For seven consecutive years, the Southeastern Conference finished the season on top of the college football world. However, the last two seasons have ended with the SEC in unfamiliar territory. Auburn and Alabama had chances to win national championships in 2013 and 2014, respectively, but both came up short.
Is the SEC’s failure to capture the crown the last two years an anomaly, or will it prove to be a trend?
2014 national champion Ohio State returns nearly everyone and is the favorite to win it again this year. TCU, who obliterated Ole Miss 41-3 in the Peach Bowl, is also among the national title favorites. It’s expected that either Auburn or Alabama will be in the playoff field, but as of now neither team would be favored against the Buckeyes.
Last year marked the first time since 2005 that a team from the SEC failed to at least make an appearance in the national title game. In 2006, Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators started the SEC’s championship streak with a win in the national title game over Ohio State. Now Meyer is coaching at Ohio State and has built the Buckeyes the same way he built the Gators nearly a decade ago. Plus, at Ohio State, Meyer basically has an SEC team competing against a Big 10 schedule.
During the SEC’s remarkable run, the depth of the conference has been one of its most noticeable attributes. In most years, the league has had several teams that were in championship contention throughout the season. Other conferences, such as the Pac-12 and Big 12, are starting to catch up to the SEC in terms of conference depth.
In the last few years, Oregon has been the only consistent threat from the Pac-12. USC is expected to rejoin the national title conversations this year, however, and UCLA will also be a threat. The Big 12 has two teams that can play with anyone in the country in TCU and Baylor. The ACC isn’t nearly as strong as the SEC from top to bottom, but it did have the advantage over the SEC in several games late last season.
The playoff system might hurt the SEC slightly as long as it stays in the four-team format. If there wasn’t a playoff last year, Alabama would have met either Oregon or Florida State in the championship game, and I think the Crimson Tide would’ve beaten either team. Instead, ‘Bama played Ohio State, and the Buckeyes were the best team in the country despite being the fourth overall seed.
In a four-team playoff, it all depends on matchups. Last year, Alabama was better than the two and three seeds, but not the fourth seed. And if the playoff field expands to eight teams – and I think this will happen in the future – it becomes even more of a toss up. Winning two or three playoff games is obviously much more challenging than the old format where a team only prepares for one other team.
I’m not suggesting the SEC will just suddenly fade into obscurity. The conference still has some of the nation’s best coaches, best facilities and best recruiting classes. In the 2015 season, the SEC has at least two teams in Alabama and Auburn that can win the national championship, and perhaps a few more that have the potential to make the playoffs.
However, the gap between the SEC and other conferences has narrowed considerably. Other conferences are capable of having two or three representatives that can win the national title. Coaches and facilities have also improved in other conferences. The playoff format also gives other conferences a better chance of winning championships each season.
The SEC still might be the best overall conference in football, but don’t expect national titles every season. College football is evolving, and a two-year stretch without a championship doesn’t mean the SEC is going away forever.
Maybe the SEC’s dominant run isn’t over, and a team from the SEC will win the national title this year.
But for the first time in several years, the conference actually has something to prove going into the season.