SEC chasing seventh-straight national title

It’s finally here.

After a long, hot, dry summer with lots of talk, a few noteworthy suspensions and the official welcome of two new members, the 2012 college football season kickoff is just days away.

Fans can’t wait, especially those in the SEC. The conference has five of the top-10 teams in nation, according to the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll, before the first points of the year have been scored. And while that makes for an awfully big target on the uniforms of every SEC team, those players, coaches and fans from outside the league look forward to the 2012 season the same way they’ve anticipated the last six falls: with a high sense of anxiety.

The countdown to kickoff might as well be the clicking of a rollercoaster chain — for some, it will be a thrill; for others, it’s going to be a long and scary ride.

But the benchmarks are different in the SEC — playing for the national championship is an expected rite of passage.

LSU and Alabama have the most to gain and lose. Assuming both teams go undefeated – no small feat since Alabama opens with No. 8 Michigan and LSU has Florida, South Carolina and Texas A&M in consecutive weeks – the first Saturday in November, when the Tide travels to Baton Rouge, could be the biggest week in college football.

But the SEC is far bigger than the two teams that squared off in last year’s BCS Championship Game.

Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas also make appearances in the preseason Top 25, and each is one or two upsets away from their first BCS Championship Game bids.

The Hogs would be considered a longshot given the trauma of the Bobby Petrino scandal, but they take the field with one of the best quarterbacks (Tyler Wilson) in the land and a lot to prove.   

Mark Richt and the Bulldogs have a tough Week 2 matchup against Missouri with at least five defensive starters suspended for a variety of violations. But they, too, have a lot to prove to themselves and to their fans, especially after the bitter disappointment of last year’s SEC Championship Game defeat and the loss to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl.  

Then there is Steve Spurrier, who has been at his animated best this off-season, even going after Nick Saban. In April, the Ol’ Ball Coach said, “(Saban) has got a nice little gig going … He tells guys, ‘Hey, three years from now you’re going to be a first-round pick and go.’ If he wants to be the greatest coach, or one of the greatest coaches in college football, to me, he has to go somewhere besides Alabama and win, because they’ve always won there at Alabama.”  

Saban has won three national championships since Spurrier last won an SEC title

Still, if the Gamecocks get off to a solid start against a much-improved Vanderbilt on Thursday night, the first marque matchup of the 2012 season, they could become a team that exceeds expectations and vaults to the front of the national conversation.  

For others in the SEC, expectations are lower, but besting them is still important, if not imperative.

Derek Dooley needs wins by the bushel to right the ship at Tennessee while Will Muschamp need to prove that he is more Urban Meyer than Ron Zook.  

James Franklin has them believing again in Nashville. A win on Thursday night against the Gamecocks would be the biggest win in school history and could turn the tide for the perennial cellar-dweller in the East.

Both Mississippi schools hope to contend in the West, at least past Halloween, while Auburn and the newcomers – Texas A&M and Mizzou – look to silence their critics.  

It would surprise absolutely no one if, four months from now, we were talking about another SEC team playing for a national title.

It’s the individual expectations – who surprises and surpasses, and who falls woefully short – that will keep things interesting between now and then.