The College Football Notebook

November 5, 2009 1:00 PM

Sizing Up The SEC

Yesterday we took a look at the Penn State-Ohio State battle on ABC at 3:30 ET. If you’re into channel-changing, that will be the time slot to do it on. Because at the same time on CBS, LSU goes to Alabama for the SEC’s most significant regular season game.

LSU has really not looked championship-ready this season. They struggled to a win in Washington to start the year. Even allowing how much better the Huskies are than was expected, it is still a game a true national contender would win a little easier. Early in October with homefield advantage and the Death Valley night atmosphere on their side, they could not score a touchdown against Florida in a 13-3 loss. Nonetheless, they are in position to win both SEC & national titles. If they win this game, they pull even with ‘Bama in the SEC West and would hold the tiebreaker. If they beat Florida in the SEC Championship Game to finish 12-1, they likely vault over any other unbeaten team and into a game with Texas for all the marbles.

But nothing has happened to date that suggest Les Miles’ program is ready to go on that kind of tear. I like Jordan Jefferson at quarterback and he’s had a nice combination with Terrance Toliver. Beating Alabama, however, requires a running game to help take the pressure off and the Tigers just don’t have that.

Alabama’s got the muscle in Heisman-worthy running back Mark Ingram, but they have concerns of their own. Quarterback Greg McElroy has started to struggle after an excellent start. The Tide has the defense, the running game and the homefield to ensure they win this game, but if McElroy doesn’t find his September form, it will be close. I think he falls somewhere in between his early excellence and his recent problems. Nick Saban and the Tide win it 27-10.

Florida has already clinched the SEC East title and has only a road trip with South Carolina to realistically stand in their way of a perfect 12-0 record. They do play Florida State and I suppose there’s still an outdated part of me wondering if Bobby Bowden can summon some magic, but there’s also the part of me that’s seen FSU unable to run the ball or play defense and knows the Gators will beat them silly in Gainesville on Thanksgiving weekend.

The SEC will definitely get one of the at-large bids to the BCS. Their conference champion’s “natural” spot is the Sugar Bowl. Given the near-certainty that their champ is going to the BCS National Championship Game, the odds are that the runner-up will take the spot in the Sugar. There’s no reason to think Florida or Alabama won’t be the teams filling these spots, but here is one scenario to ponder. Let’s say the Gators are upset at South Carolina and then lose the SEC title game. LSU, meanwhile, bounces back from a loss to Alabama, closes strong and finishes 10-2. Who’s more attractive to the Sugar Bowl when it chooses? A local LSU team fired up with enthusiasm, who closed strong and is ready to fill the Superdome? Or a disheartened Florida squad that lost twice in four weeks and whose fans aren’t recovered enough to spend their travel money for New Orleans? In this case, I think LSU sneaks in. If both Florida and Alabama are unbeaten when they play each other, the loser will still be ranked too high to ignore, but the BCS track record isn’t kind to two-loss title-game losers in the superconferences. The same logic would apply if LSU beat ‘Bama, then lost to Florida. We would look for the Crimson Tide to get the nod for the at-large spot.

The SEC is plastered on so many TV stations come January 1, that it feels like Fox beating the Yankees to death. After the BCS spots are filled, the next team in line goes to the Capital One. That would be the odd team out of the three we’ve been discussing. Meaning it’s probably LSU. If you read yesterday’s column on the Big Ten, you know that means we’d pair them with Ohio State, in a rematch of the 2007 national title game.

The other two New Year’s spots are in the Outback Bowl, which must go to the next team from the SEC East. The other is in the Cotton, which goes to the SEC West. The Outback spot is wide-open right now. South Carolina is 6-3, but you’d have to overlook head-to-head losses against both Georgia and Tennessee, their top two rivals for the bid. Georgia has four losses, and even with their head-to-head win over the Gamecocks, there is a lot of negativity around the Bulldog program right now and they also went to Orlando last year. I don’t see them going again. But watch out for Tennessee, if they can win out. South Carolina brings a lot to a bowl game—a lot of enthusiastic fans, a fresh face and Steve Spurrier. But they may need to either beat Florida or hope the Vols lose one more time to have this spot.

The West is where the muscle is, and even with Alabama or LSU already slotted, Auburn and Ole Miss are still worthy dates for Dallas against the Big 12. Oklahoma may be the opponent here, so it would be a bid to get fired up about. Auburn has the head-to-head win over the Rebels, who have disappointed a lot of people and also went to the Cotton Bowl last year. The Tigers have the edge, and if they win all but the Alabama game, they would be 8-4. This bowl trip would be a good showcase for running back Ben Tate.

After these bids are filled, the next spots go to the Chick-Fil-A (where the ACC #2 choice awaits on New Year’s Eve), the Music City & Liberty then share the next two teams in no particular order, then the Independence and then the Papa-Johns. Including the conference’s at-large spot in the BCS, this means they have 10 spots to fill. Seven teams are 5-3 or better. Four more are 4-4, including Georgia & Tennessee. Even Mississippi State isn’t out of it, at 4-5. Too close to call right now, but odds are the SEC fills all ten.

I've already talk about this possiblity--let's say Texas loses, while Florida and Alabama remain unbeaten. This would be the first of two Gators-Tide showdowns, the second one being in Pasadena. What exactly would be the point of the first game then? Even if you believe these are the two best in the country, give someone else a chance to prove that wrong. Ironically, last time it happened, everyone was insisting that Michigan and Ohio State rematch in 2006 and Urban Meyer correctly demanded his chance at the Buckeyes. Everyone, including me, thought Ohio State would win. Everyone, including me,was wrong. I was writing a Big Ten blog (see link in upper right) at the time, and insisted that a rematch was an outrageous idea. It's all there in the archives that I ripped it when it was my favorite conference pushing for it, and I daresay no neutral blogger poured more words than me into making the case for '06 Florida. If the SEC tries to push for this stunt, it's not only stupid, but hypocritical.

The Thanksgiving weekend rivalry game between Alabama and Auburn will be special, because it will feature this conference’s two best skill players, running backs Ingram and Tate. There’ve been worthy performances elsewhere. Tim Tebow has still been tough and efficient and if it wasn’t for a media culture that insists he’s still a Heisman contender, I’d be singing his praises. As mentioned, I like Jordan Jefferson. Among receivers, A.J. Green at Georgia has been very good, along with LSU’s Toliver. Hat-tips to quarterback Ryan Mallet at Arkansas, but it’s not an MVP hat we’re tipping. This one comes down to Ingram and Tate. Right now, the Tide running back has the edge, but Tate is close enough that he could take it away with a big game in the Iron Bowl. Both deserve a serious look by Heisman voters.

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