We know three things about the quality of SEC football:
It's the best conference in the country. It's at least a little overrated anyway (but also kind of underrated). And its talent advantage over the others isn't getting any smaller.
How would we define the SEC as being the best conference if not for that seven-year national championship streak? What if the SEC had only won two or three titles during that period? We could still find plenty of evidence, but we'd have to look harder.
Do we make too much of the tiny sample size that is a national championship game, especially since those games are assembled in part by generations worth of human assumptions and months worth of confirmed bias?
What if the SEC streak had ended anywhere along the way? What follows is a partial look at the points at which the run could've been cut off. As you'll see, more often than not, it was events that had nothing to do with the SEC that profited the conference. (And this is all in addition to factors like Alabama trying to hire Rich Rodriguez instead of Nick Saban and the Andy Staples alternate universe not happening.)
2006: Florida (13-1) over Ohio State, 41-14
December 4, 2004: If undefeated Auburn had finished No. 2 in that year's BCS standings after beating two more top-10 teams than Oklahoma did, there would've been no simmering BCS outrage throughout the SEC. That would mean no chip on the SEC's shoulder, other than the massive one that has always been there. And probably no SEC chant. And SEC champion Florida might not've eventually jumped fellow one-loss team Michigan during a Michigan off week.
Pre-2006: The Boise State team that beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl to finish as the country's only unbeaten could've assembled a stronger out-of-conference schedule. What if the Broncos had somehow gotten an overrated (and beatable) name from a power conference, like that year's Georgia or Oregon, instead of Sacramento State?
September 16: Chris Leak, who'd thrown three picks in his last 81 attempts, could've not found Dallas Baker for the go-21-20 ahead at No. 13 Tennessee. Reggie Nelson could've then not picked off Erik Ainge 24 yards away from the Gators' end zone with two minutes to go.
September 23: Eventual one-loss Wisconsin could've not lost by two scores at Michigan.
October 28: Georgia could've not turned the ball over four times in the second half of a 21-14 Florida win.
November 4: Tim Tebow could've not run for a 12-yard first down, sealing a 25-19 win over a Vanderbilt team that would finish the year 4-8.
November 9: Rutgers could've not made the biggest kick in its 144-year football history, except for that time 1871 center tackle Baseball "James" Wagontrain kicked a donkey in the tuberculosis. The deciding field goal made for final AP No. 5 Louisville's only loss.
November 11: Jarvis Moss could've blocked just one kick in the fourth quarter against South Carolina, not this one as well (edit: also, Moss could've been suspended for this game, not the next one against Western Carolina. HT Chris W.):
November 18: Yearlong No. 1 Ohio State could've lost a close game to full-hearted No. 2 Michigan. The Buckeyes' resume, considered superior to Michigan's until that point, could've kept them above Florida at No. 2 in the final BCS standings.
November 25: Florida State could've stopped Leak's seven-play, game-winning drive, again ending with a 25-yard strike to Baker. Also, another coach besides Urban Meyer might not've thought to keep pounding the table for Florida's strength of schedule immediately after the game:
Here's our style: You got at Tennessee, you've got Kentucky, you've got Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Auburn and at Tallahassee. So much for style. You want to put that one against anyone in the country, let's go ahead and go.
If [style points is] what's making decisions, then I'm going to stand by my comment from a week ago. Implode it. It's over. If that's what's making the decisions -- style points, which I imagine that's what it is -- we've got a problem. It's called winning and losing and playing a difficult schedule.
December 2: No. 2 USC should not have been held 23 points shy of its season average by Karl Dorrell's 6-5 UCLA in Los Angeles.
2007: LSU (12-2) over Ohio State, 38-24
The BCS' masterpiece. Sticking to just non-SEC teams that lost two or fewer games, and we're going to be here a while ...
September 8: No. 8 Virginia Tech could've not lost in Baton Rouge to No. 2 LSU.
September 28: No. 8 West Virginia should've not lost by a touchdown at USF, whose football program wasn't even of drinking age in the state of West Virginia.
September 29: No. 3 Oklahoma could've not lost at Dan Hawkins' Colorado, which would finish 6-7.
October 6: Okay, deep breath.
What if No. 1 LSU hadn't assembled a 15-play drive to beat No. 7 Florida in the unofficial game of the year? (Then Florida might've gone to the BCS National Championship, but this Florida team lost to the Michigan team that lost to Appalachian State, so ...)
No. 2 USC could've not lost to Stanford, which ranks as the biggest upset in college football gambling history, a 41.5-pointer. It's arguably a bigger upset than the winningest program ever losing on its home turf to a FCS team weeks prior. Again, 2007 was the BCS' masterpiece.
October 13: No. 1 LSU could've lost at the end of the fourth quarter at No. 18 Kentucky -- instead, the Wildcats won in triple overtime, eventually permitting Les Miles to adopt the boast that the Tigers were "undefeated in regulation." Also, No. 11 Missouri could've not lost to Oklahoma.
October 20: The most Miles call of Miles' career could've backfired. Down by three with seconds left and a timeout to burn, No. 5 LSU went for the win against No. 19 Auburn. Listen as the announcers are surprised when Matt Flynn doesn't down the ball to set up a field goal:
October 25: No. 9 Virginia Tech (again) could've not lost by four points to No. 2 Boston College.
October 27: No. 8 USC could've not lost by a touchdown at No. 5 Oregon.
November 3: No. 3 LSU needed two touchdowns in the final 2:49 to win at No. 18 Alabama.
November 10: No. 1 Ohio State could've not lost to Illinois. Oh, wait, this year was so insane that losing to Ron Zook's eventual four-loss Illinois did not even matter. Ohio State made the title game free and clear as the nation's only one-loss team that hadn't lost to a team that had twice lost to Oklahoma.
November 17: No 3 (again) Oklahoma could've not lost at four-loss Texas Tech by a touchdown.
November 23: No. 1 (again) LSU could've lost to Arkansas before triple overtime, which also would've ended Miles' undefeated-in-regulation claim.
November 24: No. 2 Kansas could've not lost to No. 3 Missouri, and yes, this was the year that a one-score Missouri vs. Kansas game could've decided everything.
December 1: No. 5 LSU (with backup quarterback Ryan Perrilloux in for Flynn, defensive coordinator Bo Pelini taking the Nebraska job, and Miles denying Michigan reports), could've not won the SEC on a Jonathan Zenon runback of an Ainge interception. And No. 1 Missouri could've not lost to Oklahoma (again). And No. 2 West Virginia ... I'll stop right there, West Virginia fans.
December 2: In the BCS' Harris Poll, Oklahoma finished one first-place vote behind LSU for the No. 2 spot. The computers preferred the Tigers, but if the Coaches Poll had sided with its even less watchful fellow human poll? Or if the Harris voters had paid even less attention than they usually do?
2008: Florida (13-1) over Oklahoma, 24-14
Pre-2008: What if the BCS wall had already been battered into its circa-2013 condition?
Would a 12-0 Utah team that had beaten a ranked Michigan team at Ann Arbor, No. 11 TCU, No. 14 BYU, and an Oregon State team that took down USC have ranked only No. 6 in the final BCS? Could it have slipped past a one-loss Oklahoma? And if it had made it in, could the Utes have beaten Meyer, their former coach? (They did go on to beat No. 4 Alabama worse than Florida had.)
September 25: No. 1 USC, which had just handled No. 5 Ohio State, should've had no trouble with the 1-2 Beavers in Corvallis. But these things happen.
September 27: When No. 4 Florida lost to Ole Miss, perhaps Tim Tebow could've failed to deliver a plaque-worthy speech afterward? Surely his teammates would've crumbled without his response instead of blowing apart the rest of the schedule. Believe it or not, citizen of 2013, but there was a time in America when relatively sane people believed Tebow and Tebow alone was capable of such things. More than one Florida fan declared the season a bust after this loss.
(But it was still at least as much thanks to that defense and Percy Harvin and Meyer.)
November 8: Kirk Ferentz didn't have to strike, but he did.
November 22: Mike Leach's No. 2 Texas Tech, which had gunned down No. 1 Texas three weeks prior, got blasted by No. 5 Oklahoma, 65-21. "What if a team had scored 45 more points than it did" is a reach of a what-if, but what if?
2009: Alabama (14-0) over Texas, 37-21
The Tide needed a blocked kick to top Tennessee, beat Virginia Tech by 10, beat LSU by nine, came back to survive Auburn with 1:26 on the clock, and knocked Colt McCoy out of the national title game (but probably would've won anyway).
They otherwise vaporized everything placed before them. Nothing to see here.
2010: Auburn (14-0) over Oregon, 22-19
Not to think of the 2010 Tigers as a one-player team, but they went 13-12 the two years before Cam Newton and 11-14 the two years after. And since the next-best SEC team could've been, at best, a one-loss LSU in a year with two unbeatens (Oregon and TCU), one player made the difference for the league.
February 7, 2007: What if Newton signed anywhere but Florida? Whether his other major suitors had wanted him as a quarterback or not, his competition for a 2009 (and thus 2010) starting job could've been Georgia's Joe Cox, Maryland's Chris Turner, Mississippi State's Tyson Lee, Oklahoma freshman Landry Jones (after Sam Bradford's injury), or a collapsing Jevan Snead at Ole Miss. Not returning Heisman Trophy winner Tebow.
If Newton had gone almost anywhere but Florida, he likely wouldn't have left for Blinn College over playing time (and, yeah, laptops and grades and stuff). Would he have fallen short of a national championship at Mississippi State? Would he have led Oklahoma to a national title win over Alabama in 2009? There are questions!
January 11, 2009: What if Tebow had turned pro instead of announcing his return? Believe it or not, Newton might have ranked behind John Brantley on Meyer's depth chart, but I think we agree Newton would've eventually won that battle, even if it took a year or more. So 2010 Florida might've grabbed a title with him anyway. /SEC CHANT.
December 31, 2009: What if JUCO national champion Newton had signed with Oklahoma or Kansas State instead of Auburn? For one thing, nobody is surprised to note Bill Snyder was interested in the most talented JUCO player ever.
What if he'd signed with Mississippi State? For starters, we'd be without this GIF ...
... but MSU could've won a Sugar Bowl, which would probably be vacated. Because signing with the school your dad asked for money is a little harder for the NCAA to ignore than signing elsewhere.
And then the season started: Mississippi State came 39 yards from beating Auburn, Clemson missed a do-over overtime field goal, South Carolina led the Tigers in the fourth quarter, a last-second field goal prevented overtime vs. Kentucky, Onterio McCalebb broke a 70-yard run to beat LSU by seven, THE 2009 IRON BOWL HAPPENED, and Michael Dyer was down against Oregon.
Considering the process of landing Newton and the continued media fallout, Auburn's 2010 highwire act actually lasted something like six years.
2011: Alabama (12-1) over LSU, 21-0
This one's kind of pointless, because even if we could rule Alabama out, somebody else would still have to beat LSU.
November 12: But if No. 3 Stanford hadn't been humiliated, 53-30, by Oregon, could the Cardinal have provided a fascinating matchup for LSU? Oh, very.
Also, Boise State's best shot at the throne (since 2010 was completely roadblocked) ended when the Broncos lost to No. 24 TCU on another missed field goal. Considering BSU had opened the year beating Georgia in Atlanta, the table was as set as it would ever be.
November 18: The Friday night that killed the BCS:
WHO GON RUN THIS TOWN TONIGHT, highlights video? The town is Ames. No man or woman can run ames, not even Mike Gundy himself.
December 4: What if more voters had listened to Gundy's claim that OSU could at least give LSU a more entertaining game than Bama could? Mike Gundy told no lie.
2012: Alabama (13-1) over Notre Dame, 42-14
Another pickle: among non-SEC teams, only Oregon or Kansas State came within a game of taking Alabama's spot. Otherwise, it would've gone to Florida, and Florida-Notre Dame would've been the ugliest game any of us ever saw, so let's not mess with the timeline too much.
November 3: What if LSU had won a game it dominated for 58 minutes, Miles' especially weird fourth-down calls and all?
November 17: Alabama lost to Texas A&M on November 10. One week later, it was right back in the BCS mix.
What if Oregon hadn't been without multiple starters at multiple levels of its defense? The Ducks didn't lose to Stanford until a field goal in overtime. An injured Oregon defender or two could've been the only thing standing between Alabama crushing Notre Dame and Alabama not even playing Notre Dame.
What if Kansas State hadn't ... you know what, in no alternate reality does Baylor not beat K-State. The score was 52-24 and felt wider than that. No one knows how Collin Klein managed to throw three picks in one game (he threw 12 otherwise in the rest of his college career) against that defense (which ranked at or near the bottom in raw passing stats, but was at least sort of ballhawky).
December 1: Aaron Murray could've ... oh, right. Nevermind.
One last note
It looks like it's gotten easier since 2006 for SEC teams to rank highly, right? We can call this conspiracy or bias or branding or the result of the SEC's best teams playing fewer close games or the polls finally catching on or whatever else we'd like, but it appears to me to be true.