ATLANTA – Can somebody — anybody! — please stand up to that bully down South.
The college football season hasn't even started yet, but we already feel like we know the outcome.
The SEC is up here.
Everyone else is down here.
Frankly, it's getting a little boring.
Sport requires drama, suspense, some degree of uncertainty to truly capture our attention.
In this sport, though, we've got the closest thing to a sure bet. Come January, we all know there's likely to be another Southeastern Conference team standing in the middle of that confetti at the Rose Bowl, collecting the league's eighth straight national title.
Once again, the SEC has an embarrassment of riches: the best offensive player (Texas A&M quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel), the best defensive player (South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney), the best coach (Alabama's Nick Saban), and — oh, yeah — the best team (Saban's mighty Crimson Tide, winner of three crowns in the last four years and heavily favored to claim another).
For the good of college football, somebody needs to end this reign of terror.
Sure, dynasties are a whole lot of fun for those on the right side of history, but they're not the best way to keep the rest of us engaged. It is surely no coincidence that average attendance this past season was down 1.3 percent from 2005, the last time a team not from the SEC finished No. 1, and a more troubling 3.3 percent from its record high in 2008.
In fact, last year's turnout of 45,440 per game was the lowest for the NCAA's top division since 2001. Even the folks in SEC country seem to have become a bit bored with all this winning, judging by a slight drop in average attendance each of the last two seasons and a more glaring number of no-shows at some big-time stadiums.
For now, look for more of the same.
The SEC could have as many as five teams (Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Florida) in the top 10 when the first Associated Press poll of the season comes out on Saturday. LSU is right in the mix, too.
There are those who choose to bury their head in the sand when it comes to the SEC.
A few weeks ago, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini took offense at anyone suggesting the SEC was head and shoulders above every other conference. Alabama, for sure, but not the entire conference.
"I guarantee there are a lot of teams in the SEC that aren't Alabama that wish they were Nebraska, that wish they were Michigan, wish they were Ohio State," Pelini said, "so don't talk to me about the SEC."
That sort of denial isn't going to get it done.
Not when anyone can match up to the SEC in two crucial areas: quarterback and defense.
It starts with Manziel, the game's most dynamic player, assuming he isn't sidelined by an investigation into whether he got paid for doling out his autograph (the guess here is that Johnny Football beats the rap). Alabama is led by AJ McCarron, who has done nothing but win championships since taking over as the Tide's QB. Georgia has Aaron Murray, a fifth-year senior who surprisingly passed on a chance to enter the NFL draft after guiding the Bulldogs to the cusp of the national title game last season.
Clowney would surely be in the pros by now if he wasn't required to spend one more year in college. If anyone needs a refresher on just how good this guy is, check in with former Michigan running back Vincent Smith, assuming he's finally coherent after taking the season's most vicious hit in the Outback Bowl, one which sent both the ball and his helmet flying.
In a sense, Clowney is the exaggerated prototype for the kind of player that makes SEC defenses stand apart from everyone else. In this league, it seems, everyone is just a few pounds bigger, a little bit stronger, a step quicker. Manti Te'o might've been a stud at Notre Dame, but his performance in the national title game — most of it spent on his back as Alabama romped to a 42-14 victory — showed he would've been just another player in the SEC.
If there was any hope the Crimson Tide might back off the throttle just a bit, Saban shot that down just minutes after his team had finished its destruction of the Fighting Irish. He said the celebration would last all of 24 hours, then he'd be back in the office getting ready to win another championship.
"Even though I really appreciate what this team accomplished and am very, very proud of what they accomplished, we need to prepare for the challenges of the new season very quickly with the team we have coming back," he said.
Saban sounded totally devoid of joy, just a man on an insatiable quest to knock down anyone in his path. He is the perfect symbol for the SEC, which saps a little more joy from this game with each passing season, a league on cruise control while everyone else is struggling mightily just to get off the ground.
Please don't put us through that again.
Can you help us out, Ohio State? The Buckeyes at least have a coach, Urban Meyer, who knew how to win in the SEC and clearly doesn't mind cutting a few corners.
What about you, Louisville? The Cardinals certainly have a championship-caliber quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, and put quite a whippin' on Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
At this point, we'll take anybody.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963