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“When everyone was losing their mind this summer when it came to conference expansion, the SEC was saying, ‘We have a pretty good hand and hopefully, we won’t have to,’” Barnhart said. “But they made it clear that if someone went to 16 teams, they would do it too, and they would do it as well as anyone else.”

Of course they would.

The SEC is 6-0 in the national title game since the start of the BCS era. It has three wins over the Big 12, two against the Big Ten and one against the Atlantic Coast Conference, with the first meeting against the Pac-10 coming up Monday.

The SEC is “a tough conference,” Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said. “When you have people telling you it’s the closest thing to the NFL, it means that it’s, by far, the best conference in college football. And it’s for a reason, because each and every game, there’s never a sure win. You have to go out there and take it.”

Trying to take it this time will be Oregon, a team with a go-go offense and a legitimate NFL prospect in LaMichael James. Coach Chip Kelly said he’s been studying Auburn on the game tapes _ not really thinking much about conferences.

“I don’t get into ‘what’s this league about, what’s that league about,’” he said.

But what else is he supposed to say?

He’s got the nation’s top-ranked scoring offense, its best running back in James and the financial backing of multibillionaire Phil Knight of Nike fame going for him.

Skeptics say the Ducks piled up most of those points against opponents in the Pac-10, which, outside of Oregon and Stanford, doesn’t have a single team in the top 25. (Oregon beat Stanford 52-31 in the regular season, by the way.)

Auburn, meanwhile, has Heisman Trophy winner in Cam Newton and the sixth-ranked offense in the country.

But for SEC-haters out there, there are glimmers of hope.

The SEC East was down this year, and Florida _ the winner of two of the last four national titles _ was decidedly average. And even with Alabama’s 49-7 win over Michigan State and Mississippi State’s 52-14 blowout over Michigan, the SEC headed into the title game with a pedestrian 4-5 bowl record.

Meanwhile, where the SEC teams that have preceded the Tigers have dominated with defense, Auburn’s has been remarkably average. Despite the presence of top-10 draft prospect Nick Fairley on the defensive line, Auburn ranked eighth in the SEC in scoring defense and ninth in points allowed.

The question then becomes, is this defense truly “average,” or is the low ranking simply another manifestation of the greatness of the big, bad SEC?

“That, to me, is the interesting conference angle,” Fowler said. “We know Auburn’s going to score points. But if their defense comes out and smothers Oregon’s offense, it’s a very, very powerful statement about where that league is defensively.”

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