The SEC's national championship streak is over. Let's give it a proper postmortem before moving on entirely.
Date of Birth: December 5, 2004
You might disagree, but here's my pet theory on how the SEC's national championship streak came to be.
The start of it was not in January of 2007 when Florida defeated Ohio State, but rather when the final BCS standings arrived in 2004. Undefeated Auburn was No. 3, comfortably behind USC and Oklahoma. A team ran the SEC gauntlet and came out unblemished, but it would not play for the national title.
It was around that point when fans of SEC schools began to politick quite loudly about how the league is the toughest in the country. About how the champion of it should get to play for the national title if it didn't have more losses than the other candidates. About how we shouldn't necessarily be looking for the best teams, the topic of BCS debates up to that point, but rather the most deserving teams. Did the SEC champ not look as dominant as that of another conference? Of course it wouldn't! It just went through the toughest league! And so on.
Thanks to incessant promotion of this line of thought across two years, the narrative really took hold. Or, at least, it took hold in enough places to help Florida squeak past Michigan for the right to play Ohio State for the 2006 season's national title. Florida's blowout win in that game then etched the maxim in stone: when in doubt, the SEC team gets to play for the title.
Four of the No. 2 vs. No. 3 finishes with the BCS's final formula configuration (2004 to 2013) were significantly closer than the rest. The fourth closest was 2004. The other three in order beginning with the closest were 2011, 2006, and 2008. In each of those three, an SEC team edged out someone else for No. 2. Everyone else in the country hated the campaigning, but it worked.
It really was the SEC's streak.
A common refrain from outside the league is that the streak doesn't belong to the conference, only the teams that actually won titles. Five of the seven went to just two schools, one of the others happened thanks entirely to a chaotic year that produced a two-loss champ, and the other was just the luck of getting Cam Newton. Why should anyone else get to bask in the reflected glory?
It's impossible to overstate how important the SEC's best conference narrative was to keeping the streak alive. Keeping that up required big non-conference wins, a sterling bowl record in most years, and everyone being competitive at some point. Between 2006 and 2013, every member of the conference won at least nine games in a season (except for Kentucky, which won eight games twice). UK, the Mississippi schools, and Vandy were the only ones not to win 10 games at least once in that span, and that includes the newcomers.
Everyone pulled some weight in keeping that story about the SEC being great alive. That story even became so strong that it was malleable to whatever the SEC's purpose was. It successfully fought off arguments for regular season rematches in 2006 and 2008 by saying the "most deserving", not the "best", team should play for the title. Then in 2011, it turned into an argument for the "best" team in Alabama over the "most deserving" team in Oklahoma State (which played a tougher schedule) and secured the very thing it fought against in prior years.
Now, it's certainly debatable whether fans of, say, Tennessee should feel good about getting a best supporting actor nomination for the school's role in helping Florida and Alabama win national titles. Everyone really did pitch in though, and if Butch Jones leads Tennessee to a 12-1 record at some point in the next couple of years, those national titles by rivals will help ensure that UT makes the playoff ahead of some other programs.
Luck played a factor.
I covered this in a fair amount of detail in December, so I won't rehash it all here. Only 2009 Alabama, 2010 Auburn, and 2011 LSU went undefeated and basically made their own luck for making the title game; everyone else who played for the title in the span got some unlikely help from elsewhere.
One thing I neglected to cover back then was that the SEC's title streak probably should have ended not this year but last year. Ohio State AD Gene Smith apparently didn't see what everyone else in college football saw coming, that being a one-year bowl ban for Jim Tressel's lies that allowed some of his players to play in the 2011 Sugar Bowl. If Smith did see that on the way, he would have held his interim coach-led, 6-6 team in 2011 out of the postseason to allow his next coach's first team to play in the postseason.
As we saw this year, it would have been no guarantee that OSU's 12-0 team in 2012 would have even won the Big Ten Championship Game. However, last year's Nebraska team that got obliterated in the BTCG was a far cry from the quality of 2013 Michigan State. Ohio State likely would have won in Indy and gone on as a 13-0 team to face 12-0 Notre Dame in the national title game. The lies that helped OSU get a (now vacated) win over an SEC team in a bowl paved the way for the seventh and final national title in the SEC's streak. Don't say the Buckeyes never did nothing for the SEC.
Date of death: January 6, 2014. Cause: partially self-inflicted.
I say partially because obviously Florida State was a tremendous team in 2013. It had good coaches and good players, and it certainly played well enough to be considered a rightful national champ. I am taking nothing away from that team.
With that said, Auburn left plenty of points on the field. The first drive ended when Ricardo Louis dropped an underthrown Nick Marshall pass that could have been six if well thrown and caught, Cody Parkey missed a perfectly makable field goal, and a completion deep in FSU territory came back due to a holding penalty in the third quarter.
If those teams played each other 100 times, Florida State wins a great majority of them. Once the successful fake punt calmed FSU's nerves, the game went 31-10 in its favor the rest of the way. You only have to win once to win the national title, of course, and Auburn easily could have taken this one if it hadn't hurt its own cause.
Prognosis for resurrection: good and also iffy.
Will the SEC streak lurch back to life? Depends on what you mean by "streak".
If you are asking if the conference will rip off another seven in a row, the answer is almost certainly not. This streak was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and luck will not always work in the conference's teams' favor in the way it has recently.
But if you're asking whether SEC teams will win at least two or three in a row again in the near future, the chances are not bad at all. For a whole host of reasons, the SEC is a magnet for the best coaches in the game. Recruiting grounds are fertile, there's plenty of money to go around, and the aforementioned narrative has raised the prestige of the conference higher than ever. Wisconsin is higher in the Big Ten's pecking order than Arkansas is in the SEC's, but that fact didn't deter Bret Bielema from changing jobs. When is the last time that someone other than Lane Kiffin and possibly James Franklin, the exception(s) that prove(s) the rule, directly left an SEC job for a job at another school outside the league?
As long as the conference continues to house the best collection of coaches, it will keep producing national champions at the highest rate of any league. This streak may be over, but another one can't be too far away.