Is the SEC the best conference in college football?
At this time two years ago, it was hard to make a case for anybody else. The league had won seven consecutive national championships and was hoping for eight with Auburn slotted to play in the BCS title game against Florida State. The SEC was king, and everybody else knew it.
But then Florida State beat Auburn, and just like that, the reign was over. The perception around the country began to change. If an ACC team can knock the SEC off its pedestal, how good is this league really? It didn’t matter how many future NFL players the Seminoles had or that it took a game-winning drive by Jameis Winston. All that mattered was that the SEC lost.
Meanwhile, Alabama didn’t do the league any favors that year, suffering a blowout loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
It was a fluke, fans said. The SEC would return stronger than ever the next year.
At one point, it looked as if they might be right. The first-ever playoff rankings were revealed in October 2014, and four of the top six teams -- Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss and Alabama -- were from the SEC. There wasn’t a question as to whether an SEC team would make it in. Rather, the question was how many teams from the SEC would make it in.
In the end, only one got in -- Alabama. And we all know how that story ended, as the Crimson Tide lost to Ohio State in the semifinals as a heavy favorite. For the first time since 2005, an SEC team wasn’t going to play for a championship.
The league’s other three playoff contenders didn't fare much better. Mississippi State and Ole Miss were blown out by Georgia Tech and TCU in New Year’s Six bowls. And Auburn, after losing three of four to end the regular season, lost to Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl.
As a whole, the SEC went 7-5 in bowl games last year. The league chalked up wins over the ACC, the Big 10 and the Big 12. But all anybody remembers were the flops in the premier games, the ones that mattered.
That’s why this upcoming bowl season is so important.
The conference, which essentially ran college football for almost a decade, has come back to earth. It’s not what it used to be. Don't believe me? Just go look at the current playoff rankings. Only one SEC team is ranked in the top 10, and only five can be found in the top 25. Compare that to the Big 10, which has three of the top seven teams.
But Alabama will have a chance to take down the Big 10 champion, Michigan State, in one of the playoff semifinals. The Tide can’t afford to bow out early yet again, as they're the SEC's only hope to win it all.
Ole Miss will get also get a shot at redemption. It was a Big 12 team that destroyed the Rebels in last year’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. This year, they face another Big 12 opponent, Oklahoma State, in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It might not be the Big 12 champ, but a win would certainly help the SEC’s image.
Elsewhere, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia all face Big 10 teams (Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State) in bowl games. If the SEC teams can win all three, it might force people start taking the Eastern division a little more seriously.
On paper, the SEC bowl matchups might not look all that enticing. Don’t be fooled, though. This is a critical postseason for the league. It can either prove that it’s still the best conference in college football or continue to give the rest of the country a case for their respective conferences.