Based on preseason prognostications, Auburn, LSU, Florida and Georgia are the teams with the best opportunities in the season that rushes ever closer. But Tennessee or Alabama certainly could have something to say about that. Arkansas and South Carolina have hopes of being legitimate players in the championship race.
So what does it take to make it to the top? Here is one man's opinion, based on years of observation and conversations with coaches and players who have done it:
1. Talent. You don't have to have the most, but you have to have enough. And you have to have playmakers on both sides of the ball. There has to be strength beyond the starting 22. Depth is a critical element on any championship football team. A team with great talent can still be a loser (see Tennessee in 2003), but a team lacking talent has no chance to be a champion.
2. Coaching. It starts, of course, with the head coach. He is the face of the program, the man to whom players look for guidance in the toughest times. He sets the parameters of the program. But what you see on the field on Saturdays probably has more to do with assistants. They are the men putting in the game plans and the men who teach players how to play the game.
3. Chemistry. This might be the most elusive quality of a championship team. Auburn had it in 2004 like few teams I've seen. Players believed in each other and in their coaches. They believed someone would make a play when it mattered most, and someone always did. Coaches can't make that chemistry happen. That has to come from within the team.
4. Injury luck. Lose your starting quarterback for an extended period and you probably lose your shot at a championship. Of course, it doesn't end there. The team that wins it all is usually a team that has kept its key players relatively healthy over the course of the season.
5. Schedule luck. Who do you play? When do you play them? Where do you play them? At this juncture, Auburn appears to have some schedule luck in its favor in the coming season. The Tigers play LSU, Florida, Arkansas and Georgia at home. On the other hand, it's not lucky for Kentucky to drop off the schedule and Florida to come on.
6. The bounce of the ball. Somewhere along the way, in most championship seasons, a game is going to seemingly be decided by fate. There is no better example than Tennessee's national championship run in 1998. Arkansas was running out the clock on a victory in Knoxville when quarterback Clint Stoerner inexplicably dropped the ball. Tennessee recovered and drove for the winning touchdown.
Who among the contenders has the best opportunity of putting enough of those things together to celebrate in Atlanta in December? Anybody can speculate, but speculation is all it is.
Each of the teams mentioned above has numerous question marks. There is no way to know who will find the best answers, who will be the toughest when games are on the line.
Football teams are always works in progress. Who is best on the first Saturday in September won't necessarily be who is best on the first Saturday in December.
That's what makes it fun, and that's why millions eagerly await the arrival of another autumn.