SEC Bowl Projections: South Carolina’s Fluctuating Fortunes

It was a wild week of fluctuation in the race for the SEC’s division titles and for bowl bids, although all the fluctuation took place in the framework of a single game, that of Auburn-Georgia. TheSportsNotebook took a deeper look at that game in the context of our national BCS bowl projections.

Now it’s time to focus in more specifically on SEC bowl projections, and the team that lived through the most fluctuation–both in their own game, and with their fortunes in the Auburn-Georgia game–was the South Carolina Gamecocks.

The hopes Steve Spurrier’s team had for winning the SEC East were heavily dependent on an Auburn win. The Gamecocks position in the tiebreakers was awful if Georgia stayed in the picture with two conference losses. But now that Georgia has lost three times in league play, the race is narrowed to Missouri and South Carolina. The Gamecocks beat the Tigers head-to-head and need only for Mizzou to lose at Ole Miss or against Texas A&M in these final two weeks.

What that presumed though, was that South Carolina would take care of business against Florida on Saturday night and that proved surprisingly difficult. In last week’s SEC bowl projections, TheSportsNotebook panned Florida’s awful season and noted the Gators will almost surely miss a bowl. Florida came out determined to disprove that and led 14-6 at half before their awful offense finally bogged down for good and the Gamecocks ground out a 19-14 win behind 102 yards from Shon Carson.

I think South Carolina will get the break it needs to win the SEC East–my guess is that Missouri falls at Ole Miss this coming Saturday. But the results of the Auburn-Georgia game worked against the Gamecocks when it comes to another race, and that’s the push among SEC teams for the league’s at-large BCS bowl bid.

The SEC is not guaranteed two teams in the BCS (the maximum any conference can have), but for all practical purposes they might as well be. If we assume Alabama is going to go 12-0 and then win the conference championship game, who gets the second bid?

Auburn’s win put them in strong position to get the nod, with a 10-2 record after a presumptive Alabama loss. While I don’t think Texas A&M is going to win their last two games–at LSU and against Missouri–if the Aggies do sweep and get to 10-2, they would be a virtual lock to be selected by the Sugar Bowl.

If South Carolina wins the SEC East and then loses to Alabama, they fall to 10-3. The losers of conference title games are at a big disadvantage in selection for the major bowls. The fan base has already traveled once and they’re presumably a little dispirited after a loss. The team has likely slipped in the rankings and losing some of their marquee juice on a national level. The reasons are all about politics and not about football, but it’s reality.

Now consider if Auburn had lost to Georgia, and then again to Alabama. They would be down to 9-3. Then assume at least one Texas A&M loss, and that Missouri gets one more win and clinches the East. Now South Carolina is sitting at 10-2, safe from a title game loss and with a fanatical fan base that hasn’t been to a major bowl game in the modern era (starting in 1976), the Gamecocks would be a dream choice.

I’m sure no one in South Carolina is complaining–they can, after all, still make a BCS game the direct way, by knocking off Alabama and winning the conference title. But the current football era often leaves fans having to choose between whether they’d rather take their chances in a championship game, or just go directly to a major bowl as an at-large.

TheSportsNotebook’s current SEC bowl projections are below…

BCS Automatic: Alabama (vs. Florida State, BCS National Championship Game)
BCS At-Large: Auburn (vs. Stanford, Sugar Bowl)
Capital One: South Carolina (vs. Wisconsin)
Cotton: LSU (vs. Texas)
Outback: Missouri (vs. Michigan State)
Chick-Fil-A: Georgia (vs. Miami)
Gator: Texas A&M (vs. Michigan)
Music City: Ole Miss (vs. Boston College Syracuse)
Liberty: Vanderbilt (vs. East Carolina)
Compass: Tennessee (vs. Cincinnati)
Advocare V100: No eligible team (vs. North Carolina)

Florida and Mississippi State could both get eligible and grab the last spot. I’ve currently got Florida losing to Florida State and Mississippi State losing a home game to Ole Miss. If you disagree on either count, just elevate that team into the Advocare bowl spot. Otherwise, that becomes a “free agent” spot, available to conferences (likely midmajors)who have more eligible teams than contractual bowl tie-ins.