From a global domination standpoint, SEC football has been everything the Miami Heat hoped to be when the “Big Three” joined forces in the summer of 2010.
SEC teams, from the 2006 through 2012 seasons, combined to win not one, not two, not three … but seven consecutive national championships in college football’s BCS era. To put that in NBA terms, that’s five more titles than the Heat delivered despite pep-rally promises of similar largesse that never materialized while LeBron James worked with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in South Beach.
So it comes with a high degree of validity that Monday’s unveiling of college football’s national championship trophy in Irving caught the attention of SEC folks who envision collecting it after the Jan. 12 championship game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The winner in JerryWorld will be the first champion to survive a four-team bracket seeded by selection committee members from the College Football Playoff.
While CFP officials showed off their golden bauble Monday at their Irving headquarters, interested parties at SEC football media days in suburban Birmingham, Ala., admitted they already are envisioning how the prize would look as a permanent display item in an SEC trophy case.
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“As Muhammad Ali said, ‘It’s not bragging if you can back it up,’ ” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said.
Slive pointed out that the SEC would be riding a streak of eight straight titles if last season’s contest had not lasted “a minute too long,” allowing Florida State to secure a 31-27 comeback victory over Auburn. The memory of that loss, said Tigers’ coach Gus Malzahn, has motivated his players throughout the off-season. It will inspire them, Malzahn predicted Monday, during tough times and close games this season.
“Coming up 13 seconds short of winning the national championship, that was definitely a tough pill to swallow,” Malzahn said. “I will tell you this: Our players and our coaches are extremely motivated going into this next season. We have a lot of experience back on both sides of the football, specifically big-game experience, which I think is very valuable. Overall, I really like where this team is going into the fall.”
Malzahn, like many of his peers, made it clear he anticipates the SEC champion being part of the four-team playoff bracket this postseason regardless of that team’s final record. But he stopped short of saying that two SEC schools should be part of the mix, an opinion espoused in the spring by Arkansas coach Bret Bielema.
“I think it’s safe to say the SEC champion will be in the final four,” Malzahn said. “If you look at the last few years, numerous times there would be two teams from the SEC in the final four if the playoff format had existed in those seasons.
Among this year’s SEC teams, Auburn (12-2 last season) has the deepest and best blend of proven returnees to start a fresh title streak for the self-appointed “League of Champions.”
Sure, the Tigers have difficult road games at Georgia (Nov. 15) and Alabama (Nov. 29) down the stretch, as well as a Thursday night trip to Manhattan, Kan., to play Kansas State on Sept. 18. But if any SEC team has the talent and experience (14 returning starters, including QB Nick Marshall) to run the table with its 2014 regular-season schedule, it would be Auburn.
The biggest challenge, said center Reese Dismukes, should be mental.
“This season’s obviously going to be tougher than last season,” Dismukes said. “We’re going to have a target on our back. We will have to be as good, if not better, than last year to have a chance to make a run again.”
Auburn players also will need to rally around Marshall, who did not attend Monday’s media day after a Friday arrest on a charge of marijuana possession (less than one ounce). Malzahn said Marshall, a Heisman Trophy candidate, faces unspecified disciplinary measures in regard to the incident and showed appropriate contrition while apologizing to coaches and teammates.
Auburn defensive tackle Gabe Wright predicted teammates will rally around Marshall, even if he is forced to sit out a game or two.
“There’s no malice toward Nick,” Wright said. “I know my brothers. We will want to get behind him. I’ve been knocked down before and gotten back up. Nick can, too.”
If Malzahn suspends Marshall, an option the coach acknowledged he is considering, the Tigers open Aug. 30 against Arkansas, a 3-9 team last season. Auburn will not face an opponent coming off a winning record until mid-September, meaning Marshall should be available for all of the team’s toughest games regardless of Malzahn’s disciplinary tactics.
That places Auburn atop a short list of SEC teams likely to contend for college football’s new golden trophy. In the SEC, the race began Monday to see which school will be first to start the league’s next streak of dominance.