As the Good Doctor correctly pointed out in the Radio Hour last Wednesday, before this past weekend no one really knew how the SEC West stacked up. We knew that it was going to be a four-team race between Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Ole Miss, but ultimately things were going to be decided based on how those four teams matched up in head-to-head competition, and none of those four teams had played each other to date. As satisfying as our undefeated season had been, not to mention our top three ranking, both LSU and Auburn were undefeated too, and Ole Miss still controlled their destiny. For all intents and purposes, the West was wide open.
After this weekend, however, there can be no doubt. With its 22-3 thrashing of Ole Miss in Oxford, Alabama definitively staked its claim atop the SEC West.
Now, to be sure, the SEC West race is far from over, and nothing written here should be interpreted as saying that the Tide has wrapped things up. Far from it, in fact. Several tough games remain, and the rest of SEC West will not go silently into that good night. They will put up a fight, 'Bama will have to continue to play well, and we'll have to answer the bell in the face of adversity. If nothing else, getting to Atlanta will still require far more than a three hour drive from Tuscaloosa
However, what we can say is that Alabama has staked its claim atop the SEC West, and that the West now goes directly through Tuscaloosa, not Oxford. And while things aren't over yet, 'Bama is clearly the favorite moving forward, and almost every penny of the smart money is on the Tide.
Ole Miss is done, period. I don't care how much hype they received in the preseason, and I don't care if their fans imbibed enough Kool-Aid to convince themselves that they were actually going to make it to Atlanta for the first time ever, they are done. Even if they catch fire after the 'Bama game like they did last year -- which is highly unlikely -- they are effectively eliminated from the West right now. By already having two conference losses, plus Alabama holding the tiebreaker over them, even if Colonel Reb wins out they will need the Tide to lose three times in its remaining five conference games, and that is simply not happening. The only way they get to Atlanta now is if they earn a berth in the Peach Bowl. As for making Atlanta in the first week of December, well, better luck next decade.
Auburn, too, was effectively exposed by the Hogs. They jumped out to a 5-0 start against a laughable slate that included, at absolute most, one bowl team --and let's be clear, if that West Virginia team were in the SEC, they couldn't get the six wins required for bowl eligibility -- but the Hogs blew them out of the water in Fayetteville. What we see from Auburn is that, even if injuries don't expose their paper thin depth chart, the defense is so porous that the offense will have to be an almost unstoppable juggernaut in order to get victory against any quality opponent. If the offense slips up any, like it did against the Hogs, defeat is all but a certain. Auburn will still win quite a few more games simply because so many of the remaining teams on the schedule have disappointed, but at least another loss or two is guaranteed, and that will eliminate them from the SEC West competition. Much like Ole Miss, they are clearly bowl bound, but the only way they are getting to Atlanta is with a berth in the Peach Bowl.
LSU remains the Tide's biggest competition simply because of the raw talent they have on the roster, but even the Bayou Bengals face an uphill battle right now. The 5-1 record and the top ten ranking look nice on paper, but frankly they have zero quality wins, and for now they probably just have to be happy that they diverted complete and total disaster by finding a way to squeak by lowly Mississippi State and Georgia -- two games they could, and perhaps should have lost. Either way, this much is clear, unless this team suddenly regains its 2006 form -- and notice I said 2006 form, not 2007 form -- they aren't going to be able to legitimately challenge 'Bama in the West. If they continue to play over the course of the second half of the season like they did in the first half, they've got a much better chance of losing to the likes of Auburn, Ole Miss, and Arkansas than they do of going to Tuscaloosa and beating Alabama. They are clearly our biggest threat at this point, but realistically they will probably need to run the table from here in order to get to Atlanta, and that's a highly unlikely proposition right now unless they can really improve over the course of the next few weeks.
And that is how the West shakes out in the aftermath of this Saturday's games. It's far from over, but the Tide has staked its claim atop the division and may perhaps even be in a position where they can lose a game and still move on to face the Gators. If nothing else, the West is now ours to lose, and if we end up missing out on Atlanta, we will have no one but ourselves to blame.