January blew a harsh damper of defeat across Oklahoma as the calendar flipped beyond 2003.
A Sooners' late-season collapse concluded in a BCS Championship defeat, with Nick Saban and LSU shoving aside OU's shot at an elusive eighth national title inside the Superdome.
Down in Dallas, the Cowboys' best team since the great Barry Sanders Heismanland run was gunned down by Eli Manning and Ole Miss in the Cotton Bowl.
At the time, those setbacks were difficult to digest. And the 10-year itch on those games may hint at something more.
In retrospect, the SEC was making an early statement, especially in New Orleans, where LSU's conquest earned the conference its first of eight BCS titles in a 10-year span. And while we may not have recognized it at the time, the SEC was likely laying the groundwork for what would come:
Total domination of the college game.
By 2006, the SEC had secured its roots toward becoming the greatest conference on earth.
And if you don't believe it, or stubbornly cling to resisting the notion, they'll tell you all about it.
“Shoot,” said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, “we had a few (teams) that could have had some fun in that (BCS Championship) game last year.”
Of course, in that game last year, Alabama routed Notre Dame 42-14. And SEC squads filled the final Associated Press top 10, with Georgia No. 5, Texas A&M No. 6, South Carolina No. 8 and Florida No. 9.
That's half of the top 10, with LSU and Vanderbilt — Vanderbilt — claiming poll positions, too, at No. 14 and 23, respectively.
Alabama's title run, its third in four years, gave the SEC its seventh straight national championship claim.
Where and how did it all begin?
Evidence suggests 2003, and with Saban.
“Nick Saban comes into the league and changes things, as Coach Spurrier did when he first came back,” said former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer. “There's some really, really outstanding coaches and I think the league is deeper than it's ever been.”
Before 2003, no SEC team had even appeared in a BCS title game since Tennessee won the inaugural matchup in 1998. After that, the Big 12, ACC and Big East dominated play. Florida State and Miami (Fla.) both made a pair of appearances, each winning once. OU won for the 2000 season. Nebraska earned another trip for the Big 12 and lost. Ohio State represented the Big Ten with a title.
Then concluding the 2003 season, the Sooners were back and looking for more in the Sugar Bowl — the title game wasn't officially called the BCS Championship until 2006 — albeit as a questionable entry, having just been popped by Kansas State, 35-7, in the Big 12 championship game.
More questions arose as OU ran into LSU, then coached by Saban, who was in his third season on the Bayou. And the Tigers won, 21-14, stamping Saban's star as on the rise and changing the playing field in the SEC.
And eventually, across all of college football.
Saban would leave LSU, opening the door for Les Miles to bolt Stillwater for Baton Rouge. But after a short stint in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins, he'd be back, building Bama's latest powerhouse run and upping the ante leaguewide.
“Let's not kid ourselves,” said Todd Monken, the former OSU assistant who went to LSU with Miles back in 2004, “the guy has won four national titles.”
Urban Meyer won two at Florida. Auburn has one. LSU has added another under Miles.
And plenty of other SEC teams want one. And believe they can get one.
“When I got to LSU, you had literally six programs in that league that really expect every year to win it,” said Monken, now the head coach at Southern Miss. “You can't find another league where you could have six teams that have had that kind of success and that kind of tradition, to where those six teams legitimately believe they have a chance to win.”
The Georgia Bulldogs might have gotten theirs last January, if they just could have punched in a late score against Alabama in the SEC title game.
Then, as Spurrier suggested, it might have been the Dawgs knocking off Notre Dame.
“We got here by 5 yards — Georgia was 5 yards from scoring,” Saban said after the championship game. “It's a pretty tough league we play in.”
And it wasn't just Georgia knocking on the door; the Gators and Gamecocks were close, too.
Saban's impact on the league, while mighty, isn't the only factor in this shift of power to the deep South.
Credit SEC commissioner Mike Slive for orchestrating a conference that operates with a perceived unified appeal. Whether real or imagined, it's almost as if ultimately, despite the inside rivalries and coaching barbs and jabs, all 14 programs are in it together.
And with that, the SEC has created the image that it is the only place to be.
For coaches. For players. For schools even, with Texas A&M and Missouri jumping to the SEC a year ago.
“It used to be you recruited against schools,” Monken said. “Now you see kids on their Twitter and it says ‘SEC Bound.' It's like it's the NFL. It's like they almost don't care where it is, just as long as it's in the SEC.”
Bret Bielema, who made move from Wisconsin to coach Arkansas last winter, quickly discovered the advantages of recruiting to the SEC.
“We got a quarterback out of Egg Harbor, New Jersey, that we tried to recruit at the previous institution I was at,” Bielema said. “He reached out to us once I switched, because he wanted to play in the SEC. I said, ‘Well, I got a heck of an opportunity for you.
“He switched, decommitted from another school, became a part of what we did. That was all because of the SEC on our shirt.”
And that's hardly new.
Over the past decade, the SEC has been luring major talent into many of its locales. And the talent keeps showing up on Saturdays. And Sundays, too, particularly across the defensive front, where the SEC seems to have a magical pull on the most coveted athletes: big bodies who can disrupt game plans.
“That's been the eye-opener for me,” Bielema said. “It was apparent from Day 1. That's very, very clear. I have not been through an SEC schedule. I can tell you, I've watched, especially our early SEC opponents, a lot of film since spring.
“One thing that jumps out is the defensive line talent. The speed, the size, the ability that they bring … A lot of really good players.”
Monken has had that discussion with Texas offensive line coach Stacy Searels, who worked with Monken at LSU. And they agree.
“There's more guys who can run and chase,” Monken said. “And the back-end speed, there's more guys who can run and stop big plays.
“That doesn't mean they have any more skilled football players. That doesn't mean that their knowledge and function of the game and how it's played, all that, is better. You're just talking about raw athleticism.”
Texas and OU used to get their share of dominant defensive linemen, but lately they're losing out — to the SEC.
And it's even hit close to home, with Douglass standout end Deondre Clark — whose brother Stevie is set to play basketball at OSU — committed to LSU. Where's the brotherly love?
The big picture offers little hope, with Tennessee and Alabama ranked 1-2 in the latest Rivals team recruiting rankings, followed by Georgia at No. 5, Texas A&M No. 7 and five more SEC schools falling in from 11-18.
The talent shift is evident in the NFL Draft, particularly among defensive players. The past two seasons, the Big 12 has seen but one defender taken in the first round. In 2012, the first Big 12 defensive player didn't go off the board until Round 3.
The Big 12 keeps graduating offensive skill players to the next level, a reflection of the recent emphasis on the no-huddle spread offenses that have piled up yards and points.
“What you end up with is a league that's like the old WAC,” Monken said. “It's just amazing how many guys you can find that can pitch and catch.
“But it's not a league of explosive, game-changing defensive players. It's a fun league to be in, but there's just not as many explosive defensive players. And it's not me saying that, just look at the draft.”
So, is the SEC just that superior?
Yes. And no, says Monken, along with a band of coaches operating in leagues who must contend with a runaway perception of the SEC as the pre-eminent super conference.
There's power at the top, for sure. But critics contend that SEC hype is out of control.
Monken points out that LSU and Florida, two of the league's heavyweights, lost to Clemson of the ACC and Louisville of the Big East, respectively, last bowl season.
“The hype machine has built on it,” Monken said. “Believe me, I'm not here to bash that league. It's a great league. I loved being in it. The passion of the fans is unbelievable. The coaching. The players.
“But at times, it gets a little overvalued across the board, top to bottom.”
Still, SEC value remains high, with the league's power play long past its tipping point.
And there appears to be no imminent move back toward equality.