Originally Published: October 21, 2013

The SEC cannibalizes its own

By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Even with a freshman quarterback, No. 2 Florida State might be good enough to end the SEC's unprecedented string of seven consecutive BCS national championships at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 6.

Or maybe it will be No. 3 Oregon, which has a stout defense to go along with its high-scoring offense.

Or maybe even No. 4 Ohio State, which doesn't look as strong as the three teams ranked ahead of it, but probably has the easiest path to finishing the season unbeaten.

Ever since Urban Meyer guided Florida to a BCS national championship in 2006 and an SEC team won every BCS title since, we've wondered what it would take to finally end the SEC's dominance.

L'Damian Washington
Shane Keyser/Kansas City Star/Getty ImagesNo. 5 Missouri joins Alabama in the top 10 of the BCS standings after wins over Georgia and Florida.

NCAA sanctions?

Alabama coach Nick Saban returning to the NFL?

Meyer using an SEC blueprint to build a championship team at Ohio State?

Well, if we've learned anything over the past two weeks, it's that the SEC might end up beating itself.

Over the past two weeks, five ranked SEC teams lost to lesser-ranked or unranked opponents. On Saturday alone, unranked Vanderbilt upset No. 15 Georgia 31-27, unranked Tennessee knocked off No. 11 South Carolina 23-21, No. 24 Auburn outlasted No. 7 Texas A&M 45-41 and unranked Ole Miss stunned No. 6 LSU 27-24.

As a result, with seven weeks left in the regular season, the SEC suddenly looks a lot like the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12, with all of its eggs sitting in one or two baskets. When the initial BCS standings were released Sunday night, only two SEC teams -- No. 1 Alabama and No. 5 Missouri -- were ranked in the top 10. It's the first time since 2006, when the SEC's record streak of consecutive national titles began, that at least three of its teams weren't included in the top 10 of the initial BCS standings.

The SEC is its own worst enemy.

Remember what Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said about the SEC last spring, that it was a top-heavy league in which half of its teams "haven't done much at all"? Well, the bottom half -- and myriad injuries -- just ended the BCS title hopes of four of its so-called upper-echelon teams.

In Stoops' defense, he was half-right. The SEC's cellar dwellers -- Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt -- aren't going to play in a BCS bowl game any time soon.

But Tennessee, which has been an afterthought for much of the past decade, is getting better in a hurry under first-year coach Butch Jones. The Volunteers nearly knocked off Georgia three weeks ago and then ended a 19-game losing streak against ranked foes by stunning the Gamecocks on Saturday. Ole Miss enjoyed earlier-than-expected returns from its recruiting prowess by upsetting LSU, and Vanderbilt has rarely been as relevant as it currently is under coach James Franklin.

Johnny Manziel
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel could not muster the requisite heroics to spare Texas A&M a home defeat against Auburn.

Missouri might be the biggest beneficiary of the SEC's parity (or mediocrity). The Tigers, who limped to a 5-7 record in their first season in the league in 2012, have defeated nationally ranked Georgia and Florida in each of the past two weeks. Missouri played at UGA a week after the Bulldogs lost tailback Keith Marshall (star running back Todd Gurley was already hurt) and two of their top receivers against the Vols. Remarkably, the Gators are more banged-up than Georgia and lost tailback Matt Jones before traveling to Missouri.

On Saturday, the Tigers will host South Carolina, which isn't expected to have quarterback Connor Shaw, who injured his knee in the loss to Tennessee.

Don't look to the Tigers for any sympathy. They pulled out the Georgia win without injured starting quarterback James Franklin in the fourth quarter and then beat Florida without him.

"I think we all know there's still a lot of ball left for everyone," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said.

But most SEC teams are re-evaluating their goals a lot sooner than expected.

During an SEC season chock-full of surprises, the only constant has been two-time defending BCS national champion Alabama, which has rolled through a less-than-arduous schedule. Since defeating then-No. 6 Texas A&M 49-42 on the road on Sept. 14, the Crimson Tide have blasted their last five opponents by a combined score of 201-16. Even after getting shredded by Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel, Alabama still leads FBS in scoring defense, allowing only 9.7 points per game.

Alabama probably won't be tested until it hosts No. 13 LSU on Nov. 9, and again when it plays at No. 11 Auburn in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 30.

"I think it's important that our team continues to focus on improving," Alabama coach Nick Saban said, after the Tide rolled past Arkansas 52-0 on Saturday. "I still don't think we've played our best game."

When will the SEC's dominance end? Only when Alabama slips, which is something we haven't seen yet. The Tide have lost in November each of the last two seasons but have managed overcome those losses because of the strength of the SEC. That might not be the case as long as Florida State, Oregon and Ohio State keep winning.

On the Mark

Former Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz probably still has nightmares about BYU quarterback Taysom Hill shredding his defense with zone reads. Diaz, who was fired one day after the Longhorns gave up 550 rushing yards in a 40-21 loss at BYU on Sept. 7, isn't the only coach losing sleep over Hill.

In Saturday night's 47-46 win at Houston, Hill completed 29 of 44 passes for 417 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions, while running 34 times for 128 yards. He threw a game-winning 11-yard touchdown pass to Skyler Ridley with 1:08 left to play and became the first FBS player to pass for more than 400 yards and run for 100 in the same game this season.

BYU ran 115 plays, tying an FBS record.

Off the Mark

Will Maryland coach Randy Edsall ever get a break? After his first two Terrapins teams were undone by a plethora of injuries, Maryland was off to a 4-0 start this season. But then the Terps lost quarterback C.J. Brown to a concussion and were trounced 63-0 at Florida State on Oct. 5. In Saturday's 34-10 loss at Wake Forest, Maryland lost its two top receivers to broken legs.

Junior Deon Long broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg early in the second, and sophomore Stefon Diggs broke the fibula in his right leg in the fourth quarter. Long and Diggs combined for 66 catches for 1,076 yards with four touchdowns this season. No other Maryland player has more than 13 receptions.

On the Mark

Jordan Lynch
AP Photo/John L. RussellJordan Lynch set a FBS record for quarterbacks in Northern Illinois' win over Central Michigan with 316 rushing yards.

After losing to UCF 38-35 on Friday night, Louisville fell to No. 20 in the initial BCS standings, which means they're all but eliminated from the national championship race. That's good news for No. 17 Fresno State and No. 18 Northern Illinois. If those teams finish in the top 16 and ahead of Louisville or the AAC champion (the Knights are currently No. 23) in the final BCS standings, they'll be guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl game. A team from a non-AQ league is also guaranteed a spot if it finishes in the top 12 of the final BCS standings.

The Huskies reached the Orange Bowl last season, losing to Florida State 31-10. They've picked up where they left off this year, starting 7-0 with victories over Big Ten foes Iowa and Purdue. On Saturday, NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch set an FBS rushing record for a quarterback with 316 yards with four touchdowns (three rushing, one passing) in a 38-17 win at Central Michigan. He ran for 232 yards in the second half and finished with 471 yards of total offense, averaging 7.6 yards on 62 passing or rushing plays.

Off the Mark

Remember when Florida fans thought their team might be better off without quarterback Jeff Driskel, who broke his leg in a 31-17 win over Tennessee on Sept. 21? Backup Tyler Murphy, who didn't play much at all in his first three seasons at UF, played well in his first two starts, leading the Gators to easy wins over Kentucky and Arkansas. His QBR was 93.8 in his first three games after replacing Driskel against the Vols.

But the road hasn't been kind to Murphy the past two weeks. Murphy had a 3.0 QBR in the Gators' 36-17 loss at Missouri on Saturday, the lowest by a Florida starter in the last 10 years, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Coupled with his performance in Florida's 17-6 defeat at LSU on Oct. 12, Murphy has an 8.9 QBR in his last two games.

Murphy isn't getting much help from Florida's offensive line or its receivers. Missouri outgained the Gators 500-151 in total offense.

"We're just not a very good football team," UF coach Will Muschamp said.

On the Mark

How unlikely were a handful of big upsets this past weekend? According to ESPN Stats & Info, UCF, Vanderbilt and Auburn had less than a 10 percent chance of winning their respective games in the third quarter.

Auburn Win Probability
ESPN Stats and InfoAuburn's win probability against Texas A&M was at 8.5 percent on the last play of the third quarter with the Aggies facing first-and-goal. It increased throughout the fourth quarter.

The Knights trailed Louisville 28-7 on the road with about eight minutes to go in the third. When UCF faced third-and-3 at its 33-yard line, it had a 2.2 percent chance of winning the game. Of course, UCF scored 24 straight points and then won the game on Blake Bortles' 2-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Godfrey with 23 seconds left.

Likewise, Vanderbilt only had a 7.4 percent chance of winning the game when it faced fourth-and-15 at its 19 late in the third quarter. But UGA's Damian Swann muffed a punt, and the Commodores recovered at the UGA 36. The Commodores outscored UGA 17-0 in the fourth quarter.

On the last play of the third quarter, Texas A&M had a 31-24 lead and faced first-and-goal at the Auburn 8. The Tigers, who had a 8.5 percent chance to win at the time, forced a 20-yard field goal and trailed by 10. Auburn scored touchdowns on each of its next three drives and won on Tre Mason's 5-yard run with 1:19 to go.

Off the Mark

The last time we checked, college football games still last 60 minutes. So it's hard to figure out why Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti was so upset that Washington State coach Mike Leach was trying to score in the final minutes of the Ducks' 62-38 victory, other than UO's defensive statistics taking a hit. Aliotti, one of the most respected defensive coordinators in the country, called Leach "low-class" for throwing the ball late in the fourth quarter.

"That's total bulls--- that he threw the ball at the end of the game like he did," Aliotti said. "And you can print that and you can send it to him, and he can comment, too. I think it's low-class and it's bulls--- to throw the ball when the game is completely over against our kids that are basically our scout team."

Aliotti later apologized for his remarks, but isn't a team supposed to fight until the end? The Ducks certainly fought to the end in a 66-3 rout of FCS foe Nicholls State on Aug. 31, throwing a 23-yard touchdown pass with 3:45 left.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

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