Alabama head coach Nick Saban
We are heading into the final week of October, and we've already started to separate the contenders from the pretenders in the SEC.
In the East, Florida and Georgia square off in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party with the division title within reach for the Gators.
Out West, things are a little more congested.
Alabama and Mississippi State will square off this weekend in a battle of teams with unblemished records in Tuscaloosa. But waiting in the wings for both teams is the LSU Tigers, which also still controls its own destiny in the division.
What are the chances for each SEC championship contender to make it to Miami Gardens and play for the crystal football in 2012? Let's break it down.
Florida (7-0, 6-0 SEC): Games left vs. Georgia, vs. Missouri, vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, vs. Jacksonville State, at Florida State
Florida's division title hopes are simple. Win on Saturday over Georgia, and the Gators will be playing in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 1 for the SEC Championship.
The Georgia game is always a battle, and typically you never know what's going to happen in a rivalry game.
Well, except maybe this one.
Florida has won 18 of its last 22 meetings with Georgia and comes into this game with a fantastic ground game behind senior running back Mike Gillislee, who has rushed for 652 yards and seven touchdowns this season. When supplemented with the dual-threat ability of quarterback Jeff Driskel, the Florida ground game is brutal and can lead the Gators to the division championship and beyond.
If the Gators knock off Georgia, they will be just ned 60 good minutes in the Georgia Dome to become SEC champions. They'll have to get through the season finale at Florida State to avoid letting voters and computers stand in their way of making it to the title game, but depending on how the chips fall, a one-loss SEC champion will still have a good shot at making it to Miami.
Georgia (6-1, 4-1 SEC): Games left vs. Florida, vs. Ole Miss, at Auburn, vs. Georgia Southern and vs. Georgia Tech
Georgia needs to win out to win the SEC East.
A win over Florida will put them into a tie with the Gators with the tiebreaker. Considering what's left on the schedule for both teams, it's unlikely that either will lose between now and the end of the season.
The Bulldogs are getting All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones back at the right time because they'll need him this week versus the Gators, but they lost defensive lineman Abry Jones to a season-ending ankle injury this week. Despite the loss, the Bulldog defense will have to start playing up to the standard it set for itself this week, otherwise the division title may be lost.
If Georgia wins on Saturday, it will win the SEC East, although it won't be official for another few weeks. I wouldn't worry about the two out-of-conference tests to close out the season, but Georgia needs to win out and get some help.
South Carolina (6-2, 4-2 SEC): Games left vs. Tennessee, vs. Arkansas, vs. Wofford and at Clemson
South Carolina is on the brink of SEC East elimination after back-to-back losses, but still has a chance. At least, one of those chances that Lloyd Christmas talked about in Dumb & Dumber.
For the Gamecocks to make it to Atlanta, they have to win out, Florida has to lose out and Georgia will have to lose to either Auburn or Ole Miss but not both. That would put the three teams in a three-way tie, but the Gamecocks would go based on having a 5-1 record within the division and the head-to-head tiebreaker with Georgia, which would also be 5-1 in the division (section B.3 of the SEC tiebreaker format).
That's not going to happen.
On the outside chance that it does, South Carolina would still need to beat the SEC West champion in the Georgia Dome and get a ton of help to make it to Miami.
Consider it an impossibility.
Alabama (7-0 4-0 SEC): Games left at LSU, vs. Texas A&M , vs. Western Carolina and vs. Auburn
Nobody really knows just how good this Alabama team is thanks to the weak early-season competition.
Well, except for the fact that they run the football, play outstanding defense and have a wildly efficient quarterback in AJ McCarron. So...basically just like every other Alabama team under sixth-year head coach Nick Saban.
The Crimson Tide controls its own destiny in the division and in the national title race, but could lose it in a hurry with a loss to Mississippi State this weekend and/or to LSU next week.
McCarron leads the nation in passing efficiency with a 183.63, has thrown 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions. For any team to beat Alabama, they not only have to play their best game, they need to force Alabama to beat itself.
That's not an easy thing to do. Until it proves otherwise, the national title is Alabama's to lose.
Mississippi State (7-0, 3-0 SEC): Games left at Alabama, vs. Texas A&M, at LSU, vs. Arkansas and at Ole Miss
Despite the 3-0 conference record and being 7-0 overall, Dan Mullen's Bulldogs are still very much a mystery this season.
Much like Alabama, they force turnovers with a solid secondary, take care of the football and feature a punishing running game. Very quietly, LaDarius Perkins has emerged as an every-down force in the SEC, leading the conference in rushing with 103.43 yards per game.
We will learn more about the Bulldogs this weekend versus Alabama, but losing to the Crimson Tide won't tell us everything. If the Bulldogs lose, how they respond in subsequent weeks versus the Aggies and in Baton Rouge will tell us more about where the Mississippi State program actually is.
LSU (7-1, 3-1): Games left vs. Alabama, vs. Mississippi State, vs. Ole Miss and at Arkansas
The LSU Tigers still find themselves in control of their own destiny as well, with games versus Alabama and Mississippi State still on the docket.
First things first for the Tigers, though, they have to find an offense—particularly a downfield passing game—during their bye week, because Alabama proved what it can do to the Tigers when they're one-dimensional in the BCS National Championship Game last season.
Having two weeks to prepare for the Tide will help Les Miles' crew tremendously, and getting the Bulldogs off of back-to-back games versus the Tide and Texas A&M will help as well.
LSU is squarely in the middle of the SEC West and the national title race. They know it, we know it and Alabama should prepare for it.
Who has the easiest path to Miami Gardens?
So which team has the easiest path to the BCS Championship? Right now, the answer is—without question—the Florida Gators. With the exception of this weekend's cocktail party and the season finale versus Florida State, all of Florida's tough games are already behind them.
Job No. 1 of any national contender is to take care of business within its own conference, and Florida has already done that for the most part.
If the SEC champion is undefeated, it will play for the BCS National Championship. A one-loss SEC champion will still be in a fantastic position as well, and Florida is within 60 minutes of punching its ticket to the SEC Championship Game.
That's a big step toward hoisting the crystal football.