Kevin C. Cox
While Alabama and Ole Miss thump their fellow in-state rivals, the SEC romps in rivalry week with the SEC Championship Game once again setting the stage for a berth in the BCS National Championship Game.
A few random thoughts from around the SEC after week thirteen of the college football season:
Alabama: Florida Atlantic put up a better fight than Auburn, but with the SEC Championship Game on the horizon only the Gumpiest of the Gumps care about the Iron Bowl. No use sugarcoating it, game of the year coming up in Atlanta with only two possible outcomes: (1) Win the SEC and play Notre Dame in Miami in the BCS National Championship Game, or (2) Lose and play Northwestern in the Capital One Bowl. You never want to lose any game, of course, but you sure as hell don't want to lose this one, folks. There are a handful of games that the Alabama faithful will take to their graves -- 1973 Notre Dame, 2010 Auburn, et. al -- and you can bet your bottom dollar that 2012 Georgia will go on that list if the Tide fizzles in Atlanta in six days. Truth be told, the season will either end with 'Bama hoisting the crystal ball yet again, or with vomit-inducing misery after a loss to either Georgia or Notre Dame. Hope for the best.
Arkansas: John L. Smith's sudden aversion to risk gets all of the headlines, but odds are it doesn't matter. Either way, the Hogs needed one more clutch drive from the offense to win it all and it simply never materialized. With the loss, Arkansas closes down the season at 4-8, but give the Hogs and Smith credit for one thing: They fought the entire way with all they had, which is far more than you can say with a few other SEC teams. With the season now over in Fayetteville, expect them to move very quickly to hire a new head coach.
Auburn: If Harvey Updyke had been named head coach at Auburn this past week, it's hard to imagine how the Iron Bowl could have gone any worse for the Tigers. Probably not an SEC team in recent memory outside of Nashville or Lexington as bad this Auburn team. With Gene Chizik fired, the most interesting aspect of Jay Jacob's letter to the fan base yesterday afternoon was that a search committee would choose the next coach -- in other words, Jacobs won't -- which means he will likely follow Chizik out the door once a new head coach is put in place. Not sure how a private equity investor in the health care industry (Mac Crawford), a retired pro athlete with no coaching or administrative experience (Bo Jackson), and a coach whose career never really even got off the ground and hasn't had even a semi-major coaching job in almost twenty years (Pat Sullivan) are qualified to find a new head coach, but be that as it may, and frankly, public niceties notwithstanding, I highly doubt those will really be the individuals who make the final call. Also interesting that Associate AD Tim Jackson was likewise given the boot, as Jackson was the most central conduit for the influence of Pat Dye (Jackson had been at Auburn for almost 30 years and was an S&C coach under Dye), and after the epic flameout of Chizik, Dye's influence on the Plains is most likely non-existent at this point. And even after 3-9, 49-0, and the firing of Chizik, some players still talking about the Fambly and winning more national championships on the Plains? I'm afraid there are some absolutely delusional players on that roster. Not sure who the Tigers will get as a replacement, but while the recruiting fallout of the Chizik dismissal may be substantial, it's not like they can do much worse than what they had. Long term solution is needed, obviously, but in general yesterday was a good day for Auburn.
Florida: After a month of ugly football, the Gators take down the 'Noles hard in Tallahassee, recovering from a disastrous third quarter to score 24 fourth quarter points to bury Florida State. Lane Kiffin trolled them later in the evening, thus eliminating any hope of a berth in the National Championship Game, but the Gators are now a lock to for the Sugar Bowl, and year two under Will Muschamp was a resounding success. With wins over Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina, and Florida State, there is no resume in the country that can top that of the Gators, and that includes Notre Dame, Alabama, and Georgia. Dominique Easley, who conducted his postgame interview eating directly from a gigantic tub of Animal Crackers, is perhaps the most amusing player in the conference and proves true the age-old axiom that nothing normal ever comes out of Staten Island.
Georgia: The Dawgs might not have a signature performance just yet, but they have tremendous talent and are playing their best football when it counts most. Aaron Murray is going to be licking his chops this week watching game film of the Alabama pass defense the past month. Hard to believe but true: Mark Richt can exercise a decade of demons in just sixty minutes in Atlanta. It's all for the taking for the Dawgs, just a matter of finally putting it together on the field. That said, the ever-quotable Bacarri Rambo in the postgame after the thumping of Georgia Tech: "We should win [against Alabama], we've got better players all over the field on offense and defense." As an Alabama partisan, that is exactly the kind of quote you want to read six days before kick-off.
Kentucky: That kind of season in Lexington: Even the kicker was attacked by the opposing team's mascot in the season finale. 'Cats get punished by a hapless Tennessee team, and the loss only underscores how big of a rebuilding job the next head coach will inherit. Good thing they have bourbon and basketball in Kentucky.
LSU: Special teams comes up big again for the Bayou Bengals, and a timely false start helps overcome a disastrous second half fumble. Here's the intriguing takeaway, though: Facing a key third-and-long late against Arkansas, what happens? Miles throws it down the field, LSU converts, and seals the win. Now, compare that to the Alabama game three weeks ago, where Miles instead ran it into the line (despite an ineffective 'Bama pass defense), only to see the Tide offense race down the field for a game-winning touchdown. Want to bet Miles is absolutely kicking himself at that one? We'll never know, but if Miles rolls the dice on 3rd and long against 'Bama, odds are the Bayou Bengals are now in Atlanta playing for a spot in Miami. The Tigers finish up 10-2, but the remainder of the landscape wins out, too, and such LSU will likely finish up the year in either the Peach Bowl or Outback Bowl. Cotton Bowl is the best-case scenario, but odds are that goes to Texas A&M.
Ole Miss: After heartbreaking losses to LSU and Texas A&M, the Rebels finally break through in the Egg Bowl by dominating Mississippi State in a 41-24 route that was not as close as the final score indicated. With the win, Ole Miss reaches 6-6 and becomes bowl eligible, a monumental effort given the gaping holes in the roster. Were it not for Kevin Sumlin, Hugh Freeze would be the runaway candidate for SEC Coach of the Year. With Bo Wallace, Donte Moncrief, and Vince Sanders returning next season, expect the passing game to remain potent. Added benefit of the Ole Miss resurgence and the thumping of MSU? Dan Mullen will finally shut up and stop talking about bringing national championships to Starkvegas.
Mississippi State: The Bullies grind their way from 7-0 to 8-4, with a late-season free fall being only temporarily broken by a win over a 4-8 Arkansas team. Four losses by MSU came by a combined 93 points. Said it last week and will reiterate in this space: With the loss of so many seniors and the rise of Ole Miss, this is the high water mark of the Dan Mullen era at Mississippi State. 8-4 with cupcake wins and blowout losses against quality competition will be as good as it gets in Starkvegas. Incidentally, a final note for the file: Every SEC team that Mississippi State defeated this season has since fired their head coach. #Mullen-ed.
Missouri: If anyone can commiserate with Auburn this morning, it is Missouri, who stared up at the scoreboard in College Station in the late second quarter only to see it read, "Texas A&M 42, Missouri 0." The 29 garbage time points make the final margin look somewhat more respectable, but a disastrous night to cap a disastrous season for Mizzou, who finishes up 5-7 in their debut SEC campaign, marking their worst single-season record in a decade. In the postgame, Gary Pinkel was adamant that nothing fundamentally needed to be changed in Columbia, and while he may be correct, he better make absolutely certain of that on short notice or he will no longer be the one who gets to make that determination. No word just yet from defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who is expected by many to leave early for the NFL Draft.
South Carolina: SEC speed gets all of the hype from the talking heads, but the real difference between the SEC and the rest of the country is line play on both sides of the football, and that was on display in Clemson, where Jadeveon Clowney (who compiled 4.5 sacks on the night) and company absolutely dominated in the trenches. Despite a last second scratch of starting quarterback Connor Shaw, back-up QB Dylan Thompson comes up big and the Gamecocks roll for the fourth year in a row over in-state rival Clemson. With the win, Steve Spurrier becomes the winningest coach in South Carolina history, and the Gamecocks have back-to-back ten win seasons for the first time in school history. Despite finishing 10-2 and in the top ten nationally, bowl seeding nevertheless figures to be brutal for Carolina, who will likely be relegated to either the Peach Bowl against either North Carolina State or Virginia Tech or the Outback Bowl against an also-ran from the Big Ten such as Purdue or Michigan State.
Tennessee: In Game One, A.D. (After Dooley), the Vols pull away late in the second half to beat Kentucky by three touchdowns, but after the win there are far more questions than answers in Knoxville. The heart of the team is the passing game, and in that regard Zach Rogers and Mychal Rivera are seniors, and juniors Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson are likely leaving early for the NFL Draft, as may versatile offensive lineman Dallas Thomas. Given the foregoing mixed with the numerous issues on defense and in the kicking game, along with the strength of the SEC, this could easily become a long rebuild even if Dave Hart lands a head coaching hire to make the hometown homers happy.
Texas A&M: Johnny Football almost causes heart attacks in College Station when he goes down holding his left knee against Missouri, but ultimately returns with brace attached and compiles another 400+ yards of total offense to go along with five touchdowns. Unless freshman bias mixes with a Notre Dame love-in or an over-reaction to the SEC Championship Game winning quarterback, this is your Heisman Trophy winner, folks. Finishing 10-2, the Aggies' debut campaign in the SEC was a resounding success, and in all likelihood you will see them in the Cotton Bowl against either Kansas State, Oklahoma, or Texas. Raced out to a 42-0 first half lead over Missouri, and the 29 points allowed were mainly surrendered in garbage time. Truth be told, A&M is the last team that anyone wants to see right now. Tremendous job by Kevin Sumlin.
Vanderbilt: Is this the best season in the modern history of Vanderbilt football? On a year where Auburn and Tennessee combined to go 1-15 in SEC play, Vanderbilt heads to the clubhouse with an 8-4 regular season record (5-3 in SEC play), with three of those losses coming to top ten teams. Zac Stacy ran for 190 yards against Wake Forest, and for all intents and purposes the game was over at halftime. Given what James Franklin is doing on the recruiting trails, it will be very interesting to see what he can do in the years ahead if he remains in Nashville. The kids he is bringing in are not the typical Vanderbilt recruits.