If you plan to watch football on New Year's Day, you might want to get real familiar with the teams of the SEC West. The conference overall has commitments to the Capital One Bowl, the Outback Bowl and the Gator Bowl. The West has five of its six teams at 6-2 or better, so they'll be gobbling up the league's bowl bids down the line.
Auburn leads the West and as the #1 team in the BCS standings rightfully gets the media attention. What seems almost unreal is that Alabama's gone from constantly hyped to completely forgotten. But the Tide are still 7-1 and they still have their Iron Bowl showdown with the Tigers ahead of them. 'Bama can win out, win the SEC Championship Game and be 12-1. They'll be ranked ahead of any other one-loss team in such a circumstance and would just need to get past either Oregon or Boise State to get in the national title game. Anyone want to bet against them? LSU is also in the mix in the West, with a 4-1 conference record and a date with the Tide on Saturday night--a game we'll look at in our Saturday previews. The tiebreaker situation doesn't work well for LSU if it's a three-way tie, so they need to win this game and hope Auburn loses twice more if they want to win the division. That's not likely to happen, but LSU can very reasonably expect an at-large bid to a BCS game if they win out.
There are four at-large teams chosen for major bowls after the conference champions are slotted in. No conference can have more than one at-large. Most years, including this one, that circumstance probably keeps the SEC from having at least three teams in big bowls. But it also virtually guarantees them every year that they will get one at-large. And the bowls have generally preferred to take a quality division runner-up rather than a team that loses its conference championship game. The reasons are economic--it's harder to get fans who just traveled to Atlanta and are down about a loss to travel than it is for a team that enjoyed a solid year (say 10-2 or 11-1) and is fired up for a chance to prove themselves on a big stage. The only teams that have ever been chosen for an at-large after losing a conference title game are those who were undefeated coming in (Oklahoma '03, Alabama '08, Florida '09). All of which means that the West runner-up is probably going to the Sugar or Orange Bowl. The bid is probably going to one of the three aforementioned teams, but Arkansas at 6-2 and surprising Mississippi State at 7-2 are right in the mix.
Contrast that landscape to the East where only South Carolina (6-2) is in position to get a quality bowl spot if they don't win the conference. Although right now, the Gamecocks are hungry for their first trip to Atlanta since joining the league in 1992. Steve Spurrier's team has only one real roadblock--Florida--that stands in the way. The Gators are still lurking and in the soft division, their 3-3 league record means they control their destiny--beat Vanderbilt, beat South Carolina and they win the head-to-head tiebreaker and they're in Atlanta for the third straight year and fourth time in the last five. If they lose one, it's a long dropoff--because of their name recognition they could get the Gator Bowl spot, but a fall as far as the Liberty Bowl would be justified. Beyond South Carolina & Florida, no one else has a winning record and only Georgia and Kentucky at 4-5 have a shot at a bowl bid.
In the race for individual honors, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is setting the pace for both league MVP and the Heisman Trophy. Honorable mention goes to South Carolina's exciting freshman running back Marcus Lattimore and Kentucky's Derrick Locke, at least until the latter was slowed by injury. Lest you think I forgot last year's Heisman winner, Mark Ingram at Alabama, his missed time in September and sharing carries with Trent Richardson reduces his appeal as an MVP candidate--even though the willingness that he shares the ball enhances his appeal as a teammate and another reason I think his team's going to win the conference and play for a repeat national title.
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily MLB playoff coverage and game analysis in college football and the NFL. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.