The SEC is a unique league. The competition is fierce and any team can be defeated on any given Saturday.
It is for that reason that the SEC is the nation's top college football conference. It is also why the last team standing, in the conference, has went on to win the BCS championship five consecutive seasons.
Since the inception of the SEC Championship game, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida, LSU, and Tennessee have consistently battled it out for the right to appear in Atlanta and represent their division.
However, with the addition of Steve Spurrier to South Carolina and Bobby Petrino to Arkansas, the conference is more balanced now than ever.
As a result, the SEC, once again, is up for grabs. In this article, I will list the top six teams (not in order) with an opportunity to become this season's SEC Champion.
Before we get to our six teams that have a legit shot at winning the SEC Championship, I want to list the following three teams which are close to another SEC championship run, but not yet there.
I know that leaving off the defending national champions is controversial. There is no doubting that this Auburn roster is loaded with talent. However, that talent has not yet been seasoned and will have to endure the natural growing pains that every young team faces.
It is possible to hide youth at key positions on a team if they are surrounded by veteran players. However, Auburn has the least amount of returning starters in the nation at seven.
This, combined with the difficulty of their schedule in the month of October, will keep them from being a legitimate threat this season for the SEC title.
I truly believe that Auburn might compete for another national championship as early as 2012. However, remember, between Florida's 2007 and 2009 National championships, the Gators had a four-loss 2008 season.
Mississippi State took huge strides this past season under the guidance of second-year coach Dan Mullen. The problem Mullen will face at Mississippi State is that coaching can only take you so far.
Coach Mullen will always get the most out of his players. However, the talent level on campus is not elite enough to compete with the top-tier teams in the league over a grueling SEC season.
This is why he must learn to focus more strongly on recruiting if he wants his team to become a legitimate threat to become SEC champions.
Tennessee has a variety of young players who will one day be solid SEC contributors. Players like Da'rick Rogers have all of the physical tools to be great. The problem is that he has not proven that he can use them against elite teams.
Outside of Tauren Poole, the most underrated running back in the nation, the players who are considered "proven talent" have not proven this against the top-tier teams listed in this article.
Tyler Bray, for example, if you examine the numbers closer, was not as impressive as his stat line might first indicate. If you take away the Memphis team, who are a glorified high school, he only had 11 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in his five career starts.
Those numbers, in themselves, are not horrific. However, when you consider they were against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and North Carolina, they are not enough to anoint him the next Peyton Manning just yet.
Last season, the University of Alabama finished with a record of 10-3. While this would be considered a success for most college football programs, it was a disappointment for a team voted the preseason No. 1 team only to finish fourth in the SEC West.
As the 2011 season approaches, hopes are high in Tuscaloosa once again. Will the Tide return to the top of the SEC for the third time in four seasons?
Why they could
This Alabama defense has the potential to move from being very good in 2010 to great in 2011. In fact, this defense, with the proper progression, could end up at the 1992/2009 level of good.
If the opposing team cannot score points against your defense you will have a chance to win every ball game your team plays.
This will be the case in 2011 for the Crimson Tide. On offense, they lost one of their top wide receivers, quarterbacks, and running backs in school history.
However, they have an offensive line that is a year older and their new starting running back. Trent Richardson, who will be receiving the bulk of the carries, is an early Heisman candidate
The Tide also have a very favorable SEC schedule. They do have two dangerous road games when they travel to Starkville to face the Mississippi State Bulldogs and travel to Gainesville to take on the Florida Gators. While those games are dangerous, they will be highly favored in both.
Their two toughest roadblocks are the LSU Tigers and the Arkansas Razorbacks. Both of those games, however, will be played in Tuscaloosa, where the Tide have only loss once in the last 22 games.
Why they might not
Replacing players is always a difficult task. When you consider that four of those players were first-round draft picks and another was one of the most successful quarterbacks in school history, the task is more challenging.
The natural assumption of a fan is to look at the talent that is following those departing players as an indication of how the season will go. However, talent does not automatically equal success and it is rarely equals instant success in the SEC.
Turnovers. It is that simple. If Alabama does not turn the ball over they will be back in Atlanta in December.
However, the offense turned the ball over six times in the spring game and the other running back who will receive meaningful carries has been known to have fumble issues in the past.
As a result, they are the leading candidate for Atlanta out of the West, but it is far from a lock.
The LSU Tigers were only 11 points away from playing for a national championship in 2010. Their only losses were to BCS bowl-bound teams in the Auburn Tigers (24-17) and the Arkansas Razorbacks (31-23).
Both games were on the road and were decided only by a few plays. Will the Tigers be able to get over the hump and return to the SEC championship game for the first time since 2007?
Why they could
The LSU Tigers are clearly one of the most balanced team heading into the season on paper. Despite the loss of All-American Patrick Peterson, LSU will once again field a stingy defense.
With eight returning starters, the offense looks primed to put more points on the board this season in comparison to seasons past.
As a result, the LSU offense and defense will be able to share the burden of the nation's toughest division and conference.
Why they might not
The LSU team has a schedule, in and out of conference, that might wear them down both mentally and physically. Playing in the SEC is hard enough, but they also have to play the Oregon Ducks, who many believe will be back in the national championship game for a second consecutive season.
Add away games vs. Alabama and Mississippi State and home games vs. both the Florida Gators and Arkansas Razorbacks, and this schedule might be too much to overcome.
The passing game. I am doubtful that LSU can win the SEC West if Zach Mettenberger does not emerge as the starter early in the season.
LSU has a running back unit and wide receiving unit that is good enough to compete for a national championship. However, can current quarterback Jordan Jefferson get the ball to the receivers often enough to take the pressure off the running backs?
The defense will be very good, but they cannot be on the field all game long because of the ineptness of LSU's passing game. If they are to return to the SEC Championship Game the offense will have to become more consistent.
This past season, Arkansas took a huge step as a football program by making it to the Sugar Bowl and finishing just behind Auburn in the SEC West.
This is the most talented Arkansas team, from top-to-bottom, that has been fielded in Fayetteville in a long time. Will it be enough to bring home the first SEC championship in school history?
Why they could
The Razorbacks have the top returning rusher in the SEC, Knile Davis, and the top receiving unit as well. The Razorback offense should rank as the top offense in the SEC this season.
Despite losing Ryan Mallett to the NFL Draft, this offense might end up being even better under new starter Tyler Wilson. Wilson burst onto the season last year against Auburn when Mallett went down with an injury in the second quarter.
Wilson responded by completing 25 of 34 passes for 332 yards and 4 touchdowns. The thing that was most impressive was his composure in the game with little preparation.
After an impressive spring game, where three of his first five completions went for over 40 yards each, title talk has returned back to Fayetteville.
The defense should be able to take the next step as well. Each season, they have improved under head coach Bobby Petrino, and this could be the season the defense becomes good enough to win the SEC championship.
Auburn proved last season that if your offense is far superior to your opponents, your defense only needs to be opportunistic.
Why they might not
Schedule. In my opinion, if this season's Arkansas team could play last season's schedule they would win the SEC championship and perhaps the BCS national championship.
However, winning in Tuscaloosa (Alabama) and winning in Baton Rouge (LSU) in one season seems like an unlikely accomplishment. It is possible, however, for the Hogs to split those two games and still win the SEC West.
With that said, they cannot lose to Alabama. Alabama has the best opportunity to only lose one or no games. As a result, the Razorbacks need to hold the tie breaker between the two.
The offensive line. The production of the offensive line for Arkansas will be the key to their success. Their defense needs only to be good not great to win the SEC.
As mentioned above, the road schedule will be difficult and if they are going to win on the road, they will need to win in the trenches.
This could prove to be difficult because the Hogs only return two starters on the line, center Travis Swanson and guard Alvin Bailey.
With three new starters on the offensive line, how quickly they gel as a unit will be the key to their success. One thing going in their favor is that they play Alabama the fourth game of the season.
The three games prior are against Missouri State, New Mexico, and Troy. That should give them three extra weeks of preparation.
Last season, for the first time in school history, the South Carolina Gamecocks made it to the SEC championship game.
Despite falling to the eventual National Champions Auburn Tigers, this was a huge step toward joining the SEC elite. Will this be the year that South Carolina wins their first-ever SEC championship?
Why they could
South Carolina returns the most experienced and perhaps talented combination of Quarterback/running back/wide receiver in the SEC. Two of those three, Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jefferson, could end up being top 10 NFL picks in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
On offense, they can beat you between the tackles or in the air. Their offensive line should be the strongest they have had under Spurrier as well.
The defense with six returning starters, and the addition of Jadeveon Clowney, should be somewhere between serviceable and very good.
This team should show more consistency than last season. Last season, they would look like a national championship contender when they defeated then ranked No. 1 Alabama, only to lose the following week to a below-.500 Kentucky team.
Why they might not
Oct. 15-Nov. 12. The majority of South Carolina's schedule lines up favorably. They have a tough game in Week 2 in Athens against the University of Georgia, but it is sandwiched by Navy and East Carolina.
They do, however, have a four-week span where they play three away games (Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Arkansas). They have to follow that up with a home game against Florida.
This is where the question will be answered can they play well consistently. If so, a second straight trip to Atlanta could be on the horizon.
Stephen Garcia. It seems likely, though not certain, that Garcia will have his suspension lifted before fall practices resume. Coach Spurrier knows this is unquestionably his best shot at a SEC championship while at South Carolina.
Getting Garcia eligible is only half the battle. Will he be able to stay eligible and stay focused?
There has been a lot of hype that has surrounded his current backup, Connor Shaw, but make no mistake about it, Garcia gives the Gamecocks their best shot at a SEC Championship.
He will also need to be more careful with the football. Garcia, overall, was much more efficient last season. He passed for over 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns. However, he still had 14 interceptions, and will need to improve upon that.
Georgia is coming off their most disappointing season in recent memory. In fact, the program who was once a top ten fixture under Coach Mark Richt has been an uninspiring 14-12 over the last two seasons.
Things, however, are looking up in Athens. The question is, are they looking up enough for their first return back to the SEC Championship game since 2005?
Why they might
The Bulldogs return the top quarterback in the SEC, Aaron Murray. Going into last fall, the only offensive question mark was supposed to be the quarterback position. 3,000 yards and 28 total touchdowns later, Murray has become their least questionable player.
The Bulldogs have a new strength and conditioning coach, and the results could mean a special season for the Bulldog faithful. Their defensive line, for example, averages over 25-pounds more per position than they did last season.
With a defense primed to join the SEC elite again and the top special teams in the nation, this UGA team should have their bite back. Many people are curious how the “Dream Team” will contribute this season.
However, there are four players (Jarvis Jones, Richard Samuel, Michael Bennett and Ken Malcolme) who redshirted last season for various reasons and could be difference makers this season.
Why they might not
The running game. It doesn't seem like that long ago when UGA had two potential Heisman winners on the offensive side of the ball: Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno.
The Dawgs have that elite-level quarterback behind center once again. However, the running game seems to have departed with Moreno when he headed to the NFL.
This running game might not get better this season. Former Bulldog, and leading rusher, Washaun Ealey is no longer at the school. This leaves former five-star running back Caleb King as the starter on the most recent depth chart.
King has played well at times and has averaged over 5 yards per carry each of the last two seasons. However, he has battled one injury after another since his senior year of high school.
Great things are expected of their newest five-star running back, Isaiah Crowell. His arrival on campus is one of the most anticipated in recent memory, but do you want to put your running game in the hands of a freshman?
Moreover, Mark Richt's offense calls for much more than running the football at the tailback position. Blocking is one of the key responsibilities and has led him to redshirt other freshman running backs like Knowshon Moreno.
Team chemistry and attitude. One of the hardest things to accomplish for a football program is to change the mindset of the players after a period of losing.
As great as Aaron Murray was last season, he was still 6-7 as a starter. Many of these players, like Murray, were winners in high school but have not felt that way in over two years.
Mark Richt, despite the recent and ridiculous criticisms of his coaching, is a great football coach. However, he has never been in a situation like this. His teams won early and won often when he arrived in Athens.
UGA played in three SEC Championship games in his first five seasons. Things have now changed and the team is losing games that they should win. Will he be able to turn it around?
It will start with the team's mindset. Can he get these Dawgs to believe that they can win again? Call it swagger or call it confidence, but the Dawgs need it again.
The post-Tim Tebow era got off to a rough start last season as the Gators finished 8-5 and were demolished at home by South Carolina.
Florida fans had to watch as their former coach, Steve Spurrier, clinched the SEC East on the Gators home field.
To top that off, the most dominating coaching SEC run in recent memory came to a close as Urban Meyer stepped down as head coach for the second time in a year.
This led to the hiring of Will Muschamp as their new head coach. Can he strike gold in his first season and help the Gators return to the SEC championship game for the fourth time in six seasons?
Why they could
It seems that people, in and outside of the media, have forgotten that this team still has a roster full of talent. Florida has enough talent on their roster to compete with any team in the SEC.
There are some big-time recruits, like John Brantley, who struggled last season, but experience and coaching could help these players reach their potential.
Charlie Weis, the new Gator offensive coordinator, is one of the best coaches at any level of developing quarterbacks and hiding their weaknesses. He was not successful at Notre Dame as a head coach, but his teams always scored in bundles.
Why they might not
Transition. Transition can be difficult at times. Although this team has a great deal of talent, they will all be learning from scratch. They will be switching from a spread offense to a pro-style offense and changing some defensive philosophies as well.
The schedule is favorable for the Gators as they will not be the underdogs until Week 5 when they host the University of Alabama. They follow that game with a trip to LSU. It will not be an easy transition, but early success could carry them to Atlanta.
The development of Brantley. Last season, Brantley was one of the new kids on the block.
However, this season, he will be as experienced as any quarterback in the SEC with the exception of LSU's Jordan Jefferson.
There will be no excuses for Brantley this season as he will have a terrific offensive coordinator working with him and a system more fitting for his skill set.
If Brantley progresses, so will this Florida Gator team. They still have some of the top playmakers in the nation at Florida, but they must get them the ball in space.
It is way too early for a true prediction for the 2011 season. There are too many questions that cannot be answered until fall practices are underway.
However, if I had to chose today, with the information we have available, I would predict it will be Alabama and South Carolina in the championship game.
With Steve Spurrier;s 3-1 record against Nick Saban (by 31, 30, and 14 points) I would have to choose South Carolina to win their first-ever SEC Championship.
With that said, my selection might change 10 times before fall practices begin. The point being, no matter how much each fan base might think they have a clear advantage, they do not.
The SEC is truly up for grabs this season. I will be attending fall practices for all 12 teams prior to the start of the season. At that time, I will give my final predictions.