The SEC owns the last six national titles, but this year it might not even have a team in the championship game. This doesn’t seem real, much less right. The last time it happened, the top-grossing movie was “Revenge of the Sith,” the song of the moment was “Laffy Taffy” and people thought Vince Young and Matt Leinart would be great NFL quarterbacks. I assume no one wants to go back to those dark days.
(Although, to be fair, Matt and Vince put on quite a show.)
Three undefeated teams – Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame – hold the top three spots in the BCS standings. But look right behind them – six SEC teams sit in places four through nine, lined up on the runway in case two of the unbeaten three run into mechanical problems. If that happens, the winner of the Georgia-Alabama SEC title game would probably take a slot in the national title game on Jan. 7. Florida also has an outside shot to get in, although that would involve at least three upsets and a plague of locusts.
Those six SEC teams have conducted a season-long playoff of sorts – the only games they’ve lost are to one another. So we thought we’d take a look back at the biggest games of the SEC season, because each one changed the football landscape nationwide, too.
(Rankings are what the teams were ranked in the AP poll at the time.)
Oct. 6: (10) Florida 14, (4) LSU 6
How: God’s Play
This game felt like LSU-Bama I and II from last season – which is to say, like two pythons squeezing each other in the muck. It was late in the third quarter before Florida finally broke through with a Mike Gillislee TD on a run the Gators call “God’s Play” – a cutback out of a package with two extra offensive linemen. The Gators never passed the ball again, and when Gillislee scored a second time, LSU was whipped.
Possibly incorrect foreshadowing: “It was a physical, physical match,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp. “That's the difference between playing in this league and these other leagues you watch on TV. I know you guys like all these points being scored, but the quarterback won't make it through the season in our league.”
Oct. 6: (6) South Carolina 35, (5) Georgia 7
How: Ace and base (defense)
This game started not long after Florida-LSU ended, but thankfully for football spouses, it was over early. The Gamecocks’ defense overwhelmed Georgia – the Dawgs totaled just 224 yards – and Ace Sanders’ brilliant 70-yard punt return made it 21-0, checkmate, in the first quarter.
Georgia fans figured yet another talented team had blown it again. South Carolina fans, not the most optimistic souls, bought in. It looked like a two-team race in the SEC East. And with LSU going down early, people were already starting to pencil in Alabama for the national title game.
Possibly incorrect foreshadowing: “If we can play like this we may have a chance for a real big year,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
Oct. 13: (9) LSU 23, (3) South Carolina 21
Where: Baton Rouge
How: Running up that Hill
The whole game turned in less than four minutes of the fourth quarter. Gamecock quarterback Connor Shaw threw an interception to LSU’s Eric Reid. Four plays later, LSU kicked a field goal to go up 16-14. South Carolina went three-and-out and punted to midfield. And on LSU’s first play, freshman running back Jeremy Hill took it all the way for the TD and a nine-point lead.
Hill got his first serious game time of the season and ended up with 124 yards; overall, LSU outrushed South Carolina 258-34. Shaw threw two INTs that made Spurrier say after the game, “I don’t know if he got hit in the head tonight or not.”
Possibly incorrect foreshadowing: “That was Death Valley,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “That was the place where opponents’ dreams come to die.”
Oct. 27: (10) Georgia 17, (2) Florida 9
How: World’s Largest Turnover Party
This game won’t hang in the football Louvre, except for the little room off to the side for Georgia fans (raises hand). The Dawgs committed three turnovers and had just 273 yards. But Florida had six turnovers, including the game’s biggest play – Jordan Reed’s fumble at the Georgia 5 as he headed for a potential game-tying touchdown with two minutes left. Georgia’s all-galactic linebacker Jarvis Jones caused that fumble; he also had another forced fumble, three sacks and 13 tackles. No Jarvis, no cocktails for Georgia.
Possibly incorrect foreshadowing that might have had the desired effect: “We’re playing too soft as a defense,” Georgia safety Shawn Williams said before the game. “I’m trying to see if I have to take somebody’s helmet off and slap them and say, ‘What’s going on’? We’re not playing with any emotion right now. Period.”
Nov. 3: (1) Alabama 21, (5) LSU 17
Where: Baton Rouge
How: The Drive
Alabama had trailed for a total of 15 seconds all season before the game, and led for most of this one, too. But LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger (playing the game of his life) threw a TD pass to Jarvis Landry to put LSU up 17-14 early in the fourth, and Death Valley shook down to the pilings. It stayed that way until Bama got the ball with 1:34 left. QB A.J. McCarron completed three straight passes to Kevin Norwood, threw a little screen to T.J. Yeldon, and … you know the rest.
This game didn’t really shake up the BCS – it’s the only one of these six where the higher-ranked team won – but it clearly took a lot out of Alabama. College football fans had been pointing toward this game since the end of last season. LSU craved revenge. It’s hard to win a game like that and be ready for the next one.
Possibly incorrect foreshadowing: “I like having the ball in pressure situations,” McCarron said. “When you've got teammates like I have, it makes your job easy.”
Nov. 10: (15) Texas A&M 29, (1) Alabama 24
How: Johnny Football
The Aggies had lost close at home to Florida and LSU, and their best wins were at Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State. All season they’ve felt like a team that might be terrifying NEXT year. But Alabama’s offense started out in zombie mode – two three-and-outs and an interception – and Johnny Manziel punched Alabama in the mouth three drives in a row. It was an echo of the Georgia-South Carolina game. By the end of the first quarter it was 20-0, A&M, and Bama never could come all the way back.
(Along the way, Manziel disproved Will Muschamp’s notion that a big-play, hurry-up quarterback wouldn’t last a full season in the SEC. Of course, Cam Newton did a pretty good job of disproving that two years ago.)
Masochistic Aggie fans are retro-mourning the losses to Florida (A&M was up 17-7) and LSU (A&M was up 12-0 before two LSU touchdowns in the last 1:49 of the first half). But all six SEC studs can look back with similar regrets.
Here’s the shorthand of the SEC season: Texas A&M beat Alabama. Alabama beat LSU. LSU beat South Carolina. South Carolina beat Georgia. Georgia beat Florida. Florida beat Texas A&M. It might not add up to a national title. But it adds up to one of the greatest regular seasons a conference has ever had.