FAYETTEVILLE, Ark — For seven years from 2006-12, parity in college football meant determining which of the Southeastern Conference's contenders would finish as the national champion.
These days, it feels as though the only national contender from the SEC resides in Tuscaloosa, where Alabama has been the conference's lone representative in each of the first three College Football Playoffs.
After Auburn's loss to defending national champion Clemson last weekend, the top-ranked Crimson Tide is the SEC's only team in the top 10 of this week's Associated Press poll.
"Alabama, they deserve to be one in everything all the time until somebody proves them different," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said.
The lack of an early season SEC contender behind the Crimson Tide is a troubling sign for what has been long thought of as college football's most dominant conference, particularly coming off a season when no school other than Alabama managed to finish with double-digit wins.
Even more problematic for the SEC teams chasing Nick Saban and Co. is how few out-of-conference chances they have left this season against top competition.
The conference has only four games left against currently ranked competition outside the SEC to earn the trust of voters — and the playoff committee. And all the while, it has to hope a team not named Alabama can run the gauntlet in the SEC — while not getting steamrolled by the Crimson Tide along the way — if a second team is going to have a realistic shot at the league's first non-Alabama national championship since Auburn in 2010.
The No. 15 Tigers were expected by many in the preseason to be the team most likely to challenge the Crimson Tide in the SEC West, with optimism based on the arrival of former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham and new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.
However, Stidham was sacked 11 times in Auburn's 14-6 loss to defending national champion Clemson last week. It was one of three high-profile nonconference losses in the first two weeks of the season for the SEC, following Florida's 33-17 defeat to Michigan and Texas A&M's opening-week collapse against UCLA.
"We will get better," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "I promise you that."
Even if the Tigers do go on a winning streak, they still face the prospect of ending the regular season with the annual Iron Bowl showdown against Alabama. That puts them in the position of needing to defeat the Crimson Tide if they hope to reach the playoff, or almost certainly being left out of the postseason playoff with two losses.
The two highest-ranked SEC teams outside of Alabama, No. 12 LSU and No. 13 Georgia, are among those with quality nonconference wins on their resume — with the Tigers having defeated BYU and the Bulldogs downing Notre Dame last week.
Both schools, along with Auburn, have some say about their playoff destinies.
"I think the only time a ranking matters is when the season is over and you play the final game and you pick up the paper the next day," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. "I think that's when the rankings matter."
Another SEC school with a quality nonconference win on its resume is No. 23 Tennessee, which rallied to defeat Georgia Tech in its opener. And much like their counterparts in the SEC West, the Volunteers have the daunting task of facing Alabama this season, on the road Oct. 21.
Despite how the Crimson Tide's success hovers over every other school in the SEC, Tennessee safety Micah Abernathy hasn't lost any faith in the league's overall talent.
"I feel like the SEC is the premier conference in college football," Abernathy said. "At the end of the year we're going to see that, like we do every year."
While SEC representation in the top 10 is a bit light this week, the Big Ten features four schools in that mix. One of those schools is Wisconsin, where Bielema coached before leaving the Badgers to join the Razorbacks following the 2012 season.
Arkansas is 26-27 in five seasons under Bielema following last week's nonconference loss to No. 20 TCU. He won three league championships in his seven seasons at Wisconsin, but he's 10-22 in the SEC — which he said is just as full of talent and depth as when he was hired by the Razorbacks.
"I know this, I moved to this conference for a reason," Bielema said. "I wanted to be (with) the best that there is, and this is definitely The SEC in general and the SEC West, in my opinion, that hasn't varied at all."