Can SEC football return to the top in 2015?

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SEC football was the measuring stick for everyone in college football for a decade, but after two straight years without winning the championship, can they return to the top in 2015?

Before you answer the question of whether or not the SEC can resume its reign over the college football world, it's important to note that as far as folks in the Southeastern Conference are concerned, they never left the top.

The belief is among most diehard SEC purists that despite losing the national championship game in 2013, and losing the semifinal playoff game in 2014, their conference is still the one with a target squarely in the center of its collective chest.

The dichotomy in the college football landscape (in their mind) is the SEC...and then everyone else.

It's this rather misguided and fanciful belief that can be pointed to as the main reason why the SEC can return to the top. But getting there is a much more complex and winding path than it was in years past. More programs have closed the gap in terms of talent and execution, and with the playoff system, there are more chances to lose.

Can they get back on top? Short answer yes. But will they do it is another matter completely.

For nearly a decade, the best one or two teams in the SEC simply had to get past a single team (sometimes from their own conference) who may or may not have been on equal footing. Win the SEC, and then the BCS would throw whoever happened to be the next challenger at you.

During that period, there were possibly one or two teams each season who could legitimately challenge Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida, etc. And should that team stumble near the end of the regular season and suffer a crippling loss, they might not even be in the national championship game, despite being one of the two best teams in truth.

In 2015, there are no less than five different teams not in the SEC who could be considered national championship contenders. Baylor, TCU, Ohio State, Arizona, Oregon and a host of others will all have their shot, and the SEC champion will have to play and beat two of them to be able to strap on the championship belt once again.

Another issue that the SEC will face in returning to college football title holder is perception.

In years past, voters put a lot of weight into winning within the SEC. If you could run the gamut of an SEC schedule, then you were entitled to a high-ranking. That perception may not be as clear-cut anymore, and the top teams in the SEC will undergo more scrutiny in who they beat and how it's accomplished.

While weak non-conference foes may have been overlooked in the past when voters considered an SEC team, it will now be given extra consideration, particularly in light of how other conferences have adjusted their guidelines for non-conference scheduling. The Big Ten is a perfect example, as they no longer will schedule FCS opponents in football.

Last season was the eye-opener for the perception of the conference. The SEC West was lauded as the toughest conference in the nation for most of the season, with three teams hovering at or near the top of the rankings. And there was a time when it looked possible that two teams from that division could possibly be in the playoffs.

None of those three top teams - Alabama, Mississippi State and Ole Miss - were able to win their season finale against top-ranked out of conference teams.

So who could emerge in the SEC as an avenger, and play the part of Rocky Balboa showing he still had it in a rematch with Clubber Lang?

Unlike the SEC of the early 2000s, there is no handful of teams who all could not only win the SEC, but could take down any challenger outside the borders of conference play. As the season moves on in 2015, you will likely see one team begin to take control, with several others becoming possible dark horse candidates.

You always have to consider Alabama, probably the most consistent and well-run program in the nation. Nick Saban's team will always be a frontrunner in the conference, and can never be overlooked regardless of how many key players are moving on to the NFL.

After Alabama, you have a long list of "yeah, but" teams. Programs who may have some selling points as to why they can win the SEC, but have a caveat when it comes to picking them.

Ole Miss is a possible winner, right?

Yeah, but how are they going to replace Bo Wallace, the guy who was (although inconsistent) the heartbeat of that offense. Despite a really good defense, the Rebels looked more lucky than good last year, and might disappoint in 2015.

Well, what about Mississippi State, aren't they ready to step up?

Yeah, but they showed some weaknesses that can be exploited late in the season, and are losing a lot of key players without the depth that a program like Alabama has. 2014 may have been a lightning in a bottle year for the Bulldogs.

Can't LSU make a run?

Yeah, but they still have some serious quarterback issues, and they're breaking in a new defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele, after losing longtime defensive master John Chavis. If teams can stop Leonard Fournette, there's little else the Tigers have to throw at them.

What about coming out of the East? Can Georgia finally get over the hump?

Yeah, but they always seem to find a way to lose a game or two they shouldn't. It's just their lot in life. And they are bringing a new offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, along for the ride, as well as trying to find a new quarterback again.

Well isn't Tennessee up-and-coming?

Yeah, but they still have a ways to go. They're definitely not that "pencil this game in as a win" opponent that they'd been for a while now, but they still aren't completely back. Ask in another year or two, and you might get a definitive yes.

Missouri has won the SEC East two years running now, could they be the next top team?

Yeah, but they lack the big weapons on offense to compete with the top teams in the nation, and defensively they are going to be struggling to replace some top players. You just never get a comfortable feeling watching Missouri.

Well, certainly Auburn has to be considered a threat, right?

Yeah, but replacing Nick Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne will be a huge hurdle for the Tigers. And lets face it, that defense was just awful in 2014. They may be better this year, but improved enough to be a championship contender? Not likely.

There are a lot of ifs, ands and yeah buts with so many teams in the conference, and even Alabama isn't excluded from that, losing two of the most dynamic players in the country in T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper.

So back to the original question...can the SEC return to the top in 2015?

Yeah, but...

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Can SEC football return to the top in 2015?
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