Conventional wisdom over the past few seasons suggests there are two groups of teams in college football: those that play in the SEC, and those that don't. It will be put to the test when Alabama takes on independent Notre Dame in the national title game.
The Crimson Tide survived a journey that included LSU, Mississippi State and, in last week's SEC title game, Georgia. The team's complete destruction of Michigan—one of Notre Dame's best wins—ended up being a minor part of Alabama's résumé by season's end.
So, it's easy to see why fans in SEC country believe their conference is at least a step—probably multiple steps—above the rest. And they aren't afraid to speak their minds about it, either.
The following cartoon, which made the rounds last week on social media, is a perfect example of the reputation the Crimson Tide are pressured to defend against the Fighting Irish.
Oddsmakers agree with the cartoon's premise, making Alabama an early nine-point favorite over undefeated Notre Dame for the Jan. 7 clash. It wouldn't be a surprise to see it reach double-digits prior to game day.
Whether it's the oddsmakers, media analysts or simply casual fans, the wide-ranging belief is that the SEC is the crown jewel of college football. Based on recent results, that's probably true, but a Tide loss would begin to alter that perception.
Based on the conference's reputation, there's no way "little" Notre Dame should be able to compete with powerful "giant" Alabama. The Tide have too much depth, talent and have been battle-tested like no other team over the past few months.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, needed three overtimes to beat Pittsburgh and only faced one Top 10 team all season. Again, on paper, the SEC reigns supreme, and that will be the main storyline leading up to the finale.
Yet it begs the question: What happens if Notre Dame wins?
The SEC has won the national title every season since 2006. Alabama and Florida have two apiece. LSU and Auburn both have one. Last season, the Tide and Tigers faced off in an all-SEC affair, shutting everybody else completely.
If Notre Dame, which has been out of the national spotlight for the better part of two decades, can end that reign of dominance it will be a major hit to the SEC's invincibility. It will prove the national title isn't just for SEC programs.
While that might not sound like much on the surface, it would actually be a pretty big deal. The entire SEC, from Alabama to Kentucky and every team in between, benefits from the SEC having an unmatched reputation.
Recruiting becomes easier because coaches can point to the conference's title streak, and it ensures more time will be dedicated to the SEC throughout the week than any other conference.
It's Alabama's job to make sure those advantages don't slip away. One loss certainly won't eliminate it altogether, but it would be the start other conferences are hoping for. A dent in the armor, so to speak.
So, as the focus is placed on Nick Saban, his players and the program's plentiful supporters, Alabama is also playing the national title game for the SEC. It needs to keep the winning streak alive.