NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. - LSU coach Les Miles' welcome-to-the-SEC moment came two games into the 2005 season, his first with the Tigers, when he inherited the immense expectations left by his predecessor, current Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Originally, LSU was set to open its 2005 schedule against North Texas and Arizona State, the latter on the road, before entering SEC play against Tennessee on Sept. 26. Because of Hurricane Katrina, however, the school moved the date with North Texas to an open Saturday in October - meaning Miles' home debut was an SEC game against the Volunteers.
It took 60 minutes for the SEC to show its colors: LSU took a 21-0 lead into halftime but faltered down the stretch, eventually losing, 30-27, in overtime. Lesson learned, Miles said.
"You realized really quick that you better be quick on the uptake, because these are quality football teams," Miles said. "You have to be ready. It's competition. It doesn't make a difference what colors you're wearing."
The SEC has won seven national titles in a row and is looking for its eighth in Monday's BCS National Championship Game as a result of two main factors: the league has been able to put forth numerous teams worthy of playing on college football's biggest stage - and the best of that group has been better than anyone else in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
It's this depth, not just in physical ability but coaching, facilities, support and resources, that has allowed the SEC to distance itself from the competition and stand as the defining conference of the Bowl Championship Series era, which concludes Monday after 16 years of existence.
"Just a lot of great players in our league, a lot of great coaches," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "A lot of money poured into our universities. The passion of our fan bases - we're like 97, 98% full every time we open the door."
No one factor played a larger role in the league's unmatched run atop the FBS more so than the SEC's ability to recruit at an elite level - a task made easier by the Southeast's lush recruiting bed.
In each recruiting cycle since 2006, the SEC has had at least three of the nation's top 10 recruiting classes, according to Rivals.com. Even teams with classes ranked in the second half of the SEC still sit among the nation's best. In the 2013 cycle, for instance, Mississippi State's group ranked ninth in the SEC but 26th nationally - meaning the Bulldogs class was superb on an FBS-wide level but a step behind the best inside its own league.
"Recruiting is huge," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "At some leagues they'll have one or two teams ranked in the top 25 in recruiting. But you have 10 SEC schools every year in the top 25 in recruiting. There's so much depth to the league that it gives you an opportunity for not just one or two teams but multiple teams that can win national championships."
SEC recruiting shows itself along the line of scrimmage, particularly on defense. No other league has been able to duplicate the league's ability to control the point of attack, often with waves of four- or five-star talent; though other leagues have commensurate talent at the skill positions - quarterback, running back, wide receiver - it's the advantage up front that separates the SEC from the rest of the pack.
"The biggest difference to me in this league is just the defensive line," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "The difference is the depth of the league, of the amount of good teams in the league, but then you've got to block the front four in this league. And that's not true top to bottom in every league. I'm not saying there's not some really good front fours in some leagues, but it's not top to bottom."
That the SEC's dominance of the BCS has been propelled by defensive excellence is a cliché - but like all clichés, it's one with a basis in reality.
To Miles, who led LSU to the national championship in 2007, title-winning SEC teams held a decided edge not just up front but throughout the entire defense, particularly in the defensive backfield.
"I think defensive ends in virtually every league are tremendously important," Miles said. "The cornerbacks are the next piece. If you look at the defenses in this league, you're looking at great corner play. You're going to line up with athletic big men flying to the ball that can press the pocket. They can in one week play a two-back offense and the next week try to handle a quarterback-read, zone-option style of play. So there's diversity within the league."
Said Mullen: "In the SEC, it's always defensive fronts. The defensive line in the SEC, that's what everybody says. But there's a reality to that as well."
In every way, the SEC's depth and parity has been its greatest asset during the BCS era - even if, as with Alabama this season, each year has seen one or more teams capable of winning the national title fail to land the opportunity because of a single conference loss.
The constant throughout the SEC's run has been how the gauntlet that is the SEC schedule has brought out the best in the league's 12 or 14 teams.
"Every game seems like it's for the championship, you know," Richt said. "Every game is a war. Really, you've got to be at your peak over and over and over again. It does take a toll on you, physically and mentally. You get into the games we get into sometimes, every play is life or death."
Said Miles: "So when you set up that kind of competitive format and you play week in and week out against teams that are tremendously prepared, have real quality athletes, I think it allows you to play in tight games and understand a championship style of play."
The drawback of the SEC's depth is obvious: BCS-era teams that would have gone undefeated in another automatic-qualifying conference, thereby earning a berth in the national title game, instead spent the postseason in a secondary bowl, often outside the BCS structure.
But the benefit is also clear: Teams that survived a season in the SEC unscathed - or with the conference title, at least - were hardened and battle-tested by the road, and more than ready to take on whatever test lay ahead in the national championship.
"When you get to the championship, having played the kind of schedule that you have in our conference, you're ready," Miles said. "If you're healthy, you are ready to play."
Paul Myerberg, USA TODAY Sports