The college football world is focused in on the debate over whether Auburn should vault Ohio State into the BCS National Championship Game, and when there’s any chance of an Auburn-Alabama rematch for the national title. There are some of us who think it prudent not to overlook Missouri.
Below the rarefied air of the national spotlight, there are good bowl bids that have to be settled and when you look over the SEC bowl projections, you have to be impressed with the way Vanderbilt has come on at the end of the season, as the Commodores continue to establish themselves as a solid program in this most competitive of leagues.
Vanderbilt closed the season on a four-game win streak. They won at Florida with a backup quarterback, the game that really communicated beyond a doubt how much trouble the Gators were in. Vandy went on to beat Kentucky and Tennessee, and then closed with a non-conference win over Wake Forest.
That’s not Murderer’s Row, but it showed admirable consistency, and came on the heels of the first two-thirds of the season, where Vanderbilt had crawled their way to 4-4, with the only losses being Ole Miss, South Carolina, Missouri and Texas A&M. Now the Commodore program that James Franklin has built can focus on upholding SEC pride in what should be a nice bowl spot.
Mississippi State is just glad to have any bowl spot at all, as their 17-10 overtime win over Ole Miss got the Bulldogs to bowl eligibility at 6-6. Mississippi State picked off Bo Wallace three times, and in getting their sixth win ensured that the SEC will only fail to fill one of its contracted bowl spots, rather than two.
We realistically know the SEC will put two teams in the BCS. Alabama is ranked #4, and so long as that holds after Saturday, the Crimson Tide would be guaranteed at-large selection. Even if some chain of events were to drop ‘Bama to #5, you have to think the major bowls would be more than happy to have them.
There are only two exceptions to this I can think of. The first is that Missouri, currently #5, beats Auburn on Saturday and the third-ranked Tigers only slip to #4, thereby requiring the BCS to take both teams. The other exception would be Alabama sliding to #5 and either the Sugar or Orange Bowl deciding they would rather have an excited fan base from South Carolina (10-2) then a depressed fan base from ‘Bama. I suppose stranger things have happened, but I’d put the odds of this at no more than 5 percent.
The assumptions below on the SEC bowl projections assume Auburn or Missouri will play for the national championship. If that doesn’t happen and the conference champ drops into the Sugar Bowl, just move Alabama over to the Orange Bowl, per the BCS bowl projections posted at TheSportsNotebook on Monday.
SEC BOWL PROJECTIONS BCS Automatic: Auburn/Missouri winner (vs. Florida State, BCS National Championship Game) BCSAt-Large: Alabama (vs. Northern Illinois, Sugar) Capital One: South Carolina (Wisconsin) Cotton: LSU (Texas) Outback: Auburn-Missouri loser (Michigan State) Chick-Fil-A: Georgia (Miami) Gator: Texas A&M (Michigan) Music City: Vanderbilt (Maryland) Liberty: Ole Miss(Marshall/Rice winner) BBVA Compass: Mississippi State (Rutgers)
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 lastweek’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.
If there’s a college football team in the country more disappointing this season than Florida, I’m hard-pressed to think of who it might be. Last season, the Gators were disappointed not to play for the national championship, and couldn’t be troubled to show up for the Sugar Bowl, a game in which they were routed by Louisville.
Maybe the 2013 season will lead Florida to appreciate its major bowl opportunities, because barring a big upset, the Gators are going to miss out on bowl eligibility altogether.
Florida has lost four straight games and fallen to 4-5 on the season. Losses to Missouri, LSU and Georgia weren’t embarrassing, but they exposed the team’s continued offensive deficiencies. The injury to quarterback Jeff Driskell early in the season was, at best, a marginal excuse. Driskell rarely threw for big yardage and often struggled to play mistake-free.
The emptiness of that excuse was then laid bare last week against Vanderbilt. The Commodores, a program that doesn’t have access to the rich recruiting harvest of the Sunshine State, was also playing without its starting quarterback. It didn’t stop Vandy from putting a 34-17 smackdown on Florida, in Gainesville, no less.
Florida now has to either beat South Carolina or beat Florida State. At least the latter is at home and it’s a big rivalry game where strange things can happen. But this would be stranger than strange, if the Gators can stop the Seminoles this year.
And as unbelievable as it would have seemed in August, TheSportsNotebook’s SEC bowl projections with three weeks left in the regular season do not include Florida.
Elsewhere on the margins of the SEC bowl picture, Vanderbilt (5-4) needs one more win and a schedule with home games against Kentucky and Wake Forest leave the Commodores well-positioned to get it. Vandy also visits Tennessee, and that’s a game the Vols have to win. At 4-6, Tennessee needs to sweep Vanderbilt and Kentucky to make it. Mississippi State also needs to win twice. If we write off this week’s home game with Alabama, the Bulldogs will need to win on the road at Arkansas and at home against Ole Miss.
THE BOWL PICTURE AT THE TOP
Both division races are still in flux right now, as is the race for an at-large bid to the BCS, something the SEC will surely get. The West is the easy division to figure–it’s going to be Alabama or Auburn. If the Tigers beat Georgia on Saturday, then the November 30 ‘Bama-Auburn game will be a head-to-head showdown to decide the division champ. If Auburn should lose to Georgia, then Alabama will wrap up the title by beating Mississippi State.
The East race is a little more interesting. Missouri leads South Carolina and Georgia by a game, and the Tigers still have to visit Ole Miss and host Texas A&M. The good news for Missouri is that the hold the tiebreakers in a three-way situation. The three contenders split head-to-head and Mizzou has the better record within the SEC East.
If Missouri should lose twice, Georgia then controls the race thanks to their Week 2 win over South Carolina. The Gamecocks need Missouri to lose both games and Georgia to lose to Auburn. Taken individually, that’ s all possible, but it’s a lot to have to go right.
South Carolina and Texas A&M might be up against it in the race for division titles, but both are in position to finish 10-2 and have a shot at the SEC’s at-large bid to the BCS. I’ve been projecting Auburnfor this spot, but if the Aggies beat LSU and Missouri, while Auburn loses to Georgia and creates a field of 10-2 teams, you have to think the Sugar Bowl will be favorably disposed to Johnny Manziel on Bourbon Street for New Year’s. South Carolina’s best shot is for A&M to lose one of their games (likely, given the A&M defense) and Auburn to lose at least once, and perhaps twice.
LSU and Ole Miss are both lined up for a midlevel bowl game, although LSU could rise as high as the Cotton if they win out.
Here’s how TheSportsNotebook sees the SEC bowl projections shaking out…
BCS Automatic: Alabama (BCS National Championship Game, vs. Florida State) BCS At-Large: Auburn (Sugar, vs. Oklahoma) Capital One: South Carolina (vs. Wisconsin) Cotton: Texas A&M (vs. Texas) Outback: Missouri (vs. Michigan State) Chick-Fil-A: Georgia (vs. Miami) Gator: LSU (vs. Michigan) Music City: Ole Miss (vs. Maryland) Liberty: Vanderbilt (vs. East Carolina) BBVA Compass: Tennessee (vs. Cincinnati) Advocare V100: No eligible team, could be taken by Miss State or Florida (vs. Boston College)
We’re into October now and TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage will be doing regular check-ins on the power conferences, to take a big-picture look at the race for their championships and how their bowl tie-ins might shake out. Let’s take a brief look at the landscape in the nation’s top conference and then make some SEC bowl projections…
*Georgia established itself as the early frontrunner in the SEC East with a win over South Carolina, and maintained that standing by beating LSU and surviving Tennessee. There’s still plenty left to shake out in this division though.
Florida joins Georgia at 3-0 in the conference, and though the Gators have not looked great, they have their games with both the Bulldogs and Gamecocks in November. Most intriguing is Missouri, who is 5-0 and blew out Vanderbilt on Saturday. Mizzou now enters a three-game stretch where they get Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in succession. Nothing like an opportunity to see what your made of.
South Carolina needs something to upset the applecart, because they need either a three-way tie situation or two Georgia losses to have a chance at getting to Atlanta. The Gamecocks are also another team that just doesn’t look sharp and they won’t run the table in the SEC if they don’t start playing better.
Alabama has control of the SEC West, with all other contenders having lost a conference game. The key here is whether LSU can get past Florida on Saturday, as the Tigers still get a chance at ‘Bama head-to-head and could win on a tiebreaker.
Texas A&M’s loss means they need either two Tide losses or some sort of other crackup. Auburn’s win over Ole Miss was big, but Auburn has lost at LSU and they need to win at Texas A&M on October 19 if we’re going to give Gus Malzahn’s team credence as a contender for more than bowl eligibility.
What I think is most interesting in this conference is the race for the at-large BCS bid. Of the four bids available to non-BCS conference champions, a league cannot get more than one. At the very least we know the SEC will grab one of those empty slots.
So for the moment, let’s assume the chalk holds and Alabama wins the conference championship. What are the scenarios for the at-large?
*If Georgia wins out, with their only loss being to Alabama in SEC Championship Game rematch, the Dawgs would be 11-2. The losers of these league title games though, are at a distinct disadvantage in the politics of BCS bowl selection though. They’ve lost steam in the rankings after a defeat, their fan bases have already traveled to a neutral-site game (though this would be less of a factor for the Bulldogs since the conference game is in Atlanta), and there’s just a more negative mojo after a defeat.
Georgia need no look no further than being ignored by the Sugar Bowl last year in favor of Florida, in spite of having beaten the Gators head-to-head and won the division.
That would shift our focus to South Carolina/Florida in the East and LSU/Texas A&M in the West. Both of these will be head-to-head games coming up and will sort themselves out. You’d have to think A&M would have the inside track if they’re 10-2 or 11-1, given the attraction of Johnny Manziel. I’m personally less high on the Aggies’ chances of finishing second, but that’s another story entirely.
On the conference’s opposite end, Kentucky is the only team off the board as far as serious consideration for bowls, while Arkansas, Tennessee and Vanderbilt are 3-3. Mississippi State is 2-3 and not looking good, while Ole Miss, at 3-2 looks to be in that area of being a comfortable bowl team, but not a threat to go marquee.
Beyond the BCS, the top bids in this league are for the Capital One Bowl, involving the top available Big Ten team, and the Cotton Bowl, against the best available from the Big 12 after the BCS is done picking. Here’s how TheSportsNotebook has its current SEC bowl projections lined up. In parentheses, I’ve noted a possible opponent. This isn’t an official prediction, but just a way for us to stir up the games we might be watching in December in January.
BCS Automatic: Alabama BCS At-Large: LSU (please note this represents a change from the BCS bowl projectionsI did just yesterday, with Georgia as the selection).
Capital One: South Carolina (Big Ten #2–Michigan) Cotton: Texas A&M (Big 12 #2–Baylor)
Outback: Georgia (Big Ten #3–Northwestern) Chick-Fil-A: Florida (ACC #2–Virginia Tech) Gator: Ole Miss (Big Ten #4–Michigan State) Music City: Missouri (ACC #6–Pitt) Liberty: Auburn (CUSA #1–East Carolina) Compass: Vanderbilt (American Athletic #4–Houston) Advocare: Arkansas (ACC #7–N.C. State)
The SEC might be up against it in terms of the national championship picture, but the conference still has one of the most compelling bowl races as come to the regular season’s final two weeks, and it’s league championship game on December 1 in Atlanta. Between the quality of its team, the tightly packed nature of the race and the marquee caliber of most of its bowls, there’s a lot of SEC intrigue, as we contemplate the games we’ll be picking for bowl pools in a few weeks. From top to bottom, we’ll sort out the race and make our SEC bowl projections…
At the very least, the top and the bottom are straightforward. So long as Alabama beats Auburn on November 24, the Tide will play Georgia for the SEC title. At minimum there’s a Sugar Bowl bid on the line, with the ‘Bama-Georgia winner first in line if the national title chase opens up to one-loss teams. At the bottom, Kentucky and Auburn are out.
The SEC will also get a second team into a BCS game. Lately that’s been the Sugar Bowl, as they’ve chosen a replacement for the league champion, which was in the top game. For now we’ll presume the chalk holds at the top nationally, and that the SEC champion will take its natural place in New Orleans. That likely means the Fiesta Bowl would choose.
Earlier in the week, TheSportsNotebook’s BCS bowl projections had Texas A&M getting that nod, but it’s a very fluid situation, and if we were a political campaign we would say this race is still within the margin of error. The Fiesta could also take Florida, and based strictly on record, two-loss teams in LSU and South Carolina await.
We might add that the loser of the SEC title game is also in this mix, but conference championship game losers are at a disadvantage in this process. Their fans have already traveled once and spent money in a tough economy. That logic won’t apply to Georgia this year, but it will to Alabama and in either case, there’s a second fact—by definition, this team is coming off a nationally televised loss and lost a bit of its marquee juice. When there’s so many other good candidates available, the guess is that the SEC runner-up slips out of the BCS.
In this conference slipping out of the BCS is no disaster though, because we go immediately to three fairly high-profile games that are lined up. The Capital One Bowl gets the first pick after the major bowls have had their say. The Cotton Bowl takes a team from the Western Division, while the Outback gets its pick, usually going East. The Cap One/Outback is part of three January 1 games that feature the SEC against the Big Ten. The Cotton goes the Friday night after New Year’s and has the top non-BCS team from the Big 12 as the prize. Here’s some possible scenarios…
Capital One: The Orlando-based game that has the highest payout of any non-BCS game would surely like to avoid Alabama, a circumstance made easier if the Tide win the conference. The reason is that the most logical choice out of the Big Ten will be Michigan, and if there’s a national groundswell to see a rematch of the Tide-Wolverines game from September, I’ve missed it. South Carolina played here last year and while it’s not unheard of for a team to go back-to-back, bowls like this prefer to avoid it—better to attract a new fan base looking forward to New Year’s in Orlando. Presuming Florida doesn’t make the BCS, they probably end up here.
Cotton: Since the Dallas bowl game chooses from the SEC West this will be very straightforward if Alabama wins the SEC and A&M goes BCS at-large. LSU would simply have to beat Ole Miss & Arkansas to finish 10-2 and get the nod. The best guess for opponent here is Texas, so however it shakes out, the Cotton is going to get a great game. The safe pick here is LSU-Texas.
Outback: It’s either Georgia as SEC runner-up here, or South Carolina for this spot. Although there is one wild-card—if Alabama loses the SEC title and somehow gets passed over by both the BCS & Cotton (an unlikely triple play to be sure), the Outback’s desire for an East team is only a preference, not a rule and I’m sure the availability of the Tide would alter preferences. The Outback has the next Big Ten pick after the Capital One. Ideally, the Outback would like either Nebraska to fall short in their pursuit of the Big Ten title, or for Wisconsin to at least win eight games and be a credible opponent. The best guess for this spot though, would be Northwestern, likely to end the season 9-3 with all three losses coming late.
Up next is the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, based in Atlanta and played on New Year’s Eve night and the Gator, the third of the Big Ten/SEC matchups on New Year’s Day. The opponent in the Chick-Fil-A the best non-BCS team from the ACC, creating another good postseason opportunity for the SEC. The Gator’s Big Ten pick comes right after the Outback.
Chick-Fil-A: would surely love for Clemson to be passed over by the BCS and be available as the ACC team here. The way for that to happen is for South Carolina to beat Clemson in the regular season finale. This is a bowl that’s faced with a tough spot. The smart money says that South Carolina is the SEC team that falls to this spot and if Clemson is the ACC opponent, a rematch would be less than ideal. If Clemson is not the ACC opponent, it gets ugly on that side of the bracket, as the likely opponent would be N.C. State, currently 6-4. A South Carolina-N.C. State is the likeliest outcome here, though if the Gamecocks lose to Clemson, this game could be LSU’s firewall if they don’t at least make the Cotton.
Gator: If form holds in the Big Ten and Wisconsin loses its next two regular season games (Ohio State & Penn State), then loses to Nebraska for the conference championship, the Badgers are the likely choice here, having never been to the Jacksonville-based game before. I think the Gator has the least intrigue of any SEC game—as long as 7-3 Mississippi State at least wins one more game (they play LSU & Ole Miss), the Bulldogs get the nod here. If Mississippi State loses twice, or if the Gator doesn’t want them for a second time in three years, Vanderbilt could beat Tennessee and Wake Forest, get to 8-4 and earn this spot. But I’m penciling in Mississippi State-Wisconsin.
Now we come to two bowls on equal footing and it’s the Music City and Liberty. The bowls work in harmony with the league office to get the best possible matchups. You can book Vanderbilt for one spot (or Mississippi State pending what happens with the Gator).
Beyond this point in the SEC we come to the two 5-5 teams that still need one more win to get eligible. It’s either Missouri (they host Syracuse and visit A&M) or Ole Miss (at LSU, vs. Miss State). Missouri should beat Syracuse and get eligible. I’m less optimistic about Ole Miss.
Then there’s the cases of Tennessee and Arkansas at 4-6 and needing to sweep to get a bid. The Razorbacks have virtually no shot, playing at Mississippi State and home against LSU. The Vols have a more realistic chance, going at Vanderbilt and home against Kentucky. While I have my doubts they’ll beat Vandy, this discussion ceases to become fun if we assume the worst even in winnable spots. So let’s say Tennessee gets in.
Music City: The sixth-place team in the ACC comes here, and with North Carolina on probation, this will be a less than ideal matchup. The SEC team is surely Vanderbilt if the Commodores are still on the board and the ACC team is either Duke or the Virginia-Virginia Tech winner. I’m going to cautiously say it’s the Dookies.
Liberty: Set up the Conference USA champ here and if Tennessee gets eligible, I’d think the Memphis-based game would prefer them over Missouri. The likely opponent is Tulsa. If the Vols aren’t eligible, the pick is Mizzou.
Compass Bowl: This will be on the Saturday afternoon after New Year’s, the appetizer for the first NFL playoff games that will start later in the day. Since we’ve presumed Tennessee’s eligibility and subsequent selection that leaves Missouri as the last team left. Should the Tigers end up in the Liberty, the SEC is out of teams and spots open for the mid-majors. The opponent here is Big East #5 (it’s also possible the Compass and Liberty could flip the C-USA champ). It doesn’t look the Big East will get five teams to eligibility, but Pitt or UConn are the ones with the best chance.
The SEC is also tied to the Independence Bowl, but unless both Arkansas and Tennessee play their way in, the league runs out of teams.
I’ve ran through all the scenarios. I included Tennessee in the picture, even though I don’t really think they’ll make it. Here’s how I personally see the matchups shaking out…
Sugar: Alabama-Clemson Fiesta: Texas A&M-Oklahoma Capital One: Florida-Michigan Cotton: LSU-Texas Outback: Georgia-Northwestern Chick-Fil-A: South Carolina-N.C. State Gator: Mississippi State-Wisconsin Music City: Vanderbilt-Duke Liberty: Missouri-Tulsa Compass, Independence: No eligible teams