by midseason. If it's going to be anyone other than Florida and Alabama in the Georgia Dome this winter, the revolution is going to come from some conflagration of the following avenues:
• Eleven. That's the number of players drafted from the Gator and Tide defenses alone, both of which were decimated beyond recognition: Only one full-time starter will be back at Alabama (safety Mark Barron), and Florida's defensive departures included four of the top five tacklers, the top two pass rushers and all four of its All-SEC picks.
Before the comment section fills with visions of upcoming blue-chips instantly recreating the heights of the two most dominating units in the country, sit the noobs down for a lecture on the 2007 Florida D, another exceptionally talented unit with a horde of hyped new starters taking the reins from a stacked lineup that had finished in the top 10 nationally in every major category en route to a national championship in 2006. The baby Gators were torched by decent offenses – 28 points to LSU, 37 to Kentucky, 42 to Georgia, 41 to Michigan – and ultimately sandbagged the highest-scoring SEC offense of the last decade to the tune of four losses, all but one as a significant favorite. That group (Joe Haden, Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham, Major Wright, et al.) quickly grew into the powerhouse D that crushed the rest of the conference under its heel throughout the '08-09 run, but the lesson stands for the new wavers this fall: Wholesale departures from a dominant unit in one fell swoop almost always spell doom in the short-term. Whether "doom" amounts to one critical loss or four, untenably young is untenably young.
• Ryan Mallett. There won't be the kind of uproar if Mallett somehow isn't a unanimous pick for the preseason All-SEC team this summer that there was when Steve Spurrier accidentally snubbed Tim Tebow last year, but maybe there should be, given the distance between Mallett, an overwhelming favorite to go in the first round of the next April's draft, and every other passer in the league going into the season. Bobby Petrino opened up the offense in '09 to exploit Mallett's weapons-grade arm, dialing up at least one 50-yard strike in eight different games; exactly half of Mallett's 30 touchdown passes covered at least 25 yards, to eight different receivers. The Razorbacks came closer than anyone until Alabama to knocking off Florida, return almost everyone who touched the ball on the league's highest-scoring offense and get Alabama in Fayetteville, an intriguing enough formula to make them the conference's most obvious darkhorse.
• Gus Malzahn, armed. We have no idea what kind of quarterback Cam Newton is going to be for Auburn, but we know that kind of quarterback he can be, physically, and that potential is far beyond anything Malzahn has had at his disposal since he coached Mitch Mustain to five-star status back at Springdale High. Since leaving Arkansas in 2006, Malzahn has orchestrated a pair of chart-topping offenses at Tulsa and revived Auburn's moribund attack with the like of Paul Smith, David Johnson and Chris Todd as his starting quarterbacks, which is like making filet mignon out of squirrel meat. With a Grade A talent in Newton, the Tigers can be a threat to explode every time they take the field – if not consistently enough to take the West Division themselves, then at least enough to play high-octane spoiler to the young Tide D on Nov. 26.
• Houston Nutt, under the radar. Quarterback Jevan Snead's ill-fated decision to give up his senior year didn't help, but Ole Miss was unlikely to make any preseason noise, anyway, after last year's relatively stacked lineup fell short of (possibly exaggerated) expectations. But Nutt has always been at his best as a snake in the grass: His division winners at Arkansas in
1995, 2002 and 2006 were completely out of the blue off mediocre seasons, as was the Razorbacks' 8-0 start and late venture into the top 10 in 1998 and the 9-4 breakthrough at Ole Miss in 2008. On top of the Rebels' upsets at Florida and LSU that year, Nutt has stunners over Tennessee, Texas and LSU to confirm his rep as a season killer, waiting this time to strike at Alabama off a bye week on Oct. 16.
• Regularly scheduled chaos. Since Florida's run of dominance in the mid-nineties, all bids for extended dominance have been rejected with a consistency and gusto no other conference can match: There still hasn't been a repeat SEC champion since Tennessee in 1997-98, and before 'Bama and Florida the last two years, there hadn't been a repeat division champ since Georgia in 2002-03. (If you count undefeated Auburn as the real division champ in 1993, there had never been a repeat winner out of the West before the Tide in 2008-09.) No one stays on top here for long, especially when they've just lost a mountain of veteran talent on the order of the hauls transitioning from Tuscaloosa and Gainesville for the NFL as we speak.
Specifically, Georgia and LSU can still roughly match Florida and Alabama for raw talent, and are only a couple upses from turning the prevailing order on its head in exactly the same way Tennessee did in 1998, and LSU did in 2001, and Georgia did in 2002, and Alabama did in 2008, all to the complete surprise of preseason assumptions. It may be another two years before the current "Big Two" are this vulnerable again; if the SEC slate is still the relentless gauntlet everyone says it is, this would be a nice time for the rest of the conference to prove it.