The SEC dominated the second half of the BCS era, winning seven consecutive national titles between 2007-2013, and there is no reason to expect a drop-off in the first year of the College Football Playoff.
Just look at the talent it's securing. In 2013, five of the top nine and six of the top 11 recruiting classes in the country came from the SEC, per the 247Sports team rankings. In 2014, half of the league's 14 members landed a top-nine national class. It's a fact, not a myth, that the SEC has the best athletes in the country. Recruiting rankings are fallible, but on the whole they have been proven to matter.
Still, how the conference will fare in the four-team playoff has been a subject of constant debate this offseason. How many teams will the SEC get into the national semifinal? Two? Three? Zero?!
With so much roster turnover—especially at quarterback, where four of the five media favorites to win the conference are breaking in a new starter—along with the annual concern of teams "beating up on one another," how will the SEC fare in year one of the CFP experiment?
Who has the best chance of breaking through?
Note: These odds reflect the author's point of view on how likely each team is to make the CFP. They have not been crafted the same way Las Vegas lines are crafted: with the intent to draw action on certain sides. Instead, they represent how many times the season would have to be played for Team X to make the playoff once.
Full Odds Board
|Odds to Make College Football Playoff in 2014|
|Odds||2013 Record||2013 F/+ Ranking|
|Source: Bleacher Report / Football Outsiders|
Up top we established that recruiting rankings matter. They are not the be-all, end-all of what makes a great team—if they were, Alabama would have won a third straight national title last season—but they are one of the two or three most important factors.
And on that front, Alabama is loaded:
|Alabama Last Four Recruiting Class Rankings|
|Source: 247Sports / Rivals / ESPN / Scout|
Nick Saban's recruiting dominance the past four seasons is without precedent. It even led South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, who has never been afraid to poke Saban with a stick, to call Saban "the greatest recruiter in college football history" at SEC media days.
And for once, he wasn't being sarcastic.
"Arguably they've got the greatest collection of football players ever assembled for a college team," Spurrier continued, per Michael Casagrande of AL.com. "If the recruiting services are correct, and they're pretty much correct. So they're the favorites…As long as they recruit like that, they're always going to be the favorites."
Yes, there are obvious questions. Likely starting quarterback Jacob Coker, who backed up Jameis Winston at Florida State last season, has impressive physical attributes but only enrolled this summer; a group of cornerbacks that already could not be trusted lost its most reliable player, Eddie Jackson, to a torn ACL this spring; Lane Kiffin.
But the positives still outweigh the negatives. Saban and Kirby Smart lead a defense that is littered with blue-chip recruits, and the offensive skill positions (receivers and running backs) ranked No. 7 and No. 1, respectively, on my list of best position groups in the country.
T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, Amari Cooper, Arie Kouandjio, A'Shawn Robinson, Trey DePriest and Landon Collins could all realistically make the All-America first team without anyone batting an eyelash.
Auburn comes to Bryant-Denny Stadium for the Iron Bowl.
'Bama is the rightful favorite.
If we're betting on teams to make the College Football Playoff, which ostensibly means winning or very nearly winning the SEC, the best value isn't necessarily the safest team on the board.
In other words, you're better picking a team with a high ceiling and a low basement than a low ceiling and a high basement. Who cares if they might crash and burn and finish toward the bottom of the league? As long as they also might click and jell and morph into a SEC title contender, that is fine.
What Florida did in 2013 was inexcusable. It was embarrassing. Will Muschamp was lucky to keep his job. No Gators coach should be losing to Georgia Southern in "The Swamp" or winning less than five games in a season. Not at Florida; not with an athletic department that rakes in $130 million of revenue in a fiscal year.
Still, Muschamp and a lot of the players on this roster are just one year removed from winning 11 games and playing in the Sugar Bowl. Starting with 2011, its past four recruiting classes have finished No. 12, No. 4, No. 3 and No. 9 in the country. Those aren't Alabama numbers, but they're about as close as anyone will get.
Last year's team was poorly coached, yes, but it was also ravaged by injuries, which tend to normalize from year to year. The offensive line should be much better, and quarterback Jeff Driskel—despite not thus far justifying his recruiting pedigree—is definitely a massive upgrade over Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg.
Driskel is 6'4" with a good arm and great mobility, but inconsistency and poor decision-making have marked his career in Gainesville. For that, Florida brought in former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, a 2013 Broyles Award finalist who helped mobile QB Anthony Boone maximize his potential by working from the shotgun.
He plans to do the same at Florida, and according to Bleacher Report's Randy Chambers, Driskel fits that system just as well:
Seriously, Kurt Roper’s offensive system was built for a quarterback such as Driskel. Spread the field, allow the quarterback to use his legs when needed, get the ball out quickly and allow the receivers to make things happen. In past years, Driskel was asked to do too much and wasn't able to take advantage of his athleticism.
If Roper and Driskel can fix last year's offense, why shouldn't Florida contend for an SEC championship? It doesn't need to be great on that side of the ball; something in the national top 40 would do. With all the talent that returns on defense—a group highlighted by linebacker Dante Fowler and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III—and Muschamp and D.J. Durkin on the sideline, you know the Gators will make it hard for opponents to score. Plus, the SEC East is always up for grabs.
The main reason Florida represents a good value, though, is because of the strength of its schedule. The number I projected up top is higher than it ought to be because Florida has a pair of impossibly difficult games—at Alabama and Florida State—on its schedule. And we don't really think a two-loss team can make the playoff, do we?
Yes, actually, we do…provided those two losses come in Tuscaloosa and Tallahassee. Those would be completely forgivable defeats.
No one knows for sure how the CFP selection committee will function, but chairman Jeff Long said in April that the four "best" teams will be chosen over the four "most deserving" teams with the best resumes, per Chuck Carlton of The Dallas Morning News.
If Florida goes 10-2 with losses at Alabama and Florida State, it would likely enter the SEC Championship Game with a "win and we're in" mindset. No matter what happens elsewhere in the country, an 11-2 SEC champion with two quality road losses would almost definitely qualify for the four-team playoff.
And just imagine if it beats Alabama or FSU!
Man, what a difference a year makes.
Before his team went 3-9 and winless in the SEC, Bret Bielema was regarded as one of the 10 best coaches in America, right? It's not as easy as it looks bringing Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls.
If Bielema can better adjust to his new conference in 2014, Arkansas actually has quite a few things going for it—not the least of which is a likeness to last year's Auburn team. Their style of ground game is different, but the Razorbacks can run on anybody, have a potentially great head coach and won double-digit games three seasons ago before losing every conference game last year.
More than all that, they also have the benefit of a favorable home schedule, just as Auburn did in 2013. Arkansas does not stand much of a chance, on paper, of beating Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss, but its chances are certainly better at Razorback Stadium than they would be anywhere else.
What if the Razorbacks can channel a little home magic? Who's to say which stadium will be this year's Jordan-Hare?
It is obviously not likely for any of this to happen. That's the reason Arkansas is a sleeper. But was what Auburn did last season any less probable? Wouldn't writing the same things about the Tigers in July 2013 have been equally insane?
Why shouldn't Alex Collins become the next Tre Mason? Why can't Trey Flowers be the next Dee Ford? Both of those guys flashed All-SEC potential in 2013 despite losing game after game after game.
In some ways, isn't that even more impressive than playing well for a team that consistently wins?
If you really want to bet on a long shot, this is your squad.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT