SEC even tougher than usual

Florida had the best team in college football. LSU had a top-five team featuring four first-round NFL Draft picks. Auburn had an 11-win season and Arkansas had the best tailback tandem in America, college OR professional.

All told, eight of the 12 Southeastern Conference football teams won at least eight games last fall. Moreover, perennial doormat Kentucky notched a bowl win.

As good as SEC football was in 2006, however, the league is going to be even better in 2007. At least, that's the contention of Stewart Mandel. In a recent "Mailbag" column for, he was asked to rate the Div. 1 conferences. Mandel replied that the SEC is better than last year. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest the SEC of '07 could be better than any league in the recorded history of college football.

To wit:

1) SEC: Simply put, this year's SEC could be the toughest conference in history. I'm not exaggerating. It's extremely rare for a league to not only boast so many quality teams at the top (LSU, Florida, Auburn, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee) but also so little dead weight at the bottom. Really, it's just Mississippi State. You've got two former national championship coaches, Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban, leading what may be only the seventh- or eighth-best teams in the league. Kentucky won eight games last year. And Vandy is no longer a gimme (just ask Georgia). It's a perfect storm for the SEC right now with so many accomplished coaches, so much elite talent and so many returning veterans all at once."

Mandel ranks the Pac-10 No. 2 among conferences, noting that California – which hosts Tennessee in the Sept. 1 opener – is "loaded on offense yet again." No. 3 is the Big Ten, which Mandel says could feature three top-10 programs in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State.

The Big East and Big 12 round out Mandel's top five. Next come the Atlantic Coast, Mountain West, Western Athletic, Conference USA and the Mid-Atlantic, with the Sun Belt bringing up the rear.

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