Tennessee Coach Jeremy Pruitt had a frustrating season opener. (Wade Payne)
Columnist

If it were any other Power Five football conference, the initial impression would have been humiliating, devastating and everlasting. Nonconference losses to Georgia State, Wyoming, Memphis and North Carolina? Three of them as double-digit favorites? Goodbye, fraud. Pack your reputation and leave.

But an awful day for the SEC isn’t as irredeemable as the rest of the nation wants it to be. The first full Saturday of the college football season featured a good portion of the SEC looking terrible, reinforcing criticism that the league is more top-heavy than deep and mighty. Nevertheless, the real SEC contenders remain potent, and in the one enormous, perception-shaping showdown of the week, No. 16 Auburn came back to beat No. 11 Oregon, 27-21, with legacy quarterback Bo Nix throwing the game-winning touchdown and starting his legend.

So the SEC may have limped into the 2019 season, but it will heal.

It is a level of understanding that its peers don’t really receive. Inevitably, the “overrated” cries will begin anew. When there’s an opportunity to mock SEC football, you probably should take it because there’s no escaping the praise during its dominant moments. It comes with being so historically superior. It comes with winning nine of the past 13 national titles, including seven straight from 2006 to 2012. While Alabama has been an overpowering presence during this run and captured five of those championships, Florida has two, and LSU and Auburn each have one.

The success provides the SEC with enviable benefit of the doubt, but the question is whether the 2019 version of the league will prove worthy of such belief. Week 2 will serve as a good indicator as two of the SEC’s best face stiff competition on the road. LSU heads to Texas for a matchup of top-10 teams, and Texas A&M visits No. 1 Clemson.

Naturally, Clemson would be involved in determining where the SEC stands this season. The Tigers have slowed the Crimson Tide dynasty by beating Alabama twice in the past three national title games, including a 44-16 blowout in January. Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, unapologetically colorful, went after the SEC a little this offseason in defending his team against the laughable claim that the SEC grind contributed to Alabama’s lackluster performance eight months ago.

“Listen, the SEC is a great conference, but I don’t think they’ve been as deep the last few years,” Swinney told ESPN. “I think they’ve had two or three really good teams, and then it’s kind of been hit-or-miss from there. It’s an awesome league, for sure, and I know people say that Alabama was tired because they went through the grind and had to play all these teams. Well, they won by an average of 33.1 points per game [entering the College Football Playoff], so they ought to be well rested.

“My thing on that is, ‘Are you serious? They’re tired?’ Then you look at Clemson, and we won 12 games by 20-plus. Who really challenged Alabama in the SEC? They didn’t get challenged by anybody until the Georgia [SEC title] game.”

Alabama has three ranked teams on its schedule: Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn. The 14-team SEC has six squads in the top 25. Beyond that, it could get ugly.

On Saturday, Georgia State beat Tennessee, 38-30, and received a $950,000 guarantee to deliver the embarrassment. Volunteers Coach Jeremy Pruitt, a Nick Saban/Alabama disciple, finished 5-7 in his first season in Knoxville and just began Year 2 with an unfathomable loss to a Sun Belt Conference team that went 2-10 last season. North Carolina was 2-9 a year ago, but it rallied to beat South Carolina, 24-20, in Coach Mack Brown’s return. Afterward, Brown danced badly — come on, y’all, it was cute but rhythm-less — in the locker room. The Week 1 SEC clowning didn’t stop there, however. Wyoming slipped past Missouri, 37-31, ruining the debut of Clemson transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant, who threw for 423 yards. And then there was the eyesore of the week: Memphis 15, Mississippi 10.

Beyond those defeats, there were several alarming close calls, including Arkansas’ 20-13 survival against Portland State. Does all this amount to Week 1 rust and jitters? It might. Or it might be evidence that Alabama and Georgia again are the superpowers in the conference, and we should slap a TBD label on the other teams.

Still, even if the SEC is worse than anticipated, it seemingly has one guaranteed slot in the playoff and a decent chance at two. And even though a two-loss team hasn’t made the playoff in its first five years, you can anticipate one from the SEC being the first to do that.

Why? Because the SEC still has this college football system figured out, from its insistence on limiting its league schedule to eight games to its ability to generate enormous hype and television interest.

Over the past few seasons, the SEC has left its status as college football’s best conference open to debate. But there’s no denying it is the most relevant conference. And it tells its story in a clear and bombastic manner.

Three years ago, the SEC said of itself in an ad: “It just means more.”

On Saturday, Georgia State Coach Shawn Elliott shouted to his team after winning at Tennessee: “Today’s game just meant more to us!”

For any other power conference, this would signal a disaster. And maybe this is the season that the SEC shows it isn’t immune to crisis. But most likely, if Alabama and Georgia carry the league, the SEC will be able to play off its arrogance and declare of the impact of its early-season hiccups: It just means less.

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