Editor's note: Is there anything that can stop the SEC's quest for a seventh national title? Here's a look at the major conferences that include teams that have solid shots or are intriguing long shots. Of course, lots of people believe there's no end to the streak in sight. Click here for Chris Low's story on why no one can take down the SEC.
USC Is Right On Schedule
SEC fans all have the same nightmare.
They fall asleep on their sofas on a college football Saturday and then wake with a start to the phone ringing. They see a mysterious little blond girl pick up that phone.
She turns. "They're baaaaaaack," she says.
"Oh, no!" the SEC fans exclaim. "Not USC! EEEEEEEEkkkkkk!"
Everyone in the country knows the program and conference that is going to end the SEC's run. Shoot, it's practically a done deal, at least since Matt Barkley stood in front of a Christmas tree and announced that he was coming back for his senior season to crush his enemies, see them driven before him and to hear the lamentation of their women.
USC is 22-11-1 all-time versus the SEC. Of course, very few of those games have taken place in the last 10 years during the SEC's, cough-cough, rise to dominance. It's a well-known college football fact -- I would never make this up -- that SEC athletic directors run and hide behind their desks when the Trojans call, intending to politely ask if said SEC team would be willing to play a game.
Oh, a couple of teams didn't get the memo about ducking USC. Auburn and Arkansas both scheduled home-and-home series with the Trojans this millennium. The end result was four defeats by a combined score of 167-48.
Since USC went to Arkansas and feasted on BBQ pig by a count of 50-14 in 2006 -- the Razorbacks had spent most of the summer blathering about redeeming themselves after suffering a 70-17 beatdown the previous season -- no SEC team has been willing to schedule USC. (That Arkansas team, by the way, won the SEC West and finished 7-1 in conference play while the Trojans lost two Pac-10 games).
It's not hard to imagine what happened after that evisceration in an SEC stadium. SEC commissioner Mike Slive surely called a super-secret meeting to put an end to these shenanigans. Normally well-mannered and patrician, Slive surely slammed his fist on the table, telling SEC administrators, "No more scheduling USC! Why would we create a BCS system that favors us and still play USC, which is going to slap our butts every time, dagnabit!?"
No, really, that probably happened.
In 2007 and 2008, USC had the same number of losses as LSU and Florida, which both won "national championships." The SEC was BCSed into those titles. Does anyone really believe Florida would have beaten USC in 2008? Of course they don't. Don't be silly.
Ah, but the Trojans slipped, no doubt. Pete Carroll, who didn't lose a nonconference game from 2003 to 2009, other than the 2005 national title game, lost his Pac-10 mojo, going 5-4 in conference play in 2009. He saw Oregon rising under Chip Kelly and the NCAA, frothing at the mouth to end USC's run as college football's preeminent program.
So he bolted, and the NCAA irrationally hammered USC with unjustifiable sanctions because it couldn't stand seeing Will Ferrell and Snoop Dogg hanging around practices and making the Trojans look impossibly cool.
But after a two-year postseason ban and a 10-2 finish in 2010, as noted earlier, "They're baaaack." And with Lane Kiffin as their coach, which makes things even more fun due to his beloved and lionized status among SEC fans.
No, don't run away. You're supposed to say "USC who?"
USCee you on Jan. 7 in Miami!
And if it's not USC, then it will be Oregon.
Big Ten Adding To Depth Chart
The Big Ten's quest to catch the SEC has always been about depth. While the SEC has had four different teams win national titles in the past six years, the Big Ten has had only one team, Ohio State, win a national title during the BCS era. Worse yet, the Buckeyes are the lone Big Ten team to even play for the crystal football (Nebraska played for the title in 2001 as a member of the Big 12).
Until the Big Ten places multiple teams among the nation's elite, the SEC debate is pointless from Lincoln to State College. The good news: The Big Ten finally appears to be beefing up at the top.
While some assume Michigan and Ohio State soon will turn back the clock a few decades and dominate the Big Ten again, other programs should factor into the picture. Wisconsin has been the Big Ten's representative in each of the past two Rose Bowls. Bret Bielema's team owns 32 victories in the past three seasons and shows little sign of slowing down.
Mark Dantonio is providing the stability Michigan State lacked for the better part of two decades. Like the Badgers, the Spartans have won 11 games in each of the past two seasons. Their talent level is on the uptick, and Dantonio and his staff have established an identity rooted in physical play on both sides of the ball.
The Big Ten can thank Michigan State for saving it from another complete New Year's disaster in the bowls. The Spartans rallied to beat Georgia in overtime at the Outback Bowl, preventing the Big Ten's second consecutive 0-3 performance against the SEC in Florida bowls. Although Georgia wasn't the class of the SEC in 2011, Michigan State's first bowl win under Dantonio provided a benchmark for the team to build on.
Penn State's situation undoubtedly stings, but if the Big Ten gets another team or two to rise up -- Nebraska and Iowa being the next logical candidates -- it will be closer to having the top-shelf depth to challenge the SEC.
Or Michigan simply can beat Alabama on Sept. 1 in Arlington, Texas.
It will take more than one regular-season game for the Big Ten to close the gap with the SEC, but the Wolverines can make a huge splash for themselves and their beleaguered league against Bama. Michigan emerged from a historically poor stretch last season to record 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl title under new coach Brady Hoke.
Although Hoke and others often state Michigan never went away, the Wolverines have a perfect opportunity to reclaim a spot among the elite when they open against the defending national champions.
The Wolverines are underdogs and have question marks along both lines, but they boast one of the nation's most dynamic players in senior quarterback Denard Robinson and a team that should be even more comfortable in Year 2 of the Hoke era. A win at JerryWorld would put Michigan -- and the Big Ten -- back in the national spotlight.
Ohio State can't challenge the SEC this season, but there's little doubt the Buckeyes soon will be positioned for a title push under new coach Urban Meyer, who knows what it takes to beat the best from the best league.
The key is not letting Ohio State take on the SEC by itself. When the Big Ten builds better depth at the top, it can start thinking about slaying the giant.
Florida State has the talent
The ACC hasn't had a winning record against the SEC since it went 5-4 in 2003.
It's time for that to change.
The SEC is chasing its seventh straight national title, but the ACC finally has a legitimate chance to get in the way. The ACC is looking for its first national championship since Florida State won in 1999, and the Seminoles are once again a preseason top-10 team.
Yeah, yeah, you think -- same old story.
Something is different, though, about this group, and it starts at the top.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said the talent on his team is "not superficial on paper." He has openly said he is more confident about this year's team than he was about last year's.
"I know the guys behind the scenes, I know what they're doing," he said. "Now it's the third year of our program, they know the expectations as far as what to do and how we want it done. I feel much more confident in our leadership. Not that we had bad leaders in the past, but we've got more of them, and more of them that understand what we want as a staff and how we're doing things. I have confidence in these guys. I truly believe in them."
As he should.
Fisher and his staff have lured in back-to-back top 10 recruiting classes. So has Clemson. The Noles aren't the only team in the ACC with a chance to derail the SEC, they're just one step ahead of the game. Look for the Tigers to be getting similar preseason hype heading into 2013. (First, though, Clemson has to do its part by beating South Carolina.)
For the rest of Dinich's look at the ACC, click here.
Louisville could take the first shot
The Big East school with the best chance of dethroning the SEC from the top of the college football world is the one that gets the first shot at the sport's best conference.
OK, so a Louisville season-opening win over Kentucky wouldn't exactly silence the chants of "S-E-C!" that have been coming from down South the past six years. But the Cardinals enter 2012 as the Big East favorite and coach Charlie Strong knows that the cream will have to rise to the top if the conference wants to effect change.
"What's going to be critical now, for this league to really become what it needs to become, we need to play better football," Strong said. "It needs to be where somebody can step up and have a good year or maybe one or two teams. We need to become a league where there are two or three teams people are talking about every year."
To Strong's credit, the Cardinals have been shifting in that direction, following the 15-21 three-year reign of Steve Kragthorpe by going 7-6 in each of Strong's first two seasons, splitting last year's conference title with West Virginia and Cincinnati.
Of course, from the outside view, failing to win arguably the worst automatic-qualifying conference outright is not grounds for national praise. And Strong knows that.
The third-year head coach spent 11 straight seasons in the SEC before taking over at Louisville, and he was a part of two national title-winning staffs with Florida. That experience proved valuable during Strong's first full recruiting cycle, as he took advantage of the changing of the guard at Miami and landed the Cardinals ESPN's No. 22 class, which featured three ESPN 150 players from the Sunshine State.
One of those 2011 commits, former Miami Northwestern standout Teddy Bridgewater, completed nearly 65 percent of his passes last season, throwing for 2,129 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to winning unanimous Big East rookie of the year honors.
Bridgewater enters this season on the watch lists for both the Davey O'Brien (best quarterback) and Maxwell (outstanding player) awards.
For the rest of Fortuna's look at the Big East, click here.
Can Big 12 win line of scrimmage?
The Big 12 got two swipes (should have been a third in 2011) at the SEC during the league's run of six national titles, but failed on both occasions.
Colt McCoy's shoulder suffered a freak injury on a usually harmless hit, and when McCoy trotted to the sidelines, the Longhorns' chances of beating Alabama came off the field with him.
A year earlier, Florida twice stuffed Oklahoma on the goal line, giving Tim Tebow his second national title and denying the Sooners the school's eighth.
So, who among the Big 12's contenders this season is best suited to end the SEC's tyranny?
The Sooners are simply the best team, even though Oklahoma's loaded up with flaws. Question marks on the offensive and defensive lines as well as at linebacker could prove problematic in a showdown with one of the SEC titans, but the Sooners would love for the play of four-year starting quarterback Landry Jones to answer it. He's got the skills to decipher complex SEC defensive schemes and the pocket presence to elude the rush. His arm strength assures that SEC secondaries will have to cover the whole field.
The Sooners would have to get past Texas in the Red River Rivalry to make that happen. (Never mind 2008. Just humor me here.) If the Longhorns can survive a brutal Big 12 schedule with six 10-win teams on the docket, they're probably the best Big 12 team suited to beat one of the SEC's best teams in a national title game.
The problem is producing enough offense to beat Big 12 teams. In an SEC matchup, though, it's all about the line of scrimmage. Texas' defensive line may challenge LSU as the nation's best, and the Longhorns have a crazy duo at defensive end in Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat, two of the nation's best at the position.
Texas' depth at defensive line is huge, too, but it likely has the Big 12's best offensive line. The loaded backfield of Joe Bergeron, Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray is a good sign, too. Mack Brown brought in assistants with SEC ties like Manny Diaz (defensive coordinator), Bo Davis (defensive tackles) and Stacy Searels (offensive line) to offer his team a little SEC flavor. You want power football, Nick Saban and Les Miles? Texas would love to play some power football.
What about a Big 12 newcomer who's never won the league and never played for a national title in the BCS era?
For the rest of Ubben's look at the Big 12, click here.