You could see it coming from a mile away inside the Superdome.

Alabama’s defense, gassed by an admirable foe led by a third-string quarterback, was to its breaking point.

That’s when Ezekiel Elliott out-raced the secondary to put the finishing touches on Ohio State’s majestic semifinal win over the Crimson Tide, which sent the SEC back home national title-less for the second straight January.

It was a punch in the gut for a league that finished just 2-4 against ranked teams during bowl season despite ruling the college football world the previous three months with more than half of its representative ranked inside the Top 25 at some point.

Will the SEC recover in 2015?

Gut-check questions for the SEC in 2015

5. Are other Power 5s gaining ground on what was once labeled college football’s super conference?

It’s a fair question considering the SEC’s slippage at the top since Auburn’s title game loss to Florida State ended the 2013 season. The Big Ten’s noticeable momentum, thanks to recent coaching hires and Urban Meyer’s immediate dominance at Ohio State, creates a nationally-relevant rival who is now skipping over borders and taking advantage of satellite camps on the recruiting trail in the SEC’s own backyard. From a financial standpoint, however, the SEC’s never been more profitable with the introduction of a new cable network and the College Football Playoff.

4. Could the SEC lose some of its best coaches this winter?

Retirement rumors have circulated the last several seasons in Columbia, S.C., thanks to its 70-year-old Ball Coach, Les Miles seems to have worn out his welcome in Baton Rouge and Mark Richt faces immense expectations with one of his most talented rosters yet. It’s too early to look inside the crystal ball in an attempt to determine the future at South Carolina, LSU and Georgia, but a coaching casualty at any of these three programs would be a short in the arm to the SEC for 2016. Don’t confuse these three possible exits with the hot seat narrative. None are in danger of being fired and will leave on their own accord. The hot seat’s reserved for Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason who enters his second season in need of SEC wins.

3. Has the league slipped defensively?

Bowl season proved the SEC has some work to do on this side of the football, especially after embarrassing performances by the league’s perceived Western Division heavyweights. Seven teams finished inside college football’s Top 20 in total defense last fall, but none inside the Top 5, the first time that’s happened in more than a decade. The talent’s certainly been there, but consistency has lacked, both from a tackling and execution standpoint.It’ll be interesting to see how some of the league’s most-feared pass rushers who have been showered with preseason love perform this fall.

2. Can the SEC improve its quarterback play overall?

A popular narrative this offseason has been the league’s lack of proven talent under center heading into fall, an obvious personnel discrepancy compared to the SEC’s backfield and defensive line depth. The league didn’t have a single quarterback drafted last season and only one current senior is guaranteed in 2016. Dak Prescott’s the obvious headliner for a group in need of a morale boost. Players like Jeremy Johnson, Kyle Allen and Maty Mauk must step up, but success at the position is cyclical. Just in the last decade, three SEC quarterbacks have won the Heisman and another, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, is one of the all-time best leaders in the league history. And don’t forget about Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw, members of the SEC’s 2013 class along with McCarron and Zach Mettenberger. Murray is the SEC’s all-time passing leader while Shaw won more games as a starter than any signal caller in school history.

1. Will the SEC return to the College Football Playoff?

A two-loss league champion represents the nightmare scenario for the nation’s most competitive conference, but the Playoff committee would be hard-pressed to leave out a team who would’ve beaten multiple ranked teams and survived a treacherous gauntlet when the dust settles. A 12-1 finish ensures a berth, while 11-2 would make things very interesting. Since winning seven consecutive BCS national championships, many believe the SEC has lost ground nationally, at least on the field, to its Power 5 brethren.