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Monday, August 15, 2011
Updated: August 16, 1:53 PM ET
SEC sets its sights on sixth straight title

By Chris Low
ESPN.com

One of SEC commissioner Mike Slive's reading selections this summer was "56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports."

Gene Chizik
Last season, Auburn became the latest SEC team to hoist the national championship trophy.

The book chronicles DiMaggio's fabled 56-game hitting streak, which captivated baseball fans during the 1941 season and has stood the test of time.

What the SEC has done in football the past five seasons may also stand the test of time.

"DiMaggio's hitting streak is a record that may never be broken," Slive said. "I think [the SEC's five straight national championships] is in that same category."

And to take it a step further, four different SEC teams have won the past four national titles, making the streak all the more remarkable.

It's a reign of dominance that has solidified the SEC as college football's pre-eminent conference, all the while creating a dizzying standard that has become the envy of the sport.

"The more championships we win, the more great players from all over the country want to come and play in the SEC," said Auburn sophomore defensive end Nosa Eguae, who earned his ring as part of the Tigers' national championship club a year ago.

"We're not the only league that has great players. There are great players all over the country. But it's the best of the best in the SEC -- the best players, the best coaches, the best competition and the best place to come win a national championship."

Hard to argue that theory, especially given the SEC's success during the BCS era.

Five different teams have won national championships, and the league is 7-0 in national title games.

The last two national champions (Auburn and Alabama) were unbeaten, but the four national championship teams prior to that from the SEC (Florida in 2008, LSU in 2007, Florida in 2006 and LSU in 2003) all had at least one loss.

The grind of the SEC is what makes it so difficult, having to navigate through the likes of Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU and Florida on a weekly basis.

But that same grind has also helped the SEC receive the benefit of the doubt from the voters when it comes time for the final BCS standings to be released.

It's almost as if the SEC championship game has become a play-in game for the right to play in the BCS National Championship Game. Each of the league's last five representatives in the BCS National Championship Game arrived there after a win in the Georgia Dome.

LSU
LSU proved in 2003 and 2007 that an SEC team can reach the BCS National Championship Game with a loss (or two).

"The reality is that if you win the SEC championship, you're probably going to get a chance to play for the national championship," said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who was the offensive coordinator on both of Florida's national championship teams in 2006 and 2008.

"We've talked about that with our players. Our goal is obviously to get to Atlanta, and the great thing that potentially comes with going to Atlanta now is that you're going to have the opportunity to play for the national championship. Just the depth in this conference that you have to go through, and if you can get through it and win, you really deserve the opportunity to play for the national championship."

The odds would seem to be against the SEC making it six in a row. For one, the target has never been larger on the SEC's back, and the way teams beat up on each other in this league speaks for itself.

That said, eight of the 12 SEC teams will go into the season ranked in the USA Today coaches' poll, one of three components used in compiling the BCS standings.

Alabama (No. 2), LSU (No. 4), South Carolina (No. 12) and Arkansas (No. 14) are all ranked in the top 15. Auburn sits at No. 19, Mississippi State No. 20, Georgia No. 22 and Florida No. 23.

Keep in mind that Auburn was No. 23 a year ago in the preseason coaches' poll and came from the back of the pack to win the national title, so if that precedent holds, two-thirds of the league is at least positioned this season to make a run.

Who genuinely has the firepower to be there at the end?

It starts with Alabama and LSU, both of whom have defenses tailor-made to win a national championship.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said this will be a different kind of defense than the ones the Crimson Tide have had in the past, primarily because they don't have a dominant defensive lineman. But being able to bring linebackers Dont'a Hightower off one edge and Courtney Upshaw off the other is a nightmare for opposing offenses.

On top of it all, Alabama might have the most talented defensive secondary in the country.

"It still eats at us how last season played out," Hightower said. "When you get your opportunity, you've got to strike. We let it get away from us in a few games, and it cost us. If you're going to win a championship, you've got to prepare that way and play that way every time you go out there. That's what we're going to get back to."

Just making it through September unscathed will be a coup for LSU, which has as much young talent on defense as any team in the country. Defensive coordinator John Chavis also says it's the fastest defense he's put on the field since coming to Baton Rouge in 2009.

Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore
With a 1-2 punch of Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina has the weapons to return to the SEC championship game.

After opening the season against No. 3 Oregon in Arlington, Texas, LSU has two daunting road dates the first month of the season -- at Mississippi State on Sept. 15 (a Thursday night game) and at West Virginia on Sept. 24.

If it's not Alabama or LSU making it to college football's showcase game this season, who else is equipped to get there?

Arkansas suffered a big blow with star running back Knile Davis going down for the season with an ankle injury. He's the one who made the Hogs' offense go last season after he cranked it up in October.

Nonetheless, this is a talented and veteran Arkansas football team with a defense that should be Bobby Petrino's best since he's been in Fayetteville.

The Hogs are at a disadvantage in that they have to play at Alabama and at LSU, which won't be a problem for South Carolina.

The Gamecocks, trying to get back to the SEC championship game for the second straight season, avoid Alabama and LSU altogether during the regular season.

They also have one of the best one-two punches in college football in sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore and junior receiver Alshon Jeffery.

"We got a little taste last year, but that's all it was," Jeffery said. "We know what it's going to take to get back there, and we plan on finishing the job this time."

Having a fifth straight different SEC team win it all in 2011 would really send tremors across the college football landscape.

It may be difficult for some to imagine, but nobody outside of the Plains this time last year imagined Auburn going 14-0 and winning the national championship.

And if any team in the SEC has its back to the wall this season, it's Georgia.

"We look at it like this: 'Why not Georgia? Why can't we do it?'" Georgia junior tight end Orson Charles said. "Florida did it a couple of years ago. Auburn did it last year. Alabama did it a couple of years ago. Why not us? What's stopping us? We have the athletes. We have the coaches. What's holding us back?

"So let's just go get it and have fun and not worry about what anybody says about us, the newspapers, the blogs, nothing. We've just got to go get what we've been dreaming about since we got on this campus, and that's a championship."

Chris Low covers college football for ESPN.com. You may contact him at espnclow@aol.com.