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LSU-Alabama hype masking truth: In 2011, rest of SEC is ... meh

Maybe the question was serious, maybe not. Either way, it was just another in a growing assortment of overheated hyperbole as we approach -- with countdown clocks, even! -- the latest regular-season apocalypse. The wall-to-wall coverage mirrors the build-up to a BCS championship, probably because so many view Tigers vs. Tide as the de facto championship game, or at least a national semifinal. For weeks now, anticipation has grown.

For the rematch.

Thus the question from the official Twitter account of our favorite preview show. A one-loss SEC team over an undefeated team from the Big 12 or Pac-12 (sorry, Boise)? Not a chance, any year. But especially not this season. Not this SEC. There's not much doubt Alabama and LSU have separated from the rest of college football -- the rankings are right -- but they've also separated from the rest of their league. This year's Game of the Century deserves all the hype, but it has obscured a disturbing reality:

The SEC is down.

Blasphemous, I know. And probably not a smart move; poking a stick at a Bear Bryant is a good way to experience some good ol' Southern hostility. Nowhere is football more important or fans more passionate, which means I might not be welcomed home again soon. So go ahead, fire off the angry e-mails. But first, read a few more paragraphs.

Year after year, the SEC is college football's best league. No real argument there. Week in and week out, the best football gets played down South, and there's no real change there -- as long as we stick with 'Bama and LSU. As's Stewart Mandel wrote Sunday in his weekly College Football Overtime, both the Tide and Tigers (or Tigers and Tide; we'll know the correct order by Saturday evening) are packed with size, speed and skill reminiscent of the last great Miami squads. Like everyone else, I cannot wait to see what happens in Tuscaloosa. The winner becomes the overwhelming favorite to hoist the crystal football in New Orleans. Unless, somehow, it's a rematch; then who knows? Either way, it looks like we're headed for a sixth straight national champion from the SEC.

At this point, we're supposed to talk about how the conference is so strong that its best teams are forged by fire, by running a brutal gauntlet unlike anything else in sport. Well, let's see: Alabama has rolled through the SEC by an average margin of 32.4 points. LSU has won by an average of 27.4. The closest thing to a close game involving either titan was the Tigers' 13-point win at Mississippi State, back when we still thought Dan Mullen's bunch might be salty. The only, uh, showdown we've seen so far was Alabama's 38-14 throttling of Arkansas. Thank goodness for September, when LSU played Oregon and West Virginia and Alabama took on Penn State, all away from home. They proved themselves before the schedule softened to something like Boise State's annual run through conference creampuffs.

Don't misunderstand: We're kidding here, just a bit. Alabama and LSU really are that good. Their dominance of the SEC is in part because, well, they're dominant. But the SEC is also top-heavy. After the Tide and Tigers, the plain truth is this: The rest of the league is ... meh. LSU's SEC opponents so far have a combined conference record of 7-19. Alabama's are 6-19.

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Sure, Arkansas is No. 7 in the BCS standings. South Carolina is No. 9. They play Saturday, and it's OK if you didn't know; it's simply another indication of how the SEC's two best teams have overshadowed everything else. Those Top 10 rankings are more a function of the sport's overall parity -- and a reflection of the SEC's well-earned prestige -- than anything else. There's no figuring out the Razorbacks, who apparently think kickoff means the third quarter. Arkansas is apparently the mirror opposite of incoming SEC member Texas A&M, which is a very good thing to be, but how long can the Hogs continue to start slow and somehow win? Meanwhile, the Gamecocks feature a suffocating defense. But after dismissing Stephen Garcia and losing Marcus Lattimore to injury, Steve Spurrier's offense wheezes like each breath is its last. No one will be surprised if the ol' ball coach's team fades in November -- even without Alabama or LSU on the schedule.

Beyond that, there's Georgia, which has won six straight after losing its first two. But the Bulldogs' five SEC wins have come against opponents with a combined conference record of 4-22. Speaking of records, have you checked the league standings? Sure, brag a little: Six SEC teams are ranked in the latest AP Top 25 (defending national champion Auburn slipped in this week at No. 25).

None of the other six teams boasts a winning record.

This isn't, by the way, to say other leagues are better -- though they certainly might be. The latest Sagarin Ratings have the Big 12 ranked No. 1, the SEC No. 2. But this isn't about those infernal computers or empirical data. We can see it with our own eyes.

Just for fun, try this comparison: Texas Tech or Florida? Although it's unfathomable that either Alabama or LSU would get skewered at home by an unranked opponent -- they're too good to let it happen -- it's also difficult to find a comparable SEC team with an offense as occasionally dangerous as Tech. Or Baylor. Or even Arizona. (We'd have added Texas A&M, but it's hard to say which side of the argument we'd be bolstering.) The point is none of those teams are very good, but all appear more potent than anything currently residing in the SEC's middle tier or below.

That includes Florida, which continues to flounder during its rebuild, and Tennessee, which is stuck in a relentless spin cycle, and we could keep going with the litany of injuries and attrition and other tales of woe. But whatever the reasons, we all see the results. Or actually, we're not seeing as much of it. Going into last weekend, CBS' ratings for SEC games were down 18 percent from 2010.

Those ratings might recover on the strength of Alabama-LSU alone, because we'll all be watching. And it's quite possible we'll get an instant classic that will continue to obscure the truth about the rest of the league. If Saturday's winner -- or maybe the loser -- ends up with the crystal football on Jan. 9, the fans at the Superdome will fire up that familiar chant -- S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C! -- and we'll all bow to their supremacy once again. Or at least to the Tigers or Tide.

They're fantastic, sure, and deserving of all the hype. But when it comes to the rest of the SEC this season, we shouldn't confuse passion with performance.