It's clear: SEC no longer exceptional

It's been fun, SEC, really fun -- seven consecutive national championships, your own network, the undying enmity of the rest of the country. Really, it's been great. But as you limp into the SEC championship game on Saturday, with No. 1 Alabama playing -- ta-da! -- No. 17 Missouri, I think it's time to sit down and have a little talk.

We still like you. You still put on a great show every week. What the Iron Bowl lacked in, oh, I don't know, defense on Saturday night, it more than made up for in the pageantry and emotion that only a great college football rivalry can produce.

But let's be honest. You're not what you have been. You're not all that. You're not even all that good. And now that the season is concluding, and we can step back and gain the perspective that we lose in the Saturday-to-Saturday frenzy of the regular season, maybe we can figure out how the rest of us got hornswoggled into thinking you hadn't lost a step.

You don't understand? Let me lay it out for you.

For the first time in four seasons, the SEC won't have four 11-win teams. It very easily could have only one. Alabama is 11-1. Missouri and Mississippi State are 10-2.

The best running backs in the FBS play in the Big Ten. The best quarterbacks are in the Pac-12. So are the best defensive linemen. The ACC skunked you 4-0 this past Saturday. The Big 12 is the only conference with a chance of putting two teams in the playoff.

Speaking of which, the SEC is one Mizzou upset of the Crimson Tide away from sitting at home and watching the inaugural College Football Playoff go on without a member in it. It's not a question of underestimating the Tigers, which most of us have turned into an art form. But no team that lost at home to Indiana (4-8) and to Georgia by a score of 34-0 is going to play for the national championship.

(That said, let's get it out of the way now. Missouri will win the 2015 SEC East. Fool me twice, shame on me.)

We should have seen this coming. In fact, we did. The SEC lost 61 underclassmen to the NFL draft in the past two springs. Ole Miss senior Bo Wallace opened the season as the only league quarterback with more than a year of starting experience.

And then the season began, and every SEC West team except for Arkansas started winning, and we left all of that cold data behind to chase hot teams.

Texas A&M beat No. 9 South Carolina, so the Aggies must be a national power.

Mississippi State beat Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn, top-10 teams all, so the Bulldogs must be a national power.

Ole Miss beat Alabama, so the Rebels must be playoff-caliber.

We had company. Remember the College Football Playoff selection committee's first ranking? They placed three SEC West teams in the top four, and four in the top six.

Somewhere in all of that excitement sat the cold realization that once the SEC West teams started playing one another, maybe they wouldn't stay undefeated. Maybe they wouldn't stay highly ranked. Maybe they would begin to lose because they were no longer playing the rent-a-victims that SEC teams schedule in September in order to avoid playing nonconference road games.

All we know is that when the season concluded, that Murderers' Row of SEC teams that Mississippi State beat to climb into America's hearts failed to finish with a winning record in conference play. All three of them.

The league spent the season beating up one another. Parity can be a wonderful thing. The NFL wouldn't exist without it. But parity is another word for pretty good, and pretty good is a saddle that hasn't weighed the SEC down in a while.

Even when the SEC's power didn't extend through the league, the teams at the top dominated to the point that they could carry the league's brand. Think of Florida and Alabama in 2009. When the Gators and the Tide went into the SEC championship game ranked 1-2, no one noticed that only one other team in the league finished above .500 in conference play (LSU at 5-3). Alabama rolled over Florida 32-13 before doing the same to Texas 37-21 in the BCS national title game.

This Alabama team may be No. 1, but as we said Saturday night, it is flawed. This Alabama team would be what, a 10-point underdog to the team of five years ago?

Yes, the Crimson Tide, as we stand on the cusp of season's end, is one of the four best teams in the nation. No one out there is without flaws, except perhaps Oregon, which discovered the art of defense as it raced down the homestretch.

But that's just the point, isn't it? If we say Alabama is no different than the other flawed contenders, we are saying that SEC exceptionalism is as obsolete as the single-wing offense.

No, not obsolete. The SEC teams still have the foundation that's necessary for success in college football. They have the revenue, the tradition and the will to succeed. Football is more important in that conference than it is anywhere else. It just is.

So, here's a reassuring pat on the back for you. The SEC will return to the top, maybe as soon as next fall. In the meantime, Alabama, stick around. The rest of you, step aside. We have a playoff to crank up.