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Ashway: Following substandard week, has SEC lost dominance?
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How now, SEC?

Is the conference losing its grip on football supremacy?

Isn’t anyone scared to play a team from the big, bad SEC anymore?

The best football conference in the country, which makes it the conference the rest of the country loves to loathe, took it on the chin over the weekend.

Just a week ago, all the SEC brethren were gloating over being the first conference in history to place 10 teams in the weekly Associated Press top 25. Every school in the Western division was ranked.

Not any more.

While the rest of the country chortles with glee over Toledo’s upset of Arkansas, we pause to inquire: was this an aberration, or part of a larger trend?

Does Jacksonville State’s near upset of Auburn signal that the time has arrived for SEC faithful to hit the panic button?

Was Oklahoma’s comeback win at Tennessee indicative of wide-spread, NFL-like parity sweeping the nation?

Regressing a week, what to make of Western Kentucky’s upset of Vanderbilt? Was it a sign of a crumbling conference, or just Vandy being Vandy?

The nation has noticed. There was Desmond Howard on ESPN last Saturday, questioning the SEC’s claim of being ‘the best from top to bottom.’

Conference officials bristle when reminded that the SEC has failed to win the last two national championships. Never mind that it claimed the previous seven, further antagonizing the rest of the nation.

Consider that Alabama, the flagship program of the conference, has managed to lose the past two Sugar Bowls, while surrendering the staggering total of 87 points in those games.

The SEC is used to being the best in football, period. College football guru Phil Steele has rated the SEC the nation’s toughest conference every year since 2004. He predicts the same for 2015, with the SEC edging out the Pac-12 and Big 10.

On the season’s opening weekend, the SEC swept its only meetings with those two conferences: Texas A&M slammed Arizona State, 38-17, and Alabama throttled Wisconsin, 35-17.

Dominance confirmed.

Until Toledo strolled into Little Rock.

They arrived without having played a game yet, so their brand-new offensive line had no game experience playing together. They also arrived without running back Kareem Hunt, who was suspended for the first two games. All Hunt did last year was gain 1,631 yards, with a gaudy 8 yards per carry.

Arkansas already had a game under its belt, a 48-13 slapping of Texas-El Paso. And you’d have thought the Razorbacks would be trying to guard their coach’s back. During last week’s SEC teleconference, Bret Bielema missed a great opportunity to keep his mouth shut.

“I spent a lot of time in that other conference,” Bielema declared, alluding to his tenure as head coach at Wisconsin. “Ohio State’s ranked No. 1, and they have one game remaining on their schedule that has anybody ranked right now, Michigan State. And I looked at it, and we’re going to play eight straight opponents that are ranked.”

Arkansas’ opponents will now play one less team that is ranked.

“Being the underdog, that’s my story,” Toledo quarterback Philip Ely told the Toledo Blade. Ely, not good enough to play at Alabama, converted four third downs of 10 yards or more. “It’s just fun for the underdogs, me and my team, to really pull out a victory like this.”

Jacksonville State almost experienced such fun. But the Gamecocks — 41-point underdogs — had to settle for being the first FCS team to force a ranked FBS team into overtime.

That wasn’t good enough for Jacksonville State coach John Grass.

“It’s hard. It’s a loss, and we’re not satisfied,” he told the Anniston Star. “A lot of people will try to discredit them, beinga top 5, top 10 program, but that kind of discredits us. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Auburn’s shaken coach, Gus Malzahn, told the Star, “Well, we won. And we didn’t play well. It’s easy to see that. You have to give those guys credit.”

Malzahn also told ESPN.com, “A lot of times, in the course of a season, it’s how you win. Today, we faced major adversity.”

Yes.

Against Jacksonville State.

Tennessee had a formidable foe on its hands, yet let Oklahoma escape after building a 17-0 lead, with its huge home crowd roaring encouragement.

“It’s one of the more special wins,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops told ESPN.com. “Maybe my favorite of all of them!”
Right. There’s nothing quite like knocking off a team from the big, bad SEC right in its own backyard.

Even if the SEC isn’t quite what it used to be.

Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears on Wednesday.

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