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Is the Sun Setting on the Southern Empire?

In some ways, there were few surprises for many of us when Auburn won on Saturday. We've almost come to expect it now, as SEC fans. For five years running, the team that won in Atlanta has gone to the national title game a few weeks later, adding another crystal football to the school trophy case and the imaginary one built for the conference. Whether or not you believe that the run of titles is evidence of the SEC's superiority, it's one reason that the conference has become the most discussed in college football. And the latest win might lead us to ignore the signs that the SEC's empire might have hit its zenith.

Aside from the national championship game in Glendale, things did not go so well for the SEC in the postseason. The league was 4-5 outside of the national game, with this list of scalps: Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State and Texas A&M. Two of those teams were even in contention for their conference title late into the season. None of them, save Michigan State, were ever considered truly elite.

Of course, most fans tend to think that their conference is better than the rest. (Except Big East fans, for whom reality has surely set in. You would hope.) And we should recognize that it's a subjective argument anyway. The name of this site is largely in the same vein of most of the posts: Firmly tongue in cheek, though some of our commenters would have me point out that the SEC might have a slight speed advantage along the lines.

That said, things have been good for the SEC over the last five years. With the Florida and LSU wins against Ohio State at the end of the 2006 and 2007 seasons, the idea of leaving an undefeated SEC team out of national championship game became laughable, just two years after Auburn made it a fact. So conference pride is actually a practical matter, particularly in a sport where image can be critical to a team's chances.

But looking at the SEC in 2011, it's not easy to see a ready contender for the national title. The East is a mess, with South Carolina and Tennessee the early front-runners for division favorites despite uninspiring bowl performances, Georgia considering whether to fire its head coach after the season opener or at the end of the year, Florida changing offensive systems after a 7-5 regular season, and Kentucky and Vanderbilt being Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Things are trending the wrong way in the West, as well. It might be easier to list which Alabama juniors are coming back next year than to write down who's leaving for the NFL. Arkansas and Auburn are losing the quarterbacks that basically made their teams, with Auburn also losing its best defensive player. LSU and Mississippi State could be the favorites, but does anyone see Mississippi State going undefeated? Does anyone really expect Les Miles to lose fewer than two games? As for Ole Miss -- Ole Miss has many, many issues.

Now, all of those guesses could turn out wrong for one reason or another. Few would have predicted in January 2010 that Auburn would win the national title. And LSU also lost two games in 2007, which didn't stop them from hoisting the crystal football after one of the most bizarre seasons in recent memory.

But nothing like this can last forever. Conference strength is cyclical, and at some point some other league will take over as the star of the sport for a while. If Saturday night was the end of the SEC's claim on the national title, what a ride it's been.