SEC has no peers on the field
The working premise for a preseason college football poll voter is so idiot-proof a "Jersey Shore" character could do it.
Just put a Southeastern Conference team on top and let everything else fall into place.
But in reality, it isn't quite that easy. The hard part is picking the correct SEC team to win it all.
For the third straight season, the SEC starts on top of the USA Today Top 25. This year it's Alabama, which follows Florida in 2009 and Georgia in '08. Neither the Gators nor the Bulldogs won titles after being picked to do so.
Wrong teams, right league. That's because, in 2009, for the fourth straight season, an SEC team ended up at No. 1. By now you know the roll call: Florida in 2006, LSU in '07, Florida again in '08 and Alabama in '09. It's gotten to the point where the entire sport comes with a drawl, y'all.
Until last season, no conference had won four straight national titles since the advent of the Associated Press poll in 1936. The fact that three different SEC schools were part of the run is all the more impressive. So is the SEC's 6-0 record in the 12-year history of BCS title games.
And some want to award the league a seventh national championship in that span, giving Auburn a retroactive 2004 title now that the NCAA has vacated USC's crown.
You want more? I got more.
• The four straight title-game victories? None of them close. Not a single second-half deficit. Average margin of SEC victory: 16.8 points. Closest margin: 10 points. Hasn't mattered whether the opponent is from the Big Ten (Ohio State twice) or the Big 12 (Oklahoma once, Texas the other); they haven't been able to compete.
• The league hasn't been just one marquee team and a bunch of hash. It has placed at least two teams in the USA Today final poll top six each of the past four seasons. Alabama was No. 1 and Florida No. 3 last season; Florida No. 1 and Alabama No. 6 in 2008; LSU No. 1 and Georgia No. 3 in 2007; and Florida No. 1 and LSU No. 3 in '06.
• Those eight teams were largely unbeatable -- except when facing their SEC peers. They were a combined 39-1 in nonconference games -- including seven dominant BCS bowl victories -- but still managed to lose 10 league games. If you want to underscore the much-discussed depth, understand that Kentucky, South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas and Auburn beat teams that either went on to win it all or finished in the top six.
"I know there's teams, they have circled games in other conferences, this is the premier game in the conference for this season," said Mississippi State coach and former Florida assistant Dan Mullen. "That's almost every single week in our conference."
Added LSU coach Les Miles: "I can tell you in our conference you come out with a conference champion, they've been through it. They played the very finest competition. They've played it week in and week out. They've seldom had the opportunity to duck and have an off game. When they get to the title game, they've been there."
All this is why commissioner Mike Slive keeps calling this the SEC's "Golden Age." And he cannot be flagged for excessive celebration when simply stating the truth.
But as I wrote before the Alabama-Texas BCS Championship Game in January, tyranny is a bad thing. It would be good for college football for someone to lead a peasant revolt against SEC hegemony. Here's how it can happen -- both in the short term and beyond.
Start with this season. Alabama is the defending champion and returns the Heisman Trophy winner, its starting quarterback and its top two receivers. But Alabama also returns just three of its top 16 tacklers from last season -- and one of those, end Marcell Dareus, has unresolved eligibility issues related to the NCAA's ongoing agent investigation.
With losses like that, it's hard to see why Alabama should be such a prohibitive favorite. (The Crimson Tide got 55 of 59 first-place votes in the USA Today poll.) For that reason, my preseason pick is Boise State, which has everything but a name brand and a power conference. And if Ohio State weren't burdened by its recent history of nonconference train wrecks, there would be much more support for the Buckeyes.
League depth also could be an issue this season. Although Florida is prominently positioned at No. 3 in the USA Today poll, the Gators must overcome huge turnover -- they lost their defensive coordinator, their superstar quarterback and a slew of other draft picks. Everyone else in the SEC East comes with question marks as well.
In the West, voters at media day last month put LSU a shocking fourth. Arkansas and Auburn are the buzz teams, but can they live up to it, or will they fold under high expectations the way Mississippi did a year ago?
So this time around, it really does look like one power team (Bama) and a lot of uncertainty.
For the long haul, the rest of America has to get faster. The stereotype of Southern speed versus plodders from the Midwest and elsewhere probably is overplayed, but everyone who saw the Florida and LSU defenses overwhelm the Ohio State offensive line a few years back knows there also is some truth to it. In the SEC, athletes aren't at just the skill positions; they're everywhere. Even the long-snappers are fast.
"There seems to be a more athletic team [in the SEC]," Miles said. "There seems to be better ends, better corners. Seems like the receiving corps is more athletic. It just seems that there's greater competition in that regard."
So recruiting comparable speed is a priority. Then hope for some self-inflicted SEC wounds.
Agent issues are percolating around the league, and as long as the talent continues to flow to the SEC, the agents and their runners will, too. Also: As long as the passion to win remains at borderline toxic levels, the pressure to do whatever it takes will remain as well. As much as Slive has tried to rehab the league's outlaw image, scandal could be as big a threat to SEC dominance as anything another league can throw at it.
Then there are coaching questions. There might be too much inbreeding going on.
The three new hires for 2010 all have backgrounds in the league. But going outside the geographic footprint (and coaching pedigree) of the league for established head coaches has been good for some programs in recent years.
LSU brought in Nick Saban and Miles from the Big Ten and Big 12, respectively, with championship results. Florida imported Midwesterner-turned-Utah coach Urban Meyer, and he'll be a giant for as long as his esophagus lets him. Kentucky pulled old Pac-10 and NFL warhorse Rich Brooks out of retirement and enjoyed four straight winning seasons for the first time since the 1950s.
Perhaps Derek Dooley (former Saban assistant and son of a Georgia legend) will be the next great leader at Tennessee. Or Joker Phillips (assistant to Brooks) will sustain the momentum at Kentucky. Or Vanderbilt's Robbie Caldwell (assistant to retired Bobby Johnson) will coach as well as he talks. But they all have a lot to prove.
For now, though, the SEC as a whole has nothing left to prove. It is the standard of excellence in college football, and the evidence is in the trophy case.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
2010 SEASON PREVIEW