It's a legitimate question. Sure, Alabama won the National Championship—the conferences 4th straight title—but how soon we forget that the SEC didn't win an AP title in the 7 seasons prior to that streak ('99-'05). It's almost as if we've been brainwashed that the SEC has always been and will always be the best conference.
This is not the case.
Today, media outlets drive the average fan's perception of conference strength as much or more than the actual games themselves. This was never more evident than it was last season.
Everyone seems to be getting wrapped up with in-conference schedule strength and recruiting rankings, both of which are subjective, and perhaps the least effective ways to judge conference strength. If Alabama winning it all is the number one reason why many of us perceived the SEC as the strongest conference in 2009 - The number two reason would be because ESPN told us so.
Before the start of the 2009 season, I expected a slight downturn for the SEC. Despite the ramblings-on from the worlds largest sports network, which just so happens to be in bed with the SEC, the conference's OOC and Bowl performances didn't support their strongest conference argument. If indeed the SEC was the strongest conference in 2009, it wouldn't be because of what they did, but because of what the other conference's didn't do.
My aim in this article, is not only to point to last season, but to also look ahead as to why the SEC may continue to slide, perhaps out of the lead for the first time in the last 5 or 6 years.
2009's strongest arguments for the SEC is the Crimson Tide's victories over Texas and Virginia Tech. One win coming in the ever-so-fragile and unpredictable opener, and the other coming against a quarterback with no big-game experience. As dominant as they were in those games, Alabama looked equally as vulnerable in their mid-season clash with Tennessee (12-10). Of course, one result isn't necessarily transitive in terms of gauging conference strength, but it was still hard to watch that game and not wonder if the parity which was once thought as a positive in years past, was now a negative. After all, Tennessee lost by 4 to UCLA, by 25 to Ole Miss, and needed overtime to beat Kentucky.
Perhaps we wouldn't have to use these transitive properties if the SEC didn't hide behind it's in-conference schedule as an excuse for weak OOC opponents. After all, the SEC has 59 wins over 1-AA opponents over the last decade—far more than any other conference. The 'grind' of the SEC in-conference schedule may have once been a legitimate excuse, but will that hold water as the conference begins to decelerate.
The conference's top-to-bottom argument also lost steam with Mississippi State losing to Georgia Tech and Houston. Vanderbilt's return to futility, and Georgia and Tennessee's mediocrity didn't help matters either. Let's take a closer look at Georgia and Tennessee, two teams that once carried the torch for the conference.
Both the Bulldogs and the Vols finished 4-4 in the SEC in 2009. Georgia lost 24-10 against Oklahoma St. (the 3rd or 4rth best team in the Big 12 in '09), and squeaked by ASU (2-7 in the Pac10) 20-17. Tennessee lost to UCLA (3-6 in the Pac10).
Another issue with the conference has been their recent lack of experience and NFL prospects at quarterback. The third best quarterback in the SEC in 2010 could be John Brantley—a player with 13 career pass attempts. If you look at the Pac Ten, or even the Big Ten for that matter in 2010, you'll see 5 or 6 quarterbacks of that caliber, only with experience.
Let's take a look at the QB's—the most important position on the football field.
Here's the percentages of returning starters at QB in 2010...
If the SEC is to lose their title as the Nation's top conference, then there must be a conference that will step up and take the title. The top two candidates are the Pac 10 and the Big Ten in 2010. The problem with the Big 12 is that there seems to be two or three teams in the conference that can play defense. The Pac 10, as I'll show later, is the most experienced conference in 2010.
Teams like USC, Oregon, and Oregon St. look to improve on paper, as does Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa. I'm sure that Florida, Alabama, and LSU will be strong teams in 2010, but unlike the aforementioned teams from the Big Ten and Pac 10, they don't look to improve. When I look at the possible contenders, and their strengths on the offensive side of the ball, I can't help but think about the defensive returning starter numbers for LSU(4), and Alabama(2).
Let's look at the average returning starter numbers for each BCS conference...
Where in the world is Tim Tebow? I can tell you where he isn't...in the swamp, wearing a Gator uniform. It's the end of an era. You cannot deny that Tim Tebow has a legit argument for being the best player in College Football history. Florida's offensive leader, as well as their defensive leader(Spikes), have departed for the greener pastures of the NFL. We use the term reload often, especially with upper echelon SEC teams, but you don't just reload another Tim Tebow. It's a spent cartridge.
The SEC is also dealing with off-the-field issues.
These problems are festering into wounds that could affect performance now and into the future. Arrests, over-signing, academic issues, and now players lying to the media about improprieties with agents could all have implications on the reputation and strength of the SEC. The conference's reputation for producing NFL talent is obvious, but lately they're leaving as many players on the curb in terms of suspensions and academics, as they're placing in the NFL.
One has to wonder if all this will have a long term effect on recruiting. When it comes time for mommy and daddy to help junior decide on which school to go to, will they recommend a Big Ten school with the highest academic standards of all the BCS conferences, or maybe a Pac10 school with the second highest rating.
Or an SEC team, with BY FAR the lowest rating.
It makes you wonder whether the SEC's on-the-field success is because of the beautiful weather, the recruiting prowess of the coaches and staff, or their willingness to throw academic standards out the window.