14 Nov 2005
by Russell Levine
The Southeastern Conference may not produce this year's national champion, but it still lies at the heart of a sport driven by passion. That fact was never more evident than on Saturday, when the conference put on a remarkable three-game slate that not only shaped the divisional races for the league championship game, but showcased the unique hold college football has on the region.
Though Alabama's loss to LSU ruined the last unbeaten season in the conference, at least this year's SEC champ won't suffer the same indignity as last year, when Auburn and its perfect 12â€“0 record was denied a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game in favor of USC and Oklahoma.
Those Alabama fans who were already bemoaning a similar fate after the Tide began the season 9â€“0 were clearly getting ahead of themselves. Despite Alabama's wonderful -- and surprising -- start, as of Saturday morning the three toughest games of the season still stood between it and an undefeated campaign, beginning with LSU.
The Tigers emerged from the din at Bryant-Denny Stadium with a 16â€“13 overtime victory that all but ended Alabama's conference-title hopes and its larger aspirations of playing for the national title -- or at least being a thorn in the side of the BCS, whose officials should remember to include LSU coach Les Miles on the Christmas-card list this year.
That's because LSU's win not only cleared up the Rose Bowl picture by leaving just two undefeated teams -- #1 USC and #2 Texas -- but also prevented a possible mutiny against the BCS from one of its marquee conferences.
The SEC enjoys such a strong reputation among college football observers that when Auburn was denied last year, the most common complaint was along the lines of "how can a team go undefeated in the SEC and not play for the national title?" Such a defense would not have been made of the Big East or the Pac-10.
Had Alabama suffered the same fate this season, the BCS would have been beset by complaints from outraged SEC officials and fans, demanding changes to the formula and decrying the anti-southern bias in the media polls and national TV networks.
With several very good teams but no great ones, the SEC is perhaps suffering a down year this season. What's undeniable, however, is that SEC teams are backed by the loudest, most loyal fans in the sport. When you're watching a game on TV and the picture begins to shake from the crowd noise during a big play, it's invariably a contest in the SEC, the league where LSU fans once registered on the Richter scale.
That passion was on display all over the south Saturday, as three intertwined games played out over a period of about 12 hours. The day began in Columbia, S.C., where former Florida legend Steve Spurrier took on the Gators as the enemy leader of South Carolina. Seemingly rejuvenated after a frustrating two-year stint in the NFL, "Darth Visor" has not only led South Carolina to a 7â€“3 record and a spot in the AP Top 25 after knocking off the Gators, 30â€“22, but has instilled in the Gamecocks the confidence to win big games.
Spurrier is having fun with the underdog role at South Carolina, and that's bad news for the rest of the SEC. The other USC has long been a sleeping giant of a program, with a fan base as loyal as any in the conference. The Gamecocks routinely play before sellout home crowds of better than 80,000, and the school sits in the heart of fertile recruiting territory. It doesn't hurt that he has delivered two of the biggest wins in school history in the last three Saturdays: the Gamecocks' first-ever win at Tennessee two weeks ago and their first win over Florida since 1939 on Saturday.
Next up was the LSU-Alabama contest. The knock against Alabama in the Rose Bowl argument has been its anemic offense. But for a while Saturday, Alabama's dominant defense was good enough to make you wish they'd have a shot at smothering the offensive juggernauts of USC or Texas, much as Alabama's 1992 national-championship team snuffed out explosive Miami in the Sugar Bowl. Time and again Saturday, with the scored tied in the fourth quarter, the Crimson defense stiffened when LSU gained possession at or beyond midfield. But the college overtime format proved too big an obstacle to overcome, as LSU won with a JaMarcus Russell touchdown pass on its first possession.
LSU is a mercurial team, loaded with NFL-caliber talent on both sides of the ball and just two seasons removed from a BCS championship. But the Tigers somehow surrendered a three-touchdown lead at home to the worst Tennessee team in more than a decade for their only loss on September 26. If not for that second-half collapse, LSU would be undefeated and in the thick of the BCS argument.
The day's final marquee SEC matchup pitted Auburn against Georgia in a new chapter of one of the game's oldest rivalries. Alabama's loss earlier in the day meant Auburn would need help to reach the SEC title game, and Florida's loss put Georgia in better position to clinch the SEC East -- something they can still do with a win over Kentucky next week -- but those earlier results sapped none of the intensity from this game. Auburn rallied to win, thanks to a late, fourth-down completion that was followed by a wild scramble for the ball in the end zone.
Unless something crazy happens during the season's final few weeks, the SEC won't have a say in the national championship picture, rare for the only league to produce more than one champion in the BCS era (Tennessee in 1998 and LSU in 2003). But football is alive and well in the conference, which may be deeper than ever, even if it's not top-heavy. And with rivalry week, featuring the likes of Alabama-Auburn, on tap next Saturday, more TV picture-shaking moments are surely in store.
This has been strictly a college-based honorific since the award was renamed a few weeks ago, but I can't resist calling out a couple of NFL coaches this week. The first noteworthy coaching performance was by the Giants' Tom Coughlin, who was justifiably outraged after his team laid an egg against the Vikings. Coughlin looked like some veins in his neck were about to burst during the postgame press conference, but he bears some of the blame. After the Giants clawed their way back in the game to tie things up, Coughlin allowed his defense to play soft against a Viking offense that had barely moved the ball all day. Predictably, Brad Johnson dinked and dunked Minnesota into field goal range the Minnesota escasped with a three-point win. Why would a coach allow his defense to play a soft zone in that situation against an offense it had bottled up the entire game?
The second NFL coach to take some flak is Washington's Joe Gibbs. After Tampa Bay went for two in the final minute to beat Washington by one, all the postgame attention focused on Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden's decision. But Gruden would not have gone for two had the 'Skins not jumped offsides on the game-tying extra-point try. How can I blame Gibbs for the offsides, you ask? You're right, it's not entirely fair. But this wasn't just a case of one player flinching a half-second early. Both rush ends on the field-goal try completely disregarded the snap and were a good two steps offsides before blocking the kick. The penalty practically dared Tampa Bay to go for the win. It was an extreme lack of discipline in a critical situation, and for that the head coach always bears some responsibility.
1. Southern Cal (1): Who's scarier on the schedule -- Fresno or UCLA?
2. Texas (2): On cruise control vs. Kansas.
3. Penn State (3): Can Michigan State pull the shocker and create Big Ten chaos?
4. Miami (Florida) (4): Biggest suspense left before ACC title game is when they break out the court jester jerseys.
5. LSU (7): How exactly did they lose to Tennessee?
6. Notre Dame (6): Does that anti-torture bill in Congress cover the Navy rivalry?
7. Virginia Tech (9): DNP.
8. Alabama (5): No shame in the loss to LSU, and that defense is something to behold.
9. Ohio State (10): We'll find out this week if Tressel really owns Carr.
10. Auburn (12): Alabama game should be one of the best in years in the series.
11. Oregon (11): Maybe the quietest one-loss team in America.
12. UCLA (12): Back to winning shootouts.
13. Georgia (8): Would have liked to see them play Auburn before they clinched the SEC East.
14. West Virginia (15): How hard are Big East officials rooting for WVA to get their BCS bid over South Florida?
15. Michigan (18): Carr's not going anywhere if they lose to OSU on Saturday, but next year will be a lot more miserable if he does.
16. Fresno State (20): Took care of business vs. Boise, now get their shot at the Men of Troy.
17. TCU (21): Rolling right along after crushing UNLV.
18. Louisville (23): Maybe Rutgers should have stayed off the Cardinal logo.
19. South Carolina (NR) Isn't it great to have the Ol' Ball Coach stirring things up again?
20. Florida (13): That had to hurt for Urban.
21. Florida State (17): Watch them win the ACC now.
22. Boston College (NR): Tough year to figure out the ACC.
23. Wisconsin (19): Tough way to go out at home for Alvarez.
24. Texas Tech (16): I'm reaching.
25. UTEP (NR): Coming soon to a BCS league near you: Mike Price.
Dropped out: Georgia Tech (22), Colorado (24), Northwestern (25)
Games I watched: Boise State-Fresno State, Rutgers-Louisville, Indiana-Michigan, Florida-South Carolina, LSU-Alabama, USC-Cal, Auburn-Georgia.
Ed. Note: Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun
28 comments, Last at 16 Nov 2005, 7:20pm by Chris I.