What we learned in the SEC: Week 9

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Alabama took the week off, giving Florida a chance to state its case as the best team in the SEC, and ultimately, the country.

It’s hard to find much fault with the Gators’ presentation. They routed Georgia 41-17 on Saturday to extend their winning streak to 18 straight games.

Here’s a look at what all we learned in the SEC in Week 9:

1. Florida awaits in SEC title game:The Gators clinched a berth in their second straight SEC Championship Game. All that remains to be determined is whether or not they will arrive there unbeaten and who they’ll play. Alabama can clinch the Western Division title next Saturday with a win over LSU and set up a rematch with the Gators. Florida had looked vulnerable in recent weeks, particularly on offense, but that wasn’t the case Saturday in Jacksonville. Tim Tebow was on top of his game. Several different guys were involved in the offense, and the defense still hasn’t allowed more than 20 points this season. That’s important, too, because the Gators are now 43-2 under Urban Meyer when their opponent scores 20 points or less. Florida needed a complete victory and got it against the Bulldogs. Even place-kicker Caleb Sturgis came back strong from a so-so outing against Mississippi State with a career-long 56-yard field goal. If the Gators play like this the rest of the way, they’ll be the team to beat nationally.

2. Tennessee’s defense is for real:How’s this for a stretch of defensive football? The Vols have now gone 12 quarters where they’ve given up just one touchdown, and during that span, have allowed only three trips inside their 20-yard line. Even with their best defensive end, Chris Walker, battling back problems and not playing against South Carolina, the Vols got consistent pressure on Stephen Garcia and forced three turnovers in the first 16 minutes of the game. Their secondary has been excellent all season and rarely are the Vols’ defensive backs out of position. They’re also physical back there and don’t give up anything down the field. Only five plays that were longer than 25 yards have gone against the Tennessee defense all season, which leads the country. Monte Kiffin is obviously one of the best defensive minds in football, but there’s more talent on this defense – both young and old – than probably anybody gave the Vols credit for to start the season.

3. Georgia’s in decline:Nobody’s claiming that Georgia’s program is in the tank, because the Bulldogs aren’t. But they’re also not what they once were under Mark Richt, who has some decisions to make at the end of the season there are becoming less and less difficult as the losses mount. Richt greeted the media Saturday following the 41-17 loss to Florida by saying, “Well, here we are again.” Where the Bulldogs are is on the outside looking in at the elite programs in this conference, which only a few years ago would sounded preposterous if somebody would have alleged as much. Let’s face it. The defense is in shambles. When’s the last time the Bulldogs have stopped anybody in a game that counts? They’ve given up 37 or more points nine times in their last 17 games dating back to last season. And the penalties are just as disturbing. Richt deserves every chance to fix this, but he’ll probably only get one chance to get it right.

4. Ole Miss was a fraud:Some people have a hard time admitting they were wrong. I’m not one of those people. I was wrong, dead wrong, about Ole Miss ever being a legitimate player to win the Western Division title. In fact, at this rate, the Rebels will be fortunate to land in a New Year’s Day bowl after losing 33-20 at Auburn on Saturday. Other than FCS foe Northern Arizona next week, it’s hard to find another definite win on the Rebels’ schedule. Tennessee and LSU both come to Oxford, and Ole Miss closes the season by traveling to Mississippi State. The Rebels (5-3, 2-3) will have to beat either the Vols, Tigers or Bulldogs to gain bowl eligibility. The win over Northern Arizona won’t count, because the Rebels already have one win over an FCS opponent (Southeastern Louisiana). It’s obvious all that offseason hype was just that – hype.

5. South Carolina’s annual swoon:The Gamecocks’ turnover-laden performance in their 31-13 loss to Tennessee was eerily similar to some of those bumbling losses in past years that played such a big role in their late-season collapses. If they’re going to fumble away the ball three times in the first 16 minutes of a game, they can go ahead and pre-order another five- or six-loss season. And even if they do take care of the ball a little better, it’s not going to be easy the rest of the way. The Gamecocks (6-3, 3-3) travel to Arkansas next week and will be without star defensive end Cliff Matthews, who dislocated his shoulder. They then get Florida and Clemson at home to end the regular season. Steve Spurrier has never had fewer than five losses since he’s been at South Carolina, a trend that may well continue. But the way the Gamecocks have closed seasons, or more accurately, haven’t closed seasons is what’s so frustrating to fans. They lost three in a row to end last season and five in a row to end the 2007 season. After what happened Saturday night in Knoxville, it’s hard to feel like the close to this season will be much different.