In 1997, the last season before the BCS was inaugurated, the SEC was the losing finalist in the nominal national championship game as Tennessee suffered a blowout against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The following year, the Volunteers finished business with a victory over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, starting a trend where the SEC has filled 11 of the 32 championship-game berths and claimed nine of the 16 BCS titles from 1998 to 2013.
Though Auburn would ultimately lose a tight finish against Florida State to break the chance at a 10th SEC title and eighth in a row, the conference is still positioned as the preeminent league entering the College Football Playoff era. The battle to prevent a conference champion stipulation in the selection of the four-team field was largely a concession to the SEC’s depth, and it will soon become an annual rite of wintertime to argue whether the SEC deserves a second team in the field.
But with the increased adulation also comes increased scrutiny. The vagaries of the league’s 14-team configuration and insistence on only playing eight league games makes for wildly unbalanced schedules. And the proclivity to either demand “neutral-site” games within the league’s footprint or schedule home games against cupcake opponents for non-conference tilts could backfire when strength of schedule arguments come up in the future.
The SEC’s reputation, however, shows that it will remain the predominant powerhouse in college football at least into the first year of the CFP. Three teams feature in the top 10 of both the AP and coaches polls, five teams in the top 15, and a grand total of eight in the former and seven in the latter. The reality is that, even with Florida State’s takedown of SEC champion Auburn in the final BCS championship game, the benefit of the doubt is going to be given to Dixie every time.
It is a benefit they have earned over the past decade of dominance, and one that isn’t likely to go away after one close defeat. Five of the league’s members have won national titles since the dawn of the BCS era, and this year five different teams could ostensibly make the four-team field from the conference. The league could also potentially soak up the lion’s share of the at-large spots in the CFP-affiliated Peach, Cotton, Orange, and Fiesta Bowls. Couple this reality with the birth of the SEC Network to coincide with the 2014 football season, and the rich could potentially continue getting richer. In five years we might merely be looking at the Auburn loss to FSU as a random blip in an otherwise hegemonic string of titles.
First, however, we would need to figure out which of these contenders are likeliest to be in position to play for the title. Click ahead to see predictions for the order of ranking in the East and the West…