Is the SEC Still the Best?

Coaches, players take up for 'man’s league' at media days

By Don Wade

HOOVER, Ala. – The first College Football Playoff was not supposed to be won by a Big Ten team. Nor was a player who began the season as a third-string quarterback supposed to lead the first College Football Playoff champion to victory.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn speaks to the media during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days. Malzahn said the Tigers’ SEC West Division is ‘the toughest conference in football.’

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Seven months after Cardale Jones guided Ohio State to a national title with a victory over Oregon – Alabama didn’t even escape the playoff’s semifinals – the almighty Southeastern Conference reconvened for its annual media days at the Wynfrey Hotel and considered the league’s collective future.

Divine help was in the offing, too, because walking around the lobby on Wednesday morning, July 15, 2015, was the greatest power college football has ever known. Yes, one Bear Bryant. He wore a crimson blazer and tie, a stoic expression, and a hounds-tooth hat pulled down low – just like you remember him.

“Nick told me to stop by and boost him a little bit,” Bryant said.

All right, so this was college football’s answer to those legions of Elvis impersonators. Bear Bryant had not returned from the great gridiron beyond. Rather, this was a man named Alton White, 78, from Roebuck, Ala.

But if White felt the need to channel The Bear in an effort to help Nick Saban, who by the way has won three national titles at Alabama and one at LSU, it does speak to the urgency of the moment.

For now, the SEC is in the unfamiliar position of looking up because pretty much every preseason poll has the Buckeyes at No. 1. Some preseason rankings even have the TCU Horned Frogs ranked ahead of the highest-rated SEC team, which in most cases is Alabama or Auburn – both members of the league’s vaunted West Division.

“In my opinion, the West is the toughest conference in football,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who is not buying into a new world order. “I don’t even think it’s close. I mean, it’s a man’s league.”

But after claiming seven straight national championships during the Bowl Championship Series era, the “man’s league” has now gone two consecutive years without winning the national title.

The last BCS championship went to Florida State as quarterback Jameis Winston completed a 2-yard touchdown pass in the final 13 seconds for a 34-31 victory over Malzahn’s Tigers.

Last season, Alabama was on the wrong end of a 42-35 score with Ohio State. The Buckeyes then thumped Oregon, 42-20, for the national championship as the SEC again was left on the sideline. Seeing Ohio State defeat Alabama, the SEC’s best, even pained a 6-foot-6, 266-pound defensive lineman for rival Mississippi State.

“Yes, yes, it hurt my heart,” admitted the Bulldogs’ Ryan Brown. “I can’t even watch the replay of (Ohio State) playing Alabama. I take a lot of pride in the SEC. It’s just a burden on my heart.”

The pride in the league has been most evident at previous national championship games and assorted bowl games with fans chanting “S-E-C, S-E-C!” as victory drew near. It also has been quite wearing on the rest of the country, if also sometimes misunderstood.

Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days.

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

When the Week 8 Associated Press poll was released on Oct. 12, the 6-0 Bulldogs were No. 1 and Ole Miss, at 7-0, was No. 3. Two Mississippi schools, both from the SEC, in the top three in the country? Only in your dreams.

“Football is everything in the South,” Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott said. “It’s life.”

And so now, life is a little less sure as the SEC attempts to re-establish itself as college football’s peak. Two straight seasons without a national title – at minimum, this proves that the elite from other leagues can stand toe to toe with the top teams in the SEC.

Even the SEC’s coaches won’t dispute that now.

“The best team in the Pac-12, the Big 12, the ACC, the Big Ten, their top team could compete with any team in the SEC, there’s no question about it,” said Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen.

That said, senior Texas A&M center Mike Matthews says one need only look down the SEC West schedules, and the schedules of the top teams from those other conferences and, notice the disparity.

“There are some games here and there (that are soft),” Matthews said of the other leagues. “We have to be at our best every single week. It’s a grind every single week.”

And at some level, surely, the rest of the country knows that. Doesn’t mean that Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer or Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher would necessarily say so, but surely what’s true is obvious and what’s obvious is true.

The SEC’s track record, year after year, is impressive.

“When you look at a body of work over time, it’s the best football conference in the country,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

And an SEC team losing in the national title game two years ago, and in the semifinals last season, doesn’t change that.

“You know, you can’t win ’em all,” said Texas A&M defensive lineman Julien Obioha. “Even the Jordan Bulls didn’t win all of them.”