DESTIN, Fla. - When Steve Spurrier was in the middle of his Florida football dynasty in 1997, he was asked about his team's chance to compete for another national title.
Spurrier's answer at the SEC preseason football media days was a sign of the times. He was optimistic - as long as Nebraska wasn't in his path.
Now, the rest of the country probably feels the same way about the SEC, which has won five consecutive BCS national titles and seems appropriately armed for a run at No. 6.
There might not be a single program that can match Nebraska's dominance in the mid-1990s. But the SEC has at least several programs capable of being No. 1 in any given year.
No one is more aware of the conference's strength than the coaches who test it from one Saturday to the next.
"On the outside looking in, (five consecutive championships) might be surprising," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said at the SEC spring meetings. "But when you turn on the film and look at the next opponent, it's not.
"There's so much depth and talent in this league. You know you're playing the best teams in college football week in and week out."
Mullen's awareness of that was heightened last fall. His team was good enough to finish 15th nationally but no better than fifth in the SEC West.
"When our kids start patting themselves on the back, I say we finished fifth in the West," he said. "That's not where we want to be.
"Even though we're a top-15 team nationally, that's not who we compete against. Our goal is to win the SEC West."
Good luck with that.
Winning the West has never been more difficult. In fact, if you are good enough to win the West, you are good enough to win the national championship as well.
The national championship game has turned into an SEC showcase. For the competition, just coming close - as Oregon did against Auburn in January - has been an accomplishment.
"Our teams have played really well in the big games," South Carolina's Spurrier said.
That's not an accident. It's the natural result of playing so many big games within the conference.
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino remembers viewing the SEC from afar when he fielded his best teams at Louisville.
"I felt like we could compete with those guys (in one game)," he said. "What's so hard in this conference is week after week lining up against such great players.
"You're well prepared when you get into that national championship game."
Getting there is the trick for an up-and-coming program like Arkansas. As talented as the Razorbacks might be entering the 2011 season, they're in the same division with Alabama and LSU, which rank ahead of the Razorbacks on a list of national championship contenders. Moreover, Arkansas must play both on the road.
Any team that emerges from the West with only one loss overall and then wins the SEC championship game deserves to play for the national title. And whoever does will be expected to extend the championship streak to six.
Winning the national championship game has been the easy part for the SEC. The challenge is getting there.