Time for the SEC to put bowls, bad offseason in the rearview mirror

Nick Saban's Crimson Tide will get a tough test to open the season when they play No. 20 Wisconsin on Saturday. Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY Sports

All right, SEC, it’s almost time to turn the page.

The past few months didn’t go so well. First, there was the disappointing end to last season in which the league’s three highest-ranked teams all lost their bowl games. Then the league’s coaches went on the defensive and came off utterly tone deaf, whether it was Nick Saban making excuses, Steve Spurrier defending his age or Gary Pinkel telling independent programs such as Notre Dame how to handle their business.

But the time to harp on such things is over. Talking season is over. It’s finally, mercifully, game week.

Now is when the SEC gets to change the discussion. And that starts with quieting the “my conference is better than your conference” crowd. The Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC (twice!) are all there for the taking.

Right away, South Carolina can kill two birds with one stone on Thursday night: Spurrier can quiet his supposed “enemies” and prove he’s got a few more years left in him, and the Gamecocks can get the ball rolling with a win over ACC rival North Carolina.

If Auburn beats fellow ACC-er Louisville in Atlanta, all the better for the conference’s standing. Jeremy Johnson can show he’s up for the challenge of playing quarterback in Gus Malzahn’s offense, and the defense will get its first opportunity to show the progress it has made under new coordinator Will Muschamp.

Speaking of defenses that need to start fast, include Texas A&M in that mix. The Aggies’ defense has been a laughingstock lately, but the hiring of coordinator John Chavis promises to change that. Against Pac-12 power Arizona State, they’ll have to put up or shut up.

But the biggest opportunity for redemption lies with Alabama. The Crimson Tide need a win over the Big Ten after what Ohio State did to them in the playoff, and in Wisconsin they get that chance. As the bell cow of the SEC, a lot is on their shoulders. Beyond the matchup, the Tide have to show why they deserve their No. 3 ranking despite questions at quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line and defensive back.

Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss should all win their games easily, but all eyes will be on their quarterbacks as well, as we try to separate contenders from pretenders as soon as possible. We’ve debated all offseason whether a league with so many unproven QBs can reach the playoff, and now it’s time to see whether that’s possible.

Arkansas and Tennessee are in the enviable position of being settled at QB and should win their respective season openers easily, but starting Saturday, we'll find out whether they're the real deal or just another couple of seven-win teams the SEC hype machine has propped up as contenders.

Of course, we’ll overanalyze and overreact to what happens after the opening week of games, but that’s what comes with the territory.

If you’re the SEC, you should welcome the frenzy that’s sure to follow. It may go too far, but the chance to talk about anything other than last season’s bowl games and the offseason’s gaffes is a good thing.

One week isn’t going to win a national championship and break a two-year drought. It’s going to take a lot more to reach the level of respect -- or was it more like reverence? -- that came along with so many consecutive titles from 2006-13.

Ultimate bragging rights may be a ways off, but if the SEC can win its fair share of nonconference games this week and start to show that the quarterback position won't be its undoing, maybe then the league can regain some of its confidence.

By halting the talk and showing it on the field, maybe then it can begin to prove its doubters wrong and turn back this recent sense of downward momentum.