Print and Go Back ESPN.com: College Football [Print without images]

Tuesday, October 12, 2004
Plenty of surprises in SEC

By Chris Low
Special to ESPN.com

OK, a quick raise of hands.

How many people even thought Tommy Tuberville would still be the coach at Auburn, much less that the Tigers would be the SEC's best team?

Talk about twisting in the wind. Tuberville probably thought he was in the middle of a tsunami last November when word leaked out that former Auburn president William Walker, along with board of trustee members and outgoing athletics director David Housel, took a secret plane trip to interview Louisville's Bobby Petrino two days before Auburn's 28-23 win over Alabama.

  Will Georgia be able to shake off the loss to Auburn? Can Mississippi State really win five games? Where is LSU heading for the postseason? Is Phillip Fulmer on the hot seat? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
  • Inside the SEC
  • If anything, that whole embarrassing fiasco has seemed to re-energize the Auburn program, and the Tigers are playing superb football.

    The season hasn't been without controversy to this point. Auburn beat LSU 10-9 thanks in part to a personal foul penalty that was called on LSU defender Ronnie Prude for landing on an Auburn players while trying to block a John Vaughn extra point attempt that was wide left. Vaughn didn't misfire on his second chance and broke the 9-9 tie.

    Tennessee, in rallying to defeat Florida 30-28, got some help from the officials when the clock wasn't re-started following a personal foul penalty on Florida receiver Dallas Baker. The Vols gained about 20 seconds and were able to move into position for James Wilhoit's game-winning, 50-yard field goal with six seconds remaining.

    It was sweet redemption for Wilhoit, who just a few minutes earlier had missed an extra point that could have tied the game.

    Auburn is the league's only unbeaten team, and the Tigers' schedule is favorable the rest of the way. Barring anything other than a complete collapse, they will make their first appearance in Atlanta as the Western Division champion since the 2000 season.

    The biggest surprise thus far was Georgia losing at home last weekend for the first time in 17 games, as Tennessee snapped a four-game losing streak against the Bulldogs. The Vols now control their own destiny in the Eastern Division and own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Florida and Georgia.

    Get Phillip Fulmer in a close game, especially when his team is a big underdog, and he's money.

    While the top of the league has its usual clout, the bottom of the league is as bad as it has been in a long time. Mississippi State lost to Maine, Kentucky to Ohio, Mississippi to Wyoming and Vanderbilt to Navy and Rutgers.

    That Mississippi State-Kentucky tilt on Oct. 30 will be a ticket scalper's paradise. Then again, probably not.

    Biggest Surprise
    Nobody expected Auburn to be unbeaten and ranked fourth nationally at this point. Tennessee, starting a true freshman quarterback (Erik Ainge) and a true freshman cornerback (Jonathan Hefney), also gets a few votes based on its wins over Georgia and Florida. But Auburn's 34-10 blowout of the Vols in Knoxville easily breaks the tie.

    Biggest Disappointment
    LSU would have been a runaway winner had the Tigers not rallied in the final minutes to win at Florida, which in blowing a 14-point lead at home staked its claim to the dishonor of being the biggest disappointment at the midway point. The Gators have only lost twice, but both times they failed to hold onto fourth-quarter leads. And they nearly blew a 38-7 lead at home to Arkansas before putting the game away late.

    Midseason MVP
    Florida's Chris Leak is the league's best quarterback. Arkansas' Matt Jones is the most exciting, but the most valuable player to this point has been Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell. Opposing teams keep thinking that Campbell's not good enough to beat them if they can shut down Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. But Campbell just keeps beating them. His 16-yard touchdown pass to Courtney Taylor with 1:14 to play rallied Auburn against LSU, and he was 12-of-15 for 240 yards and two touchdowns -- at the half -- in the romp over Tennessee.

    Midseason Coach of the Year
    Easy choice here: Tuberville, who also will be in line for national honors. His team obviously has responded to what he went through last year, and even though the Tigers lost some marquee talent at linebacker, their defense has remained one of the best in the league. Tuberville also made a key acquisition to his coaching staff when he brought in offensive coordinator Al Borges from Indiana. His version of the West Coast offense has worked well for the Tigers.

    Bowl Bound
    Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas.

    Chris Low covers the SEC for The Nashville Tennessean.