It depends, of course on whom you ask and how you define "best." You'd probably have to start with Florida and Tennessee, perennial Top 20 teams which are nearly always near the top of the SEC East. And you'd better not omit Georgia, which has been strong the last four years under Mark Richt.
On the West side you've got LSU, which won a national championship two years ago, and Auburn, which went undefeated last year. And it would be impossible to leave out Alabama; though the Crimson Tide has had its down years recently, it still has that unparalleled tradition. (Plus Sports Illustrated this week says "The Tide is back.")
Approximately 20 years ago, then-LSU Athletics Director Joe Dean made a statement about the league's "haves" and "have-nots." By the "haves", he meant the programs that possess enormous stadiums, nationwide fan bases, and most importantly a long winning tradition. In other words, schools like Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, Alabama and Auburn.
You might think that over the past 20 years that things would have changed. Perhaps one of those "haves" might have fallen upon hard times, or that one of the league's "have-nots" might have made a good run. You might think that, but you'd be wrong.
Mississippi State put together some good teams under Jackie Sherrill in the late 1990's and slipped into the SEC Championship Game one year, but has since slid back into the pits. Ole Miss had a memorable year two years ago when Eli Manning was a senior, but the Rebels under Ed Orgeron don't appear to be ready to make much noise anytime soon.
Kentucky and Vanderbilt? Neither has come close to winning an SEC East championship in the divisional era. Vanderbilt hasn't had a winning record since 1982, and Kentucky, despite an impressive stadium and good fan support, can't seem to pull itself out of the doldrums.
Arkansas and South Carolina, the relative newcomers to the league, both brought impressive tradition, stadiums and fan bases with them when they joined the league in 1992. Both have had their moments in the last 13 seasons... but neither has been able to consistently challenge the Big Six.
How dominant have the Big Six been? Of the last 27 SEC titles, all 27 have been won by members of the Big Six. Since the divisional split in 1992, in the 13 SEC Championship Games played, only twice has a member of the Little Six earned a berth (Mississippi State in 1998, Arkansas in 2002).
Take a look at this week's AP and USA Today polls. Six SEC teams are ranked. Guess which six.
Take a look at the recruiting rankings for any given year. All of the Big Six will be among the national Top 25... every year. Without fail. Seldom will any of the Little Six make it.
The have-nots, of course, all desperately want to join the haves. The haves, which are more concerned about beating each other and winning championships, are striving to insure that never happens. No "have" ever wants to revert to "have-not" status.
Among the top six schools in the conference, there is parity-- over the last seven seasons, each of the six has won an SEC title. Where there is little parity, it seems, is between the top six and the bottom six.
What's the difference between the Big Six and the Little Six? Essentially this... the Big Six may have down periods, but you always know eventually they're going to re-establish themselves (see Alabama this year).
Members of the Little Six, on the other hand, may flourish temporarily... Ole Miss may have a Cotton Bowl season in Eli Manning's senior year, for example, or South Carolina may have a couple of 8-win seasons under Lou Holtz... but eventually you know they're going to come crashing back to earth.
All of which brings us to tonight's ESPN2-televised matchup between No. 11 LSU (2-1, 1-1 SEC) and Vanderbilt (4-1, 2-0).
The Commodores will be attempting to do something they haven't done since 1994, i.e., win a game against one of the league's top six powers. In the last 11 seasons, Vanderbilt has an astonishing record of 0-45 against the Big Six.
Vanderbilt has had some SEC wins in that time period, some glorious ones in fact. It's beaten Ole Miss in Oxford. It's beaten South Carolina twice, Kentucky three times. Earlier this year, the Dores upset Arkansas on the road. But no wins against the Big Six.
The last win over one of the Big Six came in 1994, when a gallant Vanderbilt team marched into Sanford Stadium and silenced the Georgia faithful. Since then, it's been 47 straight losses to the SEC's half-dozen bullies.
I'd say it's high time for Vandy to win another one, wouldn't you? In this season's remaining six contests, Bobby Johnson's resurgent Commodores face four of the Big Six-- LSU, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, all of which, naturally, are nationally ranked.
In spite of Vandy's loss to MTSU last week, the Commodores can still attain the six-win bowl-eligibility threshold without besting a member of the Big Six. Looking down the schedule, VU's best remaining opportunities for victories come against South Carolina (on the road) and Kentucky (at home).
But Vandy fans would do well to remember, six wins doesn't guarantee a bowl, and the end-of-the-season resume would look tremendously better if it included a win over one of the SEC's Prestigious Six.
Thus is the challenge Vanderbilt faces today vs. Les Miles' Bayou Bengals. The Commodores shocked the college football world earlier by convincingly winning their first two SEC games-- but winning against a member of the Big Six is something altogether different. To do so, they must pit themselves against history, conventional wisdom, pundits, and whatever insecurities might still be lingering after the MTSU debacle.
It's like this: to earn real respect in the SEC, you must eventually beat one of the Big Six. You must somehow subvert the SEC's established caste system.
It might be time tonight to pull out all the stops.
Vanderbilt's remaining football schedule
Oct. 8 LSU 6 pm (ESPN2)
Oct. 15 Georgia 1 pm *
Oct. 22 at South Carolina TBA
Nov. 5 at Florida TBA
Nov. 12 Kentucky 1 pm *
Nov. 19 at Tennessee TBA
* Times subject to change