Originally Published: August 13, 2014

Can SEC maintain dominance in playoff era?

By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

The Southeastern Conference has enjoyed an unprecedented run of success in the modern era of college football. Four SEC teams -- Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn -- combined to win seven consecutive BCS national championships, ending in January, when Auburn fell :13 short of lengthening the streak to eight.

Over the past eight seasons, the SEC has taken the lead in national titles, Heisman Trophy winners (four), NFL first-round draft choices (74). The league's fans are likewise ahead of the field in boastfulness (unlimited), self-regard (unrivaled) and vanity (ditto). That passion is reflected in the figures reports last week by the Collegiate Licensing Company, which listed five SEC schools among the top 10 in sales over the past year.

Even the league commissioner, the erudite attorney and Bartlett's devotee Mike Slive, last month cited the league's recent accomplishments and quoted Muhammad Ali, "It ain't bragging if you can back it up." Ali, of course, is a product of the SEC state of Kentucky.

Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAre the SEC's days as No. 1 endangered in the new playoff era?

The country has bought it. Five times during the seven-year championship streak, an SEC team made it into the BCS Championship Game by finishing No. 2 in the BCS standings. Why is that significant? When the poll voters and the computer jockeys who comprised the rating had to select one team from among several with similar records, they selected an SEC team nearly by default.

In all five cases, the SEC team validated the selection by winning the game.

In a sport with a history that illustrates the impermanence of success, the SEC has signed a long-term lease on the penthouse. This season, as the housing at the top expands from two teams to four, SEC fans debate the odds that the league will be able to place two teams in the first national semifinals. The idea that the league would not put a team in the semifinals doesn't come up in polite conversation.

No one within the sound of Nick Saban's voice recalls that in the first eight seasons of the BCS's 16-year existence, six different conferences supplied champions. Or that in the 16 seasons prior to the BCS (1982-97), the SEC won exactly two national championships -- Alabama in 1992 and Florida in 1996.

But there is every possibility that Auburn's gallant loss to Florida State merely delayed the inevitable pull of gravity. There is evidence that the SEC has fallen back to the pack.

"Only one person can carry the ball at a time," Virginia coach Mike London said. "Right now Florida State and the ACC are enjoying carrying it. The SEC has carried the ball for a while here, and now they see what it's like when you don't have the ball."

The Seminoles are the consensus choice to repeat as national champion. Florida State returns 13 starters, 10 of them from the SEC footprint, including Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, the quarterback from Bessemer, Ala. The symbolism of Winston's former backup, Jacob Coker, transferring to Alabama, where he's expected to start, is unmistakable.

The top-rated NFL quarterback prospects for the 2015 NFL draft are the ACC's Winston, the Big 12's Bryce Petty and the Pac-12 duo of Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley. Four of the SEC's five highest-rated teams -- Alabama, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina -- have quarterbacks who have a total of five starts among them.

That lack of experience extends throughout the huddle. The SEC has been victimized by its own success. In the past two seasons, conference schools have lost 61 players to early entry in the NFL draft.

"I think to some degree that will affect the quality of ball," Saban said. "It's not just this league. I think it's a national issue."

Marcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesIn 2014, the nation's top quarterbacks, such as Oregon's Marcus Mariota, will be found outside the SEC.

Perhaps, but only one other conference lost half as many as the SEC (Pac-12 with 35). The Crimson Tide secondary has been devastated by early-entry departures in recent years. Over the course of past season, Saban started two freshmen and a converted wide receiver at corner. Alabama allowed its highest pass-completion percentage (55.5) in seven years under Saban and saw its defensive stats go in the wrong direction across the board.

"The players turn over more quickly, so you play more young players," Saban said. "It's not that those players aren't good players. In some cases, they may be playing a little bit before they're ready to play."

LSU has lost 18 players to early entry in the past two years. After three defensive linemen entered the 2013 draft early, the Tigers allowed 40 more rushing yards per game, while sacks fell from 35 to 27. This season, LSU must replace its top two receivers and its best rusher, all of whom left early.

"I'm petitioning the NFL for a 'draft back' position," LSU coach Les Miles said. "After you have put so many juniors in the NFL, and first-round draft picks that were early, I think you should have the opportunity on an every-other-year basis [to pick] an offensive player and a defensive player. [Cardinals corner] Patrick Peterson might be a guy. ]Rams defensive tackle] Michael Brockers might be a guy. I think there are a number of men that we are really targeting."

Miles, his ruse complete, allowed with a smile. "That might not happen."

As the SEC gathers itself to reclaim the top, it is gathering teams that are younger than ever. As tempting as it is to reach to genesis, to say that the league has embarked on a seven-year famine is overreach. But that feast of championships did conclude at seven years.

Ivan Maisel | email

ESPN Senior Writer

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