The claim shouldn’t be a surprise, and almost two decades of dominance in the BCS era still makes the assertion hard to completely dispute.
Most know or wouldn’t be shocked by the numbers — at least a share of nine national titles from the beginning to the end of the BCS era, including seven straight from 2006-2012; since 2002, an SEC program was ranked in the top five of Scout's team recruiting rankings on 33 different occasions; in the last 10 NFL drafts, 86 players from the SEC were selected in the first round, the most of any league over that period.
Yet, the resonating sentiment by national pundits in the offseason was the rest of country may have finally caught up to the Goliaths of the sport. A two year drought without a national title wouldn’t be long for most conferences. But for the SEC, it seems like an eternity, and the birth of a four-team College Football Playoff has accentuated the pressure to rebound.
"I think from a national perception standpoint there's a ton to prove for the SEC this season,” said LSU and SEC writer Ben Love from Scout. “It's one thing to let a national championship or two go to programs from outside the conference. That seven-year run felt impossible as it was, and it's understandable talented teams elsewhere will have landmark years.”
Despite the SEC’s lofty billing, the parity between the divisions, and even the teams within divisions, has been lacking.
The SEC West has secured the last six conference championships with Alabama and Auburn representing five of the last six winners. Missouri, one of the two newest members to the league, has won the SEC East the past two years but were blown out in each championship game. Florida has been up-and-down since the last time it appeared in the SEC title game with a low point coming in 2013. Despite usual high expectations, Georgia hasn’t won the league since 2005, and South Carolina has only appeared in one SEC championship game since Steve Spurrier took over.
The rest of the division hasn’t sustained long-term success in recent memory to really be in the discussion.
For Tennessee coach Butch Jones — who commands a program many believe is on the rise — understanding the strength of the division, or conference as a whole, only makes sense once you’re in it.
“When you look at it, all the demands from media to great passionate fan bases,” Jones said at SEC Media Days. “Every time you go on the road, you're playing in a hostile environment. The commitment by administrations across the board. You can just get a new facility built, and in a year it's outdated. So the vision that's in this conference, I don't. I think we've proven ourselves over a long, lengthy period of time, and it's a body of work, and I think it's a grind each and every day.”
The West, on the other hand, proved to be more fallible than once believed against non-conference foes in the 2014 bowl season.
Mississippi State and Ole Miss had historically positive seasons last year, but both suffered double digit losses in their respective bowl games. LSU fell to Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl, finishing the season 8-5, which was tied for the worst record in the Les Miles era. Auburn appeared to be a contender for back-to-back SEC West crowns early on but floundered at the end of the season, dropping the Outback Bowl to Wisconsin, the same team that took a 59-point beatdown to Ohio State in the Big 10 championship.
Texas A&M and Arkansas finished on high notes in the postseason but neither were in contention for anything beyond a respectable bowl by late October.
Then, there’s Alabama, the seemingly unbreakable dynasty, which is now 0-for-2 in its last two trips to the postseason. Tide coach Nick Saban cried of a possible NFL draft-grade distraction for his players leading up to the playoff semifinals, but most felt it was sour-grapes excuse for his team faltering to the eventual national champions.
“I felt we were as focused as we ever could be,” said Alabama running back Kenyan Drake, who did not play in the semifinal due to a broken leg earlier in the season. “Saban saw to that. I just think Saban sees more things than I may have because he’s specifically in the situation. But Ohio State was a formidable opponent, and they did there job to beat us. We should have came with better effort.”
All of this talk about the SEC being on the downside of its reign over the nation may be much ado about nothing. Eight league schools are ranked in the first AP Top-25 poll, not surprisingly the most of any conference. It would be hard to imagine a scenario in which the conference winner wouldn’t have a reserved seat in this season’s playoff.
But if the unthinkable happen — the SEC missing out on the playoffs — or another poor showing in bowl season, the overrated chant would reach a fever pitch by January 2016. That might be difficult to ignore when the 2016 preseason polls come out.
"I believe many outside the Southeast are starting to wonder about that wide gap they've been told about for so many years between the SEC and other conferences,” Love said. “Truth be told, the gap is narrowing. Combine that with a brutal Western division that will cannibalize itself this fall, and the SEC has to improve a bit of an image problem in an interesting season to try and do that."