Let's face it. As hard as it is to believe, and even harder to accept in these parts, the SEC has been dethroned.
Oh, it might still be top to bottom the best conference in college football. At the very least, it's second to none. But the league no longer towers above the rest of college football like when Tiger Woods dominated the field in his prime.
The string of seven consecutive national championships was broken last year. But at least Auburn made it to the championship game. This year, the SEC will be spectators as Oregon and Ohio State battle for the title.
But it's not even so much the national championship game as the collective resume. The truth is, the signs were present even before the bowl season. They were present even before that last full weekend of the regular season, when the vaunted SEC got swept by the ACC in four games.
What was the SEC's best non-conference win of the regular season? The list of candidates is slim. The most dominating was Georgia's 45-21 win over Clemson in the season opener. The win over the best opponent would be LSU over Wisconsin, which also came in the opening weekend when the Tigers came back from a 24-7 deficit and won 28-24.
Only three other games are even worth mentioning. Auburn won at Kansas State 20-14. But the Wildcats made tons of mistakes and should have won that game. Alabama beat West Virginia but was not impressive, winning 33-23. Ole Miss beat Boise State 35-13. The Broncos would go on to win the Fiesta Bowl, but they were not nearly as strong early in the season.
Most of the SEC's non-conference opponents -- other than some traditional in-state rivalries -- are weaklings. Only 10 of the 56 non-conference games were against Power Five conference teams. That's typical. The SEC has always maintained the position that the eight-game conference schedule was grueling enough on its own. Adding challenging non-conference opponents would make it overbearing.
Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Kentucky get a little bit of a pass because they have non-conference in-state rivalries against Power Five teams.
But here's the problem. That was fine when the SEC was winning most of these games. But the SEC was 4-6 in those games. None of those wins came after September. One of those losses was particularly embarrassing. Missouri lost to Indiana. At home.
Yet, when the first-ever College Football Playoff rankings were announced in late October, the SEC West had four teams ranked among the top six in the country -- Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss and Alabama. That's four teams from one division ranked ahead of the top teams from two Power Five conferences -- TCU at No. 7 and Michigan State at No. 8.
But one by one, they started stumbling. Ole Miss and Georgia, then Auburn, then Mississippi State.
"Yeah, but they're beating up on each other," people said.
That's true. All of those aforementioned losses were within the conference. But then came that embarrassing final Saturday of November, and all those in-state rivalry games.
Georgia played Georgia Tech at home and lost.
Florida played FSU and lost.
Kentucky played Louisville and lost.
South Carolina played Clemson and got smoked.
Still, SEC defenders wanted to excuse those losses. FSU, Louisville and Clemson clearly had the better teams. Georgia was without Todd Gurley and still came within 18 seconds of pulling out a victory.
OK, well just one problem. They lost. You can't revel in the victories and rationalize the losses.
And that brings us to the SEC West's pitiful bowl performance. The mighty West lost five of seven games. The only two wins came by the bottom two teams, Texas A&M and Arkansas. Some have tried to write this off as something less than embarrassment that it was.
Seeding mismatches, exhaustion, lack of motivation in the bowl games.
If it were the other way around -- and it usually is -- SEC fans would be thumping their chests at the domination.
There's a strange rivalry that has developed in recent years -- the SEC West vs. the East. Fans of the West boast of their superiority. They did win 10 of the 14 regular season meetings this year. Georgia and Missouri had all four of the East's wins. But if you want to talk about matchups, consider that Mississippi State and Ole Miss were 3-0 against the bottom two East teams. South Carolina finished fifth in the East and came within one play of winning at Auburn. Florida lost to LSU on a field goal with three seconds left. So that 10-4 record easily could have been 8-6 -- and that's with the East being saddled with Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
The West was clearly the better division. But the gap was not nearly as it was perceived.
The East went 5-0 in bowl games. Only two of those wins came against teams that finished with more than seven wins -- Georgia over Louisville and Missouri over Minnesota. But the East's wins underscored the true strength of the conference, that being its depth.
But come next year, selection committee members and AP voters aren't going to give the SEC the edge because Tennessee beat Iowa. They will remember how Ole Miss got humiliated by TCU, how Mississippi State got dominated by Georgia Tech, how LSU fell to Notre Dame after the Irish had lost four straight, and how Alabama blew a 21-6 lead to Ohio State and its third-string quarterback.
Denying the facts won't change the perception. The only thing that will is winning games.