State of the conference: SEC

The watch is on around the rest of the country.

When will somebody other than the SEC win a national championship?

The SEC will look to extend its streak to seven straight BCS national titles in 2012, and the two teams most likely to keep that streak alive are the usual suspects.

Alabama has won two of the last three national titles, and LSU will also start the season in the top 3 of the polls after going 13-0 last season and then losing to the Crimson Tide in the BCS National Championship Game.

The SEC’s critics insist that it’s top-heavy and that it’s really a league comprised of two or three heavyweights and a lot of mediocre teams after that.

But when you look deeper, the parity speaks for itself.

Nobody has repeated as SEC champion since Tennessee in 1997 and 1998, and four different SEC teams have won national titles during the league’s current streak.

LSU received a blow last week when coach Les Miles announced that star cornerback and return specialist Tyrann Mathieu had been dismissed and wouldn’t play this season.

Mathieu was a game-changer for the Tigers, who will undoubtedly miss his playmaking skills on defense and special teams.

Alabama had to retool its defense after losing seven starters off a unit that led the country a year ago in all four major statistical categories. The Crimson Tide are also replacing their top rusher and four top receivers on offense.

They’re trying to become the first school to repeat as outright national champion since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995.

If it’s not Alabama or LSU mixing it up this season in the national championship equation, Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina all think they could have something to say about who takes home that crystal trophy in January.

The Hogs say they’ve moved on from the Bobby Petrino scandal this past spring and are more determined than ever to break through in the Western Division. They get both Alabama and LSU in Fayetteville this season, but are 1-5 against those two clubs over the last three seasons.

Georgia and South Carolina have represented the East in the SEC championship game each of the last two seasons, although neither was very competitive in Atlanta.

The Bulldogs avoid Alabama, Arkansas and LSU in the West this season, which makes them the favorite in the East. They should again be outstanding on defense, but are inexperienced in their offensive line.

Defense should also be the Gamecocks’ strength, and if Marcus Lattimore is all the way back after injuring his knee last season, he’s the kind of running back who could carry a team to a title.

Looking for a surprise team?

The first part of Mississippi State’s schedule sure looks inviting. If the Bulldogs can start 6-1 or even 7-0, look out.

And in the East, the winner of the Florida-Tennessee game on Sept. 15 could give Georgia and South Carolina something to think about.

Where’s it all end?

If history is any indication, in Miami at Sun Life Stadium.