Two years without a national title doesn’t qualify as a drought, but after seven consecutive years with one, it is beginning to get dusty in SEC country.
An SEC team last won the national title in 2012, and the natural question that springs from that is this: Is the league down? That’s also the wrong question. The correct question is this: Has the league gotten too good? Or, at least, has the SEC West gotten too good?
“It’s a whole lot different when you play in a league where you have to play week-in and week-out and you have to play really strong competition,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “So, you play this kind of schedule throughout the year, then you play in the SEC Championship game, and then you’ve got to go play in the playoff. I think that makes it even more difficult because of the quality of opponents in our league.”
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We last saw Alabama as it was getting thumped by eventual national champion Ohio State in a national semifinal game. The Buckeyes were the Crimson Tide’s fifth ranked opponent in its final six games. During that stretch, Alabama played No. 14 LSU, No. 1 Mississippi State, No. 15 Auburn, No. 14 Missouri and then the No. 5 Buckeyes. Throw in No. 11 Ole Miss and No. 21 Texas A&M earlier in the year and that’s seven ranked opponents for the season.
“When I was at Wisconsin, in three or four of our best years, we may play three or four opponents ranked in the Top 25, and the next week are playing some team that is two and whatever,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said.
The weekly grind of the SEC is about the only thing that separates it from the rest of college football, almost all its coaches agree. While Ohio State clearly was the best team in college football at the end of last season, Bielema argued this week that playing in the Big Ten was no comparison to what he faces in the SEC.
In some games, “you literally knew as a coach, ‘OK, let’s get out and play good football in the first half and then we’ll start subbing guys,’” he said. “All those people who want to talk about playing nine conference games, I invite them to play eight in the SEC. It’s truly a ride unlike anything else I have ever seen.”
The dramatic rise of Mississippi State and Ole Miss last year made the West even tougher, and by the time the season was winding down, the division’s teams were either A. worn out or B. just plain overrated. The Bulldogs lost 49-34 to Georgia Tech; the Rebels were trounced 42-3 by TCU, and LSU fell 31-28 to Notre Dame.
“The banner that the SEC carries, certainly, you are going to get the best shot against really good football teams,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “I’ve said it before, I think the margin in our league compared to others on a given Saturday is probably not that much, but over the course of a season in this grind that we are in is what we all say is what makes our league what it is, that’s the best in football. That doesn’t mean on any given Saturday there aren’t others that can do that and go beat you, they’ve shown that. I think it’s more ... to have to do it 10 weeks in a row is tough.”
The league that once happily touted its string of national titles now is falling back on its depth.
“I think the league is in better shape than it’s ever been from a football standpoint, because there’s more really good teams,” Saban said. “Now, if you use the barometer that winning a championship is the only barometer for the league, then I guess you would have an argument against that.”
The winner in all this at the moment is the SEC East. If the East champion, who doesn’t have to survive nearly the slog the West champion does, can beat a weary West champ in Atlanta in December, it should be good enough for a spot in the CFB Playoff.
ATHLON TOP 25
Athlon Sports has a high regard for the SEC’s strength in 2015. A record nine SEC teams are included in its preseason Top 25.
1. Ohio State
9. Florida State
11. OLE MISS
12. Notre Dame
13. Arizona State
18. Georgia Tech
21. MISS. STATE
25. Boise State