Ranking the SEC’s Seven Straight Champions
By Matt Smith
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While each was the best in its respective year, how would the SEC's past seven national champions stack up against each other?
It’s hard to imagine now, but just six years ago it looked as if the Big Ten runner-up would finish ranked ahead of the SEC champion. Then, Dec. 2, 2006 happened. No. 2 USC suffered a stunning loss at UCLA in the afternoon. Later that night, CBS analyst Gary Danielson took a hard stance during No. 4 Florida’s SEC Championship Game that the Gators should vault ahead of No. 3 Michigan to play top-ranked Ohio State for the national title.
The next day, Danielson got his wish, as Florida finished No. 2, just ahead of the Wolverines. Five weeks later, the Gators rolled over the Buckeyes, 41-14, to win the national title. The rest, as they say, is history, as the BCS crystal has maintained a permanent residence in the South since that January night in Arizona.
The SEC no longer requires the aid of a broadcaster to tout its stock. After Alabama’s decisive victory over Notre Dame, it’s now seven straight national titles for the conference. But which one of those seven was the best team? No two teams are created equal. While each was the best in its respective year, how would they stack up against each other? Let’s take a look
7. 2007 LSU
Losses: at Kentucky, Arkansas
Still the strangest season since I’ve been following the sport, 2007 was the year of the upset. It was only fitting then that the final beneficiary of the chaotic autumn would be Les Miles. The Tigers were led by a senior class that was the final one signed by Nick Saban, one that showed tremendous resolve in comeback victories over Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Tennessee. Their dominant defense finished No. 3 in the nation, and their deep pool of running backs propelled the rushing offense to No. 11 in the country. LSU lost both their games in triple overtime, but both came to teams that finished 8-5. This team was a hungry, veteran team that whipped Ohio State for the national title. In terms of overall talent, however, it was the worst of the SEC national title contingent.
6. 2006 Florida
Losses: at Auburn
Urban Meyer wasted no time in turning Florida back into the giant that it was in the ‘90s under Steve Spurrier, winning a national title in just his second season in Gainesville. After a 9-3 debut, Meyer unveiled a new wrinkle to its offense with the addition of Tim Tebow, a short-yardage specialist before becoming a legendary figure in later years. The 2006 Gators lost a close battle in Jordan-Hare Stadium against an angry Auburn team, the game turning on a blocked punt by the Tigers. Florida had its share of close calls, needing a blocked field goal of its own to hold off 5-4 South Carolina and a key fumble by Arkansas on a punt return in the SEC Championship Game. This team was opportunistic and had a dominant defense, but did not yet have the firepower to dominate like Meyer’s later teams.
5. 2010 Auburn
Football is the ultimate team sport, but perhaps no national championship can be more attributed to one player than Auburn’s in 2010. Cam Newton’s one year on The Plains resulted in numerous SEC records, the school’s third Heisman Trophy and, of course, the national title. This team was the only one of the seven to win in spite of an inconsistent defense, which allowed 27 points to South Carolina, 43 to Arkansas, 31 to Georgia and 24 in the first quarter alone to Alabama. The team had its share of blowouts (including the largest margin of victory in SEC Championship Game history – 39 points), but 8-5 seasons in both 2009 and 2011 showed the 2010 team was simply a one-year wonder. The 22-19 win over Oregon was the least impressive performance of any of the seven in their respective BCS Championship Games.
4. 2012 Alabama
Losses: Texas A&M
This might seem low given the 28-point dismantling of Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game, but the 2012 Tide weren’t a great team when compared to the other recent champions. They breezed through the first two months with a light schedule, but needed last-minute drives to defeat LSU and Georgia and lost to Texas A&M during the final month. The offensive line was the best the sport has seen since the great Nebraska teams of the ‘90s, and 2012 AJ McCarron was far better than the 2011 version. However, the defense, despite finishing No. 1 in total defense, had its flaws, albeit small ones. Big plays in the passing game were its downfall against the Aggies and nearly cost them in Baton Rouge. The offense was the best in the Saban era, but as we’ve learned by following this conference, side with defense when in doubt.
3. 2009 Alabama
How the Crimson Tide would fare without three-year starting quarterback John Parker Wilson was the major question coming into the 2009 season. A cerebral Greg McElroy led the Alabama offense that was filled with star power, including Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Trent Richardson, who combined for 29 touchdowns. The defense finished No. 2 in every major category (rushing, passing, total defense, scoring defense). The Tide had just two close calls: a 12-10 escape over Tennessee on Terrance Cody’s famous blocked field goal and a 26-21 win at Auburn in which Alabama rallied from a 14-0 deficit. The most-hyped SEC Championship Game ever between No. 1 Florida and the second-ranked Tide proved to be a bit of a laugher (or a crier for a certain quarterback), as Alabama rolled to a 32-13 victory. The experience on defense, particularly in the secondary, as well as an unblemished record, gives this team the slight edge over the 2012 Tide.
2. 2008 Florida
Losses: Ole Miss
The scores are mind-boggling. 51-21 over No. 4 LSU. 49-10 over a No. 8 Georgia team. 45-15 over rival Florida State. 56-6 over South Carolina. 63-5 over Kentucky. However, the 2008 Gators journey began in late September, when Tim Tebow delivered a legendary speech that is now posted on a plaque in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium after a 31-30 loss to Ole Miss. He vowed to push the team harder than any other for the rest of the season. Whatever he did worked like a charm, as the Gators rolled to double-digit wins in each of their final 10 games. The SEC Championship Game win over Alabama was the only game that was ever in doubt, as Florida rallied from a 20-17 deficit with two fourth quarter touchdowns passes from Tebow. The defense had stars everywhere, with Carlos Dunlap up front, Brandon Spikes in the middle and Janoris Jenkins and Joe Haden on the back end. Percy Harvin and Aaron Hernandez, now NFL stars, were valuable weapons for Tebow. If the 2008 Gators played the 2006 Gators, the game would be decided at halftime.
1. 2011 Alabama
The best defense of my lifetime was the 2011 Crimson Tide. Just look at the numbers. Alabama finished first in every major defensive category, including giving up just 8.2 points per game. The Tide allowed just two (two!) offensive touchdowns in their final seven games against FBS teams. None of their 12 victories came by fewer than 17 points, and No. 1 LSU didn’t cross midfield until the second half of the BCS Championship Game, a 21-0 Alabama shutout. The offense was statistically on par with the 2012 Tide, despite a first-year quarterback and a less experienced offensive line. Five players were selected in the first 35 picks of the 2012 NFL Draft, four of those on defense. Their only defeat was a 9-6 overtime loss to LSU, a game in which Alabama missed four field goal attempts, costing them the SEC West title. I still consider 2001 Miami to be the best team of my lifetime, but I’d love to see Frank Gore, Clinton Portis, Andre Johnson and the rest of those ‘Canes face the 2011 Alabama defense.