First, of course, a non-SEC team will need to qualify for the game. Since last year's Alabama-LSU rematch required a rash of late-season upsets in other leagues, we're unlikely to see a repeat this season. But barring an unforeseen outbreak of SEC parity -- and even then, remember that a two-loss SEC team has finished No. 1 before -- it's safe to assume one of the teams that takes the field Jan. 7 in Miami Gardens will hail from Mike Slive's dynastic conference.
The question is whether some other league's representative can actually win the big game.
According to the preseason magazines' consensus rankings, the most viable contenders are USC, Oklahoma, Oregon and Florida State. BCS history says any team in the preseason top 20 is capable of rising to No. 1. But ending the SEC's streak won't come down to which challenger is the best or most talented. It'll be a matter of which team matches up the most.
To figure out which team that is, we must first look back and examine how exactly the past six BCS champions vanquished their title-game foes. We will then analyze which of this year's SEC contenders best fits its predecessors' prototype. And then, we'll survey the rest of the field to identify the most capable adversaries.
By now, we know well the traits most commonly associated with the SEC's recent dominance: speed and elite defensive linemen. Among the most common threads shared by the SEC's six consecutive national champions:
• All six finished among the top 15 nationally in run defense, and three finished in the top five. None allowed more than 3.4 rush yards per attempt.
• Five of the six ranked among the top five in pass efficiency defense, with 2010 Auburn (No. 76) the lone outlier.
• Five of the six ran for at least 200 yards per game, with 2006 Florida (160.0) the lone outlier.
• Only two of the six had a starting quarterback (Tim Tebow in 2008, Cam Newton in 2010) who ranked among the nation's top 20 in pass efficiency.
• All had a positive turnover margin, with four of the six ranked in the top 25 nationally.
• The teams combined to produce nine NFL first- or second-round defensive linemen, including at least one from every team except 2011 Alabama.
• The teams outscored their opponents by an average margin of 37-15 during the regular season.
And now, let's examine some commonalities among the five Big Ten/Big 12/Pac-12 opponents these SEC champions vanquished (2011 LSU excluded).
• Four of the five rushed for fewer than 200 yards per game, with 2010 Oregon (286.2) an extreme outlier.
• All five had a quarterback ranked among the top 20 in pass efficiency.
• Four of the five ranked in the top 20 in run defense, with none lower than 27th.
• Four of the five ranked in the top 15 in turnover margin, with 2007 Ohio State (No. 76) an extreme outlier.
• Four of the five ranked in the top five in sacks, with 2010 Oregon (No. 21) the lone outlier.
• The teams combined to produce just two NFL first- or second-round offensive linemen -- both from 2008 Oklahoma.
• The teams outscored their opponents by an average margin of 43-16 during the regular season.
While each title game played out differently, there are some notable general contrasts between the SEC teams and their non-SEC opponents. The non-SEC teams relied on highly efficient passers more than prolific rushing attacks, which came back to bite them when they couldn't protect those passers. The SEC teams ran the ball more consistently. While the SEC is known for its defensive linemen, the league's opponents generally racked up more sacks during the season. The opponents were also slightly better during the season at protecting the ball. And the NFL numbers confirm there's been an indisputable mismatch at the line of scrimmage.
Here's how that all played out on the field when the teams met for the title.
• The SEC teams won by an average margin of 32-18 (excluding Alabama-LSU).
• The SEC teams combined for an average of 3.8 sacks. Their foes managed five total.
• Three of the five SEC teams ran for at least 200 yards; only one opponent did (2010 Oregon).
• Only one SEC opponent (2010 Oregon) matched or exceeded its season passing average.
• None of the SEC opponents gained more turnovers than it lost.
In summary: Over the past six years, the SEC's BCS champions have generally excelled by controlling the line of scrimmage, running the ball better, neutralizing the opposing quarterback and protecting the football.
With that blueprint established, it's time to examine which SEC team is best equipped to replicate the formula in 2012.
Based on the preseason Coaches' Poll, here's a brief synopsis of the SEC's five highest-ranked teams, including a personnel-based assessment of which of the 2006-11 champs each team most closely resembles.
• No. 1 LSU: The Tigers boast at least three likely high-round draft picks on the defensive line (end Sam Montgomery, end Barkevious Mingo and tackle Bennie Logan) and a talent-filled secondary, even after star Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal. With four returning starters on the offensive line, LSU should exceed last year's 202.6 yards per game on the ground. The hope in Baton Rouge is that new quarterback Zach Mettenberger can drastically upgrade his position and produce more big plays. Most similar to: 2007 LSU.
• No. 2 Alabama: As always, Nick Saban's team is brimming with talent on defense, but this group lacks experience. Only five starters return. This team's strength is its offensive line, which boasts three preseason All-Americas (center Barrett Jones, tackle D.J. Fluker and guard Chance Warmack). Even without star Trent Richardson, the Tide should be able to pound the ball, but underrated quarterback AJ McCarron has to find some new receiving targets. Most similar to: 2009 Alabama.
• No. 6 Georgia: The Dawgs return 10 starters from the nation's No. 5 defense, though three (safety Bacarri Rambo, corner Sanders Commings and linebacker Alec Ogletree) will be suspended early. Defensive tackles John Jenkins and Arby Jones and linebacker Jarvis Jones assure a strong pass rush. Quarterback Aaron Murray has an NFL arm and big-play receivers in Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell. But Georgia rushed for just 164.0 yards per game last year and has dismissed No. 1 tailback Isaiah Crowell. Most similar to: 2006 Florida.
• No. 9 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier's team fielded the nation's No. 3 defense last year, behind Alabama and LSU. Interestingly, the Gamecocks did not fall within the 3.4-yards-per-rush threshold (allowing 3.62), instead excelling in pass coverage. Star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney returns, but most of the secondary departed. Offensively, Spurrier will ride star running back Marcus Lattimore, and that should create more play-action opportunities for quarterback Connor Shaw. Most similar to: None.
• No. 10 Arkansas: As crafted by the disgraced Bobby Petrino, the Razorbacks win primarily with offense. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is a possible high first-rounder, Cobi Hamilton leads a talented but reloading receiving corps and the return of star running back Knile Davis will allow Arkansas to be more balanced. But the Razorbacks ranked just 74th nationally in run defense last season and lack an elite defensive lineman like champs of old. Most similar to: 2010 Auburn (minus Nick Fairley).
There's no guarantee any of these teams will turn out as predicted. Injuries, departed stars and the rise of unforeseen young players may dramatically change their makeup. But based on what we know now, the rest of the field should much prefer to see South Carolina or Arkansas on Jan. 7 than LSU or Alabama.
In lamenting the voters' decision last December to give Alabama a second shot at LSU at the expense of his high-scoring 11-1 team, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy told Dan Patrick: "My honest opinion is, the best way to beat a team of the caliber of LSU ... you need to have a big-time quarterback to beat a team like that. And we're fortunate we have a guy on our team [Brandon Weeden] ... that most people would consider a big-time quarterback."
Based on our Part I comparison between the SEC's six consecutive BCS champions and the five non-SEC foes they vanquished, it's clear a big-time quarterback is actually fairly low on the list of priorities. Just ask Troy Smith or Sam Bradford. The non-SEC team that came closest to actually winning -- 2010 Oregon, which lost 22-19 to Auburn on a last-second field goal -- was the one that most closely resembled the SEC squads. The Ducks were by far the strongest rushing team of the group; they did not depend on a Heisman-caliber quarterback; they were decent against the run (3.51 yards per attempt); and they generated significant pass pressure (ranking No. 7 in pass efficiency defense).
It stands to reason, then, that the team that finally ends the SEC's streak will be the team that most closely replicates the SEC's formula.
The following is not a prediction of which teams have the best chance to reach the national championship game. Some may not be cut out to win their own conference. Rather, it's an attempt to identify which teams, based on their returning personnel, anticipated areas of strength and coaching philosophies, are best suited to face the prototypical SEC representative in a one-game BCS championship matchup.
The five most promising candidates:
• Texas (No. 15 in Coaches' Poll): In the three years since losing Colt McCoy in the first quarter of the title game and falling 37-21 to Alabama, Mack Brown has reinvented the Longhorns into a virtual SEC clone. They run the ball (202.6 yards per game last year) and stop the run (No. 6 nationally). They boast a pair of potential first-round defensive ends in Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor and a trio of young tailbacks (Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and freshman Johnathan Gray) any team would covet. Texas needs either David Ash or Case McCoy to emerge as a dependable quarterback, which is an admittedly huge question mark for the team, but it doesn't necessarily need either to become a star. The Longhorns -- 4-5 in the Big 12 last season -- may still be a year away from returning to elite status, but they match the blueprint.
• Oregon (No. 5): Yes, the Ducks are 1-2 versus the SEC under Chip Kelly, including a 40-27 rout by LSU in the 2011 opener. That's a bit deceiving, though. Two fumbles by then-rookie De'Anthony Thomas helped blow open a game in which Oregon outgained the Tigers 335-273. This year Kelly may have his scariest running game yet with veteran tailback Kenjon Barner, the supremely explosive Thomas and a pair of quarterbacks, Marcus Mariota and Bryan Bennett, who are both more dangerous runners than Darron Thomas. The defense, led by defensive end Dion Jordan, linebacker Michael Clay and safety John Boyett, will be Oregon's most athletic in recent memory. As always, the concern with Oregon is that its smallish offensive line could be overpowered by an elite foe.
• USC (No. 3): The Trojans are loaded on offense, with quarterback Matt Barkley and receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee arguably the best in the country at their positions. And the addition of 1,241-yard Penn State rusher Silas Redd to go with Curtis McNeal means Lane Kiffin's team should be more balanced. The running game could be the key to avoiding a fate like Sam Bradford-led Oklahoma's 14-point showing against Florida in 2008. There's plenty of talent on defense (safety T.J. McDonald, corner Nickell Robey), too. The concern, however, is the defensive line, where USC must replace three starters and may be without injured defensive end Devon Kennard. That's arguably the most important position when facing a powerful SEC rushing attack, and the reason Oregon may pose a slightly better matchup.
• Michigan State (No. 13): Two years ago, a 9-3 SEC team (Alabama) thoroughly outclassed Mark Dantonio's team in a bowl game, 49-7. One New Year's Day later, Michigan State -- 22-5 the past two years -- topped a 10-3 SEC team (Georgia) in double overtime. What changed? An influx of athletic defenders (ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, cornerback Johnny Adams) has helped Dantonio produce a swarming unit. The 2011 Spartans held foes to 2.8 yards per carry, seventh-best nationally, and return eight starters. Meanwhile, power back Le'Veon Bell leads a physical rushing attack. On the downside, Michigan State must break in new quarterback Andrew Maxwell and inexperienced receivers, but this team will win with defense first.
• Florida State (No. 7): Judging by recruiting ratings, Jimbo Fisher -- who previously worked under both Nick Saban and Les Miles -- has assembled more talent than any non-SEC program other than USC. That's particularly true on defense, where defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Brandon Jenkins, defensive tackle Everett Dawkins and cornerback Xavier Rhodes helped hold foes to fewer yards per rushing attempt (2.35) last year than even Alabama's historic unit. This year's defense is more experienced. Oft-criticized quarterback EJ Manuel actually averaged an acceptable 8.57 yards per attempt. But the 'Noles, who suffered mass injuries on the offensive line last year, still need to drastically improve on their 104th-ranked rushing offense.
Several highly ranked teams failed to make the list. They may very well be capable of reaching the big game, but their blueprint suggests they'd suffer the same fate as those before them. Here's why:
• No. 4 Oklahoma: The Sooners are too dependent on the passing game and have not yet demonstrated the capacity for an elite rushing defense.
• No. 8 Michigan: Brady Hoke likely needs another year's recruiting haul before the Wolverines can field an upper-echelon defensive front.
• No. 11 West Virginia: Like Oklahoma, the Mountaineers' pass-heavy offense leaves them too one-dimensional if facing an elite SEC defense.
• No. 12 Wisconsin: The Badgers have the rushing offense, but it's hard to put faith in a defense that gave up 621 yards to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
• No. 14 Clemson: The Tigers ranked 83rd nationally against the run last season.
So, in conclusion, if you're one of the many outside of Dixie clamoring to see some team knock the mighty SEC off its perch, you might want to practice your Hook 'em Horns sign.
Coincidentally, the last team outside of the SEC to win a national championship was ... Texas. It's as we've said for seven years: College football really is cyclical.