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January 12, 2011

CECIL HURT: In SEC football, almost anything is possible

Tuscaloosa has mixed emotions about Auburn's BCS Championship Game victory Monday night. That's understandable. And it doesn't mean that people are confused, it just means that different folks look at Auburn's triumph in different ways.

There are plenty of Alabama fans who don't particularly care to see Auburn succeed at anything, and those fans are especially peeved at the amazing turn of events that prevented them from gloating about their BCS Championship/undefeated season/Heisman Trophy trifecta for more than a single calendar year.

Then, there is the whole Cam Newton saga. I am not convinced that horse is dead just yet, but I am not going to beat it here.

People who loathe Alabama's cross-state rival aren't going to find any silver lining in the Auburn win over Oregon. If you can set aside those partisan emotions, though, a couple of things are worth mentioning.

First, there was nothing surprising or unjust about the outcome. Auburn was clearly superior at the line of scrimmage, and if anything was remarkable, it's that Oregon managed to stay in the game for 59 minutes and 58 seconds. Auburn got a few breaks - perhaps the most critical was the illegal shift penalty that negated a Duck gain, put Oregon on its own goal line and ended up in a safety and a nine-point swing. But the Tigers capitalized on those breaks.

Second, while I am not entirely committed to a one-conference-for-all-and-all-for-one mentality, it is remarkable that when the 2011 season gets started, there won't be one single player in college football who has known anything other than an SEC team as national champion. Since the day they were recruited, these players - all players - have learned that, if you want to win it all, you pick a school where they drawl. (OK, that's a terrible line but my brain is fried from 35 bowl games worth of commercials.)

And it isn't just one-team dominance, like the Pac-10 had with USC, or two-team dominance like the old days in the Big 10 when it was Ohio State and Michigan (yes, kids, Michigan used to be good). Over the course of five years, four different SEC teams have won the championship.

If it does nothing else, that statistic illustrates just what a task it is to get back to the top in the SEC. It is why Nick Saban's current streak of three straight Top 10 finishes is a stellar achievement that is too easily overlooked. It will be interesting to see, when the 2012 season wraps up, if Auburn will have matched that streak.

I am not saying the Tigers can't do it. I thought they couldn't win the BCS title this year, and they proved me wrong. But sustaining excellence in the SEC is not easy. Saban has done it. Les Miles has done it, and while I don't pretend to know all his reasons for spurning the coaching vacancy at his alma mater, I suspect one reason is that it is going to be easier to win at LSU than at Michigan for most of the 21st century.

Can other SEC teams do what four members have done in a five-year span? Certainly, Georgia can, although the Bulldogs seem to be stuck in neutral under Mark Richt. Tennessee can do it, although their 1998 title is looking smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror. History suggests that Tennessee belongs in the SEC's upper echelon, but I am wondering if a "second tier" is developing that will include, more or less permanently, Arkansas, South Carolina and Tennessee, looking up most of the time.

Based strictly on returning talent, South Carolina would seem to have a shot at being next year's surprise team. Perhaps not an Auburn-level surprise, since nothing is going to transform Stephen Garcia into Cam Newton. Still, the Gamecocks are loaded with big-play talent next year - if they can make the quantum leap in mental maturity that seemed to elude them this year as they careened from great performances (against Alabama) to lackluster ones (Kentucky, the second meeting with Auburn.)

But if you had to guess, at this impossibly early juncture, as to which school is the likeliest to make it six in a row for the SEC, you would have to lean to either Alabama or LSU.

But, if the 2010 season taught us anything, it taught us that, when it comes to SEC football, anything - well, almost anything - is possible.

Cecil Hurt is sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News. He can be reached at cecil.hurt@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0225.

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