Thursday, October 16, 2003
Dawgs have bite, but West is the best
By Pat Forde
Special to ESPN.com
What kind of year has it been in the Southeastern Conference? This kind:
The last two undefeated teams both lost at home Saturday to teams previously given up for dead. LSU was shockingly handcuffed by a Florida team that had achieved nothing more significant than increasing traffic on FireRonZook.com. Arkansas was shut down by an Auburn club that began the season looking like the biggest bust in the nation.
When you start to think you've got this thing figured out, somebody throws a mud pie at the picture and changes everything. Welcome to another half-season in the unpredictable, balanced, competitive, up-for-grabs SEC.
If there has been anything definitive to date, it's the continued ascension of the West as the dominant division. After a decade of serving as blowout fodder for Florida and Tennessee, times have changed.
The West has won seven of nine meetings with the East to date, with the Gators' upset of LSU the lone bragging point for the East. LSU gave Georgia its only loss, Mississippi won in The Swamp and Auburn handled Tennessee. The low-end matchups have tilted West as well: Alabama beat Kentucky and Mississippi State beat Vanderbilt.
Right now Georgia appears to be the league's best team, but the next three look like Western Division teams: LSU, Auburn and Arkansas. The question is whether anyone is up for the national championship run.
With everyone holding at least one loss, the SEC will need some help to get a team into the BCS race. Not since 1998, when Tennessee won it all, has the SEC put a team in the de facto championship game.
That's the price you pay for having a league so balanced and unpredictable that the pecking order changes from week to surprising week.
All teams love to play the no-respect game, claiming that the world doubted them at every turn. But no team can played the game more authentically than the Arkansas Razorbacks, who are so serially underrated that it ceases to be a surprise when the Hogs exceed tepid August expectations.
A terribly timed holding penalty against Auburn, negating another phenomenal run by quarterback Matt Jones, might be the only thing separating the Pigs from 5-0 and a top-5 ranking. As it is they're 4-1 and ranked 11th. Pretty strong for a team left out of virtually every preseason Top 25 -- as usual.
Auburn has recovered nicely from its 0-2 start. But unless a playoff is instituted between now and December, that cannot be overcome for a group that began the season with national championship aspirations.
Losing to USC is no sin -- even though the 23-0 score was a true comeuppance. But losing 17-3 to a middling Georgia Tech team is the thing that will keep Auburn from where it dreamed of being. The Tigers have a legit shot at coming back to win the SEC, which will have to serve as the consolation prize -- and not a bad one at that.
Dishonorable mention goes to Tennessee, which laid down with objectionable meekness last Saturday at home against Georgia. This is a program with major moxie issues that it must resolve to keep the season from becoming a second straight debacle.
After dissecting the Volunteers, Georgia quarterback David Greene edges out Mississippi's Eli Manning and Arkansas' Cedric Cobbs. He's only thrown six touchdown passes this year, but Greene has kept the Bulldogs humming despite endless injuries at running back and wide receiver. He also has the second-best completion percentage and the lowest interception percentage in the league to date, and was infallible while going 22-of-27 in Neyland Stadium.
Midseason Coach of the Year
Houston Nutt has done a wonderful job -- but he's also working with 25 seniors, a remarkable luxury. The nod here goes to Georgia's Mark Richt, who has his team back on last year's championship flight plan despite a plague of problems. He lost a ton of talent to the NFL. He had to replace an entire offensive line. He was dealt the worst run of early-season injuries in the league. He had to dole out several disciplinary suspensions. Nobody has had more to overcome -- yet nobody's SEC team is ranked higher.
Georgia, LSU, Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina.
Pat Forde covers college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.