This week Alabama enters the championship portion of the season. As long as Alabama continues to win, each game from here on out will be for a championship.
The first championship means nothing. If Alabama wins the SEC West but nothing else, there will be no statues, no rings, no t-shirts.
The second championship means a lot, because SEC championships have independent meaning, but the third championship means everything. It's the kind of stakes we're used to playing for in Tuscaloosa.
Arkansas has elevated its game a bit since mid-year; the flyer I took on Arkansas to win last week didn't quite pan out, but they did take Mississippi State to overtime. Kentucky now has a worse record than the Razorbacks and probably take the crown for worst season from an SEC team, but the Wildcats have been respectable in most of their games.
Right now, the worst team in the SEC is Florida. I won't say I picked Georgia Southern last week, because obviously I didn't, and y'all would catch me if I tried one like that. But I will say I was actually less shocked by that game than by Florida's game the previous week, when they nearly beat South Carolina. That one took me completely by surprise. Not only does Florida have a six-game losing streak, but except for the South Carolina tilt, they have looked hapless in most of those games. This is a very bad team.
The Heisman race has flown wide open, and assuming Alabama wins this week, which is an assumption I'm prepared to make, the Tide will have the nation's biggest spotlight for each of the last two weeks of the season. I'll let you put 2 and 2 together yourself on all that.
Last week I ventured a little bit farther in the cold reality direction with a 1-3 slate against the spread, but the 31-15-1 record on the season picking SEC games against the spread is probably still the best you'll find anywhere. Still, after going 2-5 the last two weeks, I'm ready for a warmer finish to carry me through the off-season.
Alabama -10.5 at Auburn
If I am right in liking Michigan State over Ohio State next week, then this one, my friends, is a national quarter-final, the first time the Iron Bowl has had serious national championship implications for both teams since 1971. If 1971 history repeats itself, and it may, Alabama will beat Auburn like a drum.
Auburn was flirting with "elite" status in the first three quarters against Georgia, but then spit the bit in the 4th. Realistically, I peg the Plainsmen somewhere between the first three quarters of the UGA game and the fourth: a good team, but not elite.
Good doesn't hang with Alabama, but things should stay interesting for a while in front of the rabid crowd at Jordan-Hare. We'll get a chance to watch Gus Malzahn as a big-game head coach, and I expect quite a few wrinkles in the Auburn attack, including significantly more passing than has been the case in much of the second half of the season. Auburn may hang around for a while, especially if the Tide offense gets off to yet another slow start.
There won't be a slow finish, though, and the Auburn offense will suffer in the second half from a patented Nick Saban adjustment. 10.5 ain't enough - take the Tide to roll by more than that.
Texas A&M at Missouri -4.5
Put this one in your baffling spreads column. Missouri is WAY better than A&M and should win by more than this even if Manziel were healthy, which he apparently is not. Pawn your wedding ring and take the home team.
Clemson at South Carolina -5
Clemson is a little overrated, but South Carolina is probably more overrated. But although I think the Tigers have a better team, it's complicated by the probability that South Carolina is one of those programs that seems to have another program's number, and that other program is Clemson. I have little feel for what is going to happen here and would not care to bet, but it should be entertaining.
Ole Miss -3 at Mississippi State
This is a pretty big game for both of these teams. Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss need this one for an eight-win regular season, and do the Ackbars have any chance of putting together another splendiferous recruiting class with any less? Meanwhile, even though expectations in Starkville aren't the highest, Dan Mullen needs this one to get into a bowl and keep his seat coolish.
The Bulldogs have had a respectable month, but not a very successful one, with only an overtime win over Arkansas to show for at, and they're not likely to find much more success this week. Ole Miss will do enough to maintain the fiction that it is in the SEC upper crust, a fiction that might translate into reality in 2014. Take the Rebel Black Bears, or the Black Bear Rebels, or whatever. That team from Oxford, I mean. They'll cover.
Florida State -27 at Florida
Even though I really believe that thing I said about Florida being the worst team in the SEC right now, and even though Florida State is something very, very different from that, this game gives me pause. To call FSU distracted would be to put it lightly, and the Gators have everything to prove and nothing to lose.
Still . . . even if Florida manages to hang around for a while, FSU scores a lot, and fast, and Florida's defense is beat up now, too - they gave up 425 yards on the ground to Georgia Southern. I don't usually like giving away this many points, but this is an exception: take the ‘Noles.
Tennessee -4 at Kentucky
So. Will Tennessee finish up with losses to Vandy and Kentucky, or not? I'd go with not, as the Vols hung tough with Vanderbilt last week, a team that has been playing a lot better than UK, who suffered an embarrassing trouncing last week by a Georgia team that didn't have Aaron Murray in the 2nd half.
Tennessee brings a 4-game losing streak into the game, and once you get past the competitive Vandy game - at Neyland - the other 3 losses were slaughters. Nevertheless, Kentucky's continuing injury and suspension problems will likely lead to the same kind of non-competitive performance they offered up against Georgia last week. Take the visiting favorites. They're bad, but not that bad.
Georgia -3.5 at Georgia Tech
Georgia has had a pretty mediocre second half, and now they have to play without Aaron Murray. But Georgia Tech has had a mediocre season. I would be tempted to take the home team, but I have a feeling Georgia will rally behind replacement quarterback Hutson Mason and try to get off to an early start on 2014. I don't have much of a feel for how this will pan out, and I would not bet.
Wake Forest at Vanderbilt -14
The only teams that have beat Wake Forest by 14 this year are Florida State and Clemson. Vandy, who struggled to beat Tennessee last week, probably is not Florida State or Clemson. But does Wake have the psychological wherewithal to hang with a 7-win SEC team? Vandy should win, but I wouldn't care to say by how much. Don't bet.
Arkansas at LSU -24.5
Arkansas has upped it a notch late in the season and is nearly mediocre now. Meanwhile, LSU isn't nearly as good as they looked last week and to top it off is a pretty safe bet to overlook the Hogs. Overlooking the Hogs is not a serious transgression, but 24.5 is probably too much. Take the visitors.