SEC faces strong challenges as college football's top dog

Georgia NCAA college football coach Kirby Smart speaks during the Southeastern Conference's annual media gathering, Tuesday, July 11, 2017, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

HOOVER, Ala. (AP) - When LSU's Ed Orgeron matter of factly declared the SEC as "the best conference in the United States," he was mostly preaching to the choir in the league's backyard.

But the Southeastern Conference's once-undisputed status as college football's top league is facing strong challenges from both the ACC and Big Ten despite Alabama's best efforts.

The Crimson Tide certainly remains formidable as ever, if not invincible, at the top. Beyond that, there's plenty of uncertainty - and in some cases mediocrity - in a league that won seven straight national titles from 2006-12.

"If you're trying to hit a moving target on this date and say, 'Is the SEC the best league right now?', the answer is no," SEC Network analyst and talk show host Paul Finebaum said Tuesday at media days. "I think it's probably the ACC. It's marginal and you can come back and say, 'Yeah but...'

"Results matter, and the SEC has lost two times in the last four years to the ACC."

Clemson toppled the Tide on a last-second touchdown at the national championship game in January. Florida State claimed the title with a win over Auburn four years earlier.

The ACC isn't the only league mounting a challenge to the league's supremacy.

The Big Ten finished with four teams ranked in the Top 10 in the final AP poll. The league did go 3-7 in bowl games.

The ACC enjoyed an 8-3 postseason romp while the SEC's 12 bowl teams managed just a .500 postseason record.

The SEC sent a four-loss Auburn team to the Sugar Bowl, its most prominent non-playoff game. The Tigers lost 35-19 to Oklahoma.

Still, SEC teams are faring well on the recruiting trail, with half of the top 12 signing classes in the 247Sports composite rankings this year. Alabama was No. 1 and Georgia only two spots back.

For Finebaum, the difference comes down to the head coaches.

The ACC has national championship coaches in Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, along with ex-SEC head men Mark Richt (Miami) and Bobby Petrino (Louisville).

The Big Ten starts with Ohio State's Urban Meyer, who led Florida to a pair of national titles, and Michigan's Jim Harbaugh topping the pecking order. The days of a Steve Spurrier-Saban-Meyer SEC coaching Mount Rushmore are past.

"What do you have now in the SEC? I mean, after Saban, who's next?" Finebaum said. "There's no clear second-best coach. And even if you come up with that answer, it's not concrete."

What is concrete: The ACC held the upper hand last season. That league went 10-4 against SEC teams and won four of five postseason games.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey gets philosophical when asked whether the league has slipped, even quoting a longtime manager of Manchester United.

"That's the nature of competitive endeavors - they're very close," Sankey said. "There's a quote from Sir Alex Ferguson that I read that says in a fiercely competitive endeavor things aren't decided until the bitter end. So you accept that. But I don't at all think that's a representation of slippage.

"Our commitment is high, but you're in a competitive endeavor. You want to win them all, but sometimes you don't."

There does seem to be a wider disparity between 'Bama and the rest of the league than among the top conferences.

Alabama has won 17 consecutive SEC games, all but three by double-digit margins. A 54-16 dismantling of Florida in the SEC championship game would indicate a sizable distance between the Tide and the rest of the league, though rival coaches are mostly unwilling to measure that gap.

"I don't know the gap itself," said Gators coach Jim McElwain, a former Alabama offensive coordinator. "I do understand this, they're right now at the top. It's up to the rest of us to go get 'em."

It's clear the rest of the league - like the vast majority of programs - has been lagging well behind Alabama.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart, a former Tide defensive coordinator, said the key to closing that gap will be not just recruiting top players but developing them once they arrive on campus.

"When you do both, that's when you got something special," Smart said. "And I think every team in this conference is trying to play catch-up in regards to that.

"I think each one's getting closer, and we'd like to see that gap closed through recruiting."

And maybe, as a result, once again widen the gap between the SEC and other conferences.