As SEC Media Days Kick Off, Uncertainty for College Football’s Most Visible Conference

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Don’t use the word drought to describe two years without a national championship — though I know some will this week, as SEC media days begin in Alabama.

I live in California, where we’ve gone two years with hardly any rain; now that’s a drought in its most literal sense. But, hell, drought applies more to the football out here than it does to the SEC. The conference’s last national championship came more than a decade ago: 2004 if you ignore asterisks, 2003 if you recognize the Associated Press and 1991 if you really want to pick nits.

And yet, it’s universally understood that Pac-12 football is the best its been collective in…well, pretty much forever. A national championship is the ultimate pursuit of every Bowl Subdivision program, and winning is great for a conference. Doing so isn’t the end-all, be-all metric by which a league is measured, as the Pac-12 proves.

It is the case for the SEC, however. And that’s a self-created dilemma.

Incoming commissioner Greg Sankey and the 14 coaches scheduled to speak at SEC media days shouldn’t have to address any drought, even if they’ll almost certainly be asked to. Any other conference would gladly take a two-year sabbatical from titles in exchange for the seven straight the SEC claimed from 2006 through 2012.

Nevertheless, there’s much more of a worrisome tone emanating from SEC media days this year than summers past, as Dan Wolken of USA Today described in his column over the weekend. That’s in stark contrast to the chest-thumping nature during the conference’s run, or even somewhat last season when the streak ended in the final BCS Championship Game.

Auburn’s last-minute defeat to Florida State certainly didn’t keep Paul Finebaum’s My Conference Can Beat Your Conference from hitting newsstands and the Kindle Store. But a publisher releasing a book with that title this year feels like a roadmap straight for the $1 bin.

Finebaum’s book isn’t an anecdotal example. Rather, that title nicely crystallizes the self-congratulation in which the SEC indulged for years. SEC media days were the centerpiece of that, an opportunity for the conference to revel in past accomplishments while setting the tone for the achievements to come. From an outsider perspective, SEC media days seem to have all the back-patting of a Silicon Valley product launch.

As in Silicon Valley, the bubble can burst in football.

The national championship is a tangible piece of property to which the conference’s fans, media, administrators can point and say, We’re the best. Without it, this offseason’s fall-back has been the SEC Network’s Year 1 revenue. But even that comes with some uncertainty, as just a few weeks out of the SEC announcing record-setting revenue for its programs, news leaked that Disney Corp. wants ESPN to cut budget by a quarter-billion dollars.

Television revenue shouldn’t have to be the banner the “best conference” waves, but that’s where we’re at after the past two postseasons.

Alabama’s loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal left a lot more lopsided than just one touchdown — perhaps because the Crimson Tide held an early, two-touchdown advantage that was fueled largely by Buckeye miscues. Alabama winning the inaugural tournament would have erased any sting that the rest of the SEC West’s top losing its bowl games caused.

Instead, Alabama’s defeat is the centerpiece for this offseason’s lingering consternation. To not only lose, but lose because of a defense’s inability to stop — well, much of anything, and to do so against a Big Ten foe, created the perfect storm. Or perfect drought, as it were.

Heading into 2015, there is no clear-cut No. 1 team. Alabama is about as close to a consensus favorite as you’ll find in any conference other than the Big Ten, and the Tide’s defensive front seven, stacked backfield and typically imposing offensive line justify the selection. And, oh yeah, iconoclast Nick Saban is still on the sidelines.

But Alabama has no quarterback as of the start of SEC media days, and Crimson Tide secondary is confounding.

Auburn and Georgia are probably the two next-most popular picks to win the SEC. Auburn’s defense was a mess much of 2014 and Georgia’s quarterback situation is dire enough that Greyson Lambert, beat out for the starting job at Virginia, could start Week 1.

That there is no definitive No. 1 team should make for a historically exciting SEC season, especially given the improvements many of the conference’s lower-tier teams are making. Tennessee’s return to possible contention in the East adds some flavor lacking for almost a decade, for example, while Ole Miss and Mississippi State have not been this good simultaneously at almost any point in history.

Still, when your sole metric for success is winning the national championship, and you fail to do so twice, you start feeling awfully thirsty.