The landscape of college football is changing. The big bad SEC is no longer so big or so bad. After two seasons without producing a national champion, the conference’s claim as the best in the nation is no longer so robust. It’s downright rickety, in fact. The ACC hoisted the national title two seasons ago. The Big Ten won the playoff in January. Even the Pac-12 has bragging rights after posting a Power 5-best 6-3 record in bowls last season on its way to earning the top spot in ESPN’s Power Football Index.
Granted, SEC powers Alabama, Auburn and Georgia are all in the championship hunt this season. With the right quarterback, LSU could be in the mix, too. But the conference's future isn’t as bright as it once was. Other leagues have begun to catch up. Urban Meyer has resurrected Big Ten champ Ohio State, overtaking Alabama’s two-year run as the No. 1-ranked program in ESPN’s Future Power Rankings, which looks at a team’s chances of competing for conference and national championships over the next three years by taking into account coaching, current talent, recruiting, title path and program foundation. Florida, which was No. 4 in the FPR in 2013, is now No. 21. Texas A&M has fallen from No. 8 to 13 over that time. South Carolina, meanwhile, has plummeted from No. 15 to unranked entirely.
Over the next few years, the SEC will either rise or fall. If another season passes without a national champion from the SEC, the perception of the league could go back to square one.
The foremost threat to SEC supremacy, of course, is Ohio State. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 1 in the FPR for a reason: They have quarterbacks galore, more returning talent than any program in America and one of the easier paths to the playoff in a depth-challenged conference. Plus, Meyer has done this before, winning two championships in a three-season span at Florida. If he continues to recruit the same caliber of athletes he did there, there’s no reason Ohio State won't remain a contender.
But in forecasting further, look at the Buckeyes’ biggest rival as another potential challenger to the SEC. Michigan, which hasn’t been able to get out of its own way of late, is now on the upswing under Jim Harbaugh. The man is all bravado and more than a little bit crazy, but he has shown he can coach, whether it was his time at Stanford or in the NFL with the 49ers. And he’s not afraid to step on the SEC’s toes to do it, taking his staff on the road to satellite camps in Alabama and Florida in a clear attempt to widen the Wolverines' recruiting footprint. With better athletes and a clearer sense of direction, they could make the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry one with playoff implications.
The Big 12, meanwhile, is a clear and present danger to the SEC right now. Though the league will continue to face criticism for its lack of a conference championship and so-so strength of scheduling, it’s hard to imagine either TCU or Baylor being shut out of the playoff for a second straight year, if their résumés are similar. They’ve changed their perception too much, as the Horned Frogs have risen in the FPR from No. 19 to 12 since 2013, and Baylor has gone from No. 24 to 14 over that time. If anything, TCU’s manhandling of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl sent the message that the Big 12 should have a seat at the table in the playoff.
While Florida State stumbled in its first trip to the playoff, don't expect the Seminoles to struggle in the long term. Though the team was in something close to no man’s land when Jameis Winston left school early to become the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, the arrival of Everett Golson has given the Seminoles legitimate national title hopes in 2015. But even beyond this season, the program is in good shape to continue challenging the SEC. The FPR has them No. 3 in the country, ahead of Auburn, LSU and Georgia over the next three years, due in large part to top-notch recruiting. Pulling kids from Florida and surrounding states, coach Jimbo Fisher has begun a personal pipeline to the NFL that rivals any program in the SEC, even Alabama.
The other side of the country isn’t too bad at football, either. Oregon, in demolishing Florida State in the playoff, showed it's a program with staying power. But the Pac-12 doesn’t stop there. The USC Trojans, in particular, have a chance to return to the Pete Carroll days of competing for national championships. Thanks to its new freedom from NCAA restrictions and the new life breathed into the program by coach Steve Sarkisian, USC has gone from No. 25 in the FPR in 2013 to No. 6. With stars like JuJu Smith, Adoree' Jackson and Cody Kessler, the Trojans could be in for a breakout season that catapults the program back into the upper echelon of college football.
But the biggest threat to the SEC might not come from the Big 12, Big Ten or Pac-12, but within. The East is a mess right now, with Georgia as the only clear contender, while the West might be too strong for its own good. Alabama, Auburn and LSU are the clear front-runners in the division, but the separation between them and Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas is minimal. Should John Chavis coax some improvement out of Texas A&M’s defense, the Aggies will be right there, too. If Georgia can't make it to Atlanta unscathed and the West beats up on itself too much and doesn't produce at least a one-loss team, the SEC might be shut out by the playoff selection committee altogether, which will already have a hard enough time getting over the West’s failure in last year’s bowl season.
Looking ahead to this season and beyond, nothing is certain when it comes to the SEC's returning to championship form. The talent is still there, of course, but there are new challenges that weren’t so front and center a few years ago. As the conference becomes a more competitive place and the rest of college football begins to catch up with the SEC, the league is at a crossroads. Anything less than a national title will sink its perception even further.