13 for '13: SEC swagger at high tide
Alabama will be heavily favored to extend its streak to three straight national championships this fall, and eight straight for the conference. Ending the narrative of Southern dominance begins and ends with turning the tide in the championship game.
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Alabama is aiming for an unprecedented third straight national championship. (US Presswire)
First of all, lower your defenses. Your ammunition will do you no good here. Seven years into the SEC's reign over the BCS Championship Game, protests against the narrative of ongoing Southern dominance in college football will only fall on deaf ears. With each successive crown they get a little deafer. Resistance is futile.
Which is not to say, even in the wake of Alabama's one-sided, 42-14 romp over Notre Dame earlier this month, that the narrative is necessarily true. Aside from the championship game, there are valid caveats, counterpoints and chinks in the armor. Since 2005, for example – one year before the start of the championship run – SEC teams are a paltry 3-4 in the Sugar Bowl, having dropped three of their last four there. They're also well below .500 in that span against opponents from the lowly Big East. The Big Ten remains the most profitable league on a per-school basis, and its actual record vs. the SEC in bowl games defies the B1G's reputation for annual futility in the series. Insert standard accusations of oversigning, soft scheduling, media bias and academic indifference here.
Even where the championship run is concerned, the streak is the product of a fraction of the conference, just four teams – Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU – all of which have suffered through disappointing, unranked seasons in the same span. (When Florida began the streak back in 2006, Alabama was languishing in 6-6 purgatory under head coach Mike Shula, a record the Crimson Tide repeated in Nick Saban's first season in 2007. Auburn plummeted to such unprecedented depths in 2012, just two years removed from its surprise championship in 2010, that it fired the coach who oversaw the title run, Gene Chizik.) Several of those indomitable champions needed a stunning, eleventh-hour twist to get into the title game in the first place after being upset in a stunning twist earlier in the season. For the league's other ten teams, it's akin to watching the neighborhood bully become heavyweight champion: Validation by osmosis.
So yeah, sure, to some extent the picture of the SEC standing astride the sport is exaggerated and occasionally self-fulfilling. But woe be unto the hater who turns on his television, clicks on to a national site or scrolls down to a comments section over the next eight months expecting to encounter any of the above. Until further notice, the vision of the Southern goliath is still the only one that matters in the broader national conversation, which cannot change until someone beats the SEC's best with the title on the line – a hurdle so tall that, in the BCS era, it's only been cleared by the SEC itself.
The standard bearer for the conference in 2013, as usual, is Alabama, which has already flexed its dynasty cred by becoming the first team in the 15-year history of the BCS to claim back-to-back championships, and one of the few in the history of the sport to claim three in four years. If last year's edition wasn't always as monolithically dominant as the 2011 champs, it was more well-rounded: By most standards, the Bama offense in 2012 was the most productive in school history, setting records for points (542), yards (6,237) and touchdowns (71), opposite a defense that wound up leading the nation in both total and scoring defense for the second year in a row, a truly frightening combination when you consider the possibilities of an encore.
The 2013 Crimson Tide will return the vast majority of last year's starting lineup, including the most efficient passer in the nation (A.J. McCarron), one of two 1,000-yard rushers (T.J. Yeldon), the top four wide receivers and seven of the top 10 tacklers on defense, virtually assuring their return to the top of the preseason polls this summer.
If there is a challenge to Bama's burgeoning empire from within the conference, it will likely come from the only team that beat the Crimson Tide last year, Texas A&M, which welcomes the defending champs to College Station on Sept. 14 and is already generating some buzz as a potential frontrunner. Still, it's at least as likely that the league's iron grip on the championship will be broken by the absence of a single dominant team rather than its emergence. Inevitable though it may be, Alabama's place at the top is threatened by another significant exodus of talent for the NFL, especially from a dominant offensive line and secondary. Of the record 74 underclassmen who declared for the draft with college eligibility remaining, nearly half (33) are coming from SEC schools; eleven of them hail from LSU alone, leaving the other perennial power in the West Division with gaping holes on a defense that's kept the Tigers in the national conversation the last two years.
Florida initiated the streak with a 2007 upset of heavily favored Ohio State. (US Presswire)
Georgia is losing ten starters on defense, including the league's defensive player of the year, Jarvis Jones, and four-fifths of the secondary. Texas A&M will return the Heisman Trophy winner, but lost All-Americans on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Florida is replacing half its starting defense and its only two remotely reliable playmakers (tailback Mike Gillislee and tight end Jordan Reed) from one of the conference's most pedestrian offenses. Jadeveon Clowney notwithstanding, South Carolina is staring into a void where most of its starting defense used to be, too.
But there is no team, Alabama included, that looks invulnerable or destined to run the table: Even the mighty Crimson Tide, after all, have needed some unexpected help to get back to the title game after a seemingly disqualifying November loss each of the last two years. At some point, the carousel of powerhouses must give way to parity, and this may be the year that the SEC goes back to eating its own.
If it's not, the contenders from outside the conference aren't necessarily any more inspiring. Oregon just lost its head coach, who also happens to be the architect of the warp-speed offensive philosophy that's fueled the best record in college football over the last three years, and is still facing scrutiny from the NCAA. Ohio State, having successfully navigated a milquetoast Big Ten slate, faces longer odds of turning the trick again with an entirely new defensive line. Florida State has question marks at quarterback and all over the defense; ditto Oklahoma, which showed only marginally more fight in a lopsided, 41-13 flop against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl than Notre Dame did in a lopsided flop of a BCS title game. The Sooners and Irish both looked hopelessly overmatched, and both lose key seniors.
Out west, Stanford is losing its leading rusher, its top four receivers and seven players altogether who voted first or second-team All-Pac-12. USC and Texas may have the talent, but did nothing in 2012 to suggest it's on the verge of a major breakthrough. Nebraska is more than a decade removed from its last conference championship, in the Big 12, and just watched its defense hit rock bottom in back-to-back losses to close the season. Clemson will generate its share of preseason sparks with the return of quarterback Tajh Boyd, but hasn't beaten SEC rival South Carolina in four years and hasn't been nationally relevant in thirty. The Tigers also open the season against Georgia.
Barring an unpredictable, insurgent run from elsewhere, a contender is going to emerge from that group as the next challenge to the SEC's throne next January, at which point (as always) conference affiliation will be utterly irrelevant to which side actually claims the final BCS title with the better game in Pasadena. For the sake of extending the chest-thumping narrative of SEC superiority, it's the only thing that's relevant. Until someone proves otherwise, the beat is only going to keep getting louder.
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