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SEC's No. 2 ranking feels much worse

When the good folks at the ESPN Stats & Information department came up with their annual Conference Power Rankings, they took a number of factors into account.

But there is one measure that never shows up on a spreadsheet and trumps all those that do: perception.

The SEC might be the No. 2 conference in America on paper, but after a bowl season in which nearly all of its supposed powers lost, the impression on the hearts and minds of football fans is much more grim.

Today is a new day for the conference that berthed seven straight national championship contenders.

Today is the day the conference must swallow its considerable pride and admit it's no longer king of the hill.

That title belongs to the Pac-12, according to ESPN's latest rankings. But the Big 12, which boasts powerhouse TCU, has every reason to gloat over the SEC as well, as does the Big Ten, which is home to the national champion Ohio State Buckeyes.

And how ironic it is that Urban Meyer helped create this overly decorated SEC we know today with two championships at Florida, only to be the one to lay the conference bare by beating Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal before moving on to win the first national championship of the playoff era.

Now, instead of everyone chasing Nick Saban at Alabama, it's the SEC playing catch-up with Meyer and a resurgent Ohio State poised to make another run at the national championship next season.

If it's not the Buckeyes hoisting the trophy in 2016, it could be favorites TCU, Baylor or USC. If you're following along with Mark Schlabach's Way-too-early Top 25, you have to then pass Oregon, Michigan State and UCLA before landing on a team from the SEC. And even then, it's the perennially underwhelming Georgia Bulldogs at No. 8, which are without a returning starter at quarterback and haven't won a national championship since 1980.

That's looking ahead to next season, of course, but it speaks to the status of the conference as a whole after what we saw during its zombie walk through the bowl season. It speaks to perception, whose momentum drives through the offseason and carries well into the fall.

The SEC is a dying conference by no means, but after so long at the top, ranking second should come as a major disappointment. A slap in the face. A wake-up call.

Because in the coming months, it won't just be the Pac-12 that taunts the conference with feelings of superiority. Outside of perhaps the ACC, the rest of the Power 5 should feel as if its turned the tables on the SEC.

Now, mind you, Alabama isn't going anywhere. Neither is Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss or Mississippi State. Outside of Georgia in the East, we've learned that you shouldn't sleep on Missouri, Tennessee or even Florida with its new coaching staff.

But depth is only one part of the equation. Potential is meaningless without results either.

Until the SEC breaks its two-year streak without a national championship, perception will continue to go against the conference that has long relished its status as No. 1.