Lady Luck is one fickle female - as all gamblers, day traders, and promiscuous athletes have long known. Yet she has seen fit to bestow her affection on upon the Southeastern Conference for quite a stretch now. Because some elite schools have upgraded their non-conference schedules, an intriguing storyline is developing; will the SEC maintain the momentum accrued from four consecutive BCS national titles - further consolidating its reputation as the nations best conference? First, a review of all four champions, how serendipity played a crucial part in their ascents, and how the conferences’ fortunes look against this season’s slate.
Troy Smith and Ted Ginn, Jr., Ohio State came into the 2006 championship game with respectively, the Heisman Trophy winner and the fastest player on either team. Ginn was a dangerous weapon in the mold of Peter Warrick and Desmond Howard; a vertical threat from scrimmage, who could also flip field position via his explosive, game breaking return skills. He take long returning the kickoff 93 yards for 6 on the game’s opening play, and setting the tone from the start. Fortunately for the Gators, they never had to contend with Ginn again, as he injured his left ankle during, of all things, the end zone celebration. With Florida no longer having to face the daunting choice of kicking to Ginn or out of bounds, it seemed the rest of the game was played in Buckeye territory. Troy Smith lost his vertical threat, allowing a ravenous Gator defense to smother all short routes, cheat up on the run, and clamp its hungry maws on Smith. Factor in Florida’s own young gamebreaker, Percy Harvin, and the game became a laugher. Florida, 41-14.
Perhaps no team has chewed off more lucky rabbit’s feet than the LSU Tigers. For instance, as they approach maybe their toughest |opener ever, against the ascendantNorth Carolina Tar Heels, the game's MVPs could very well be a former UNC tutor and the NCAA - 12players may be ineligible. LSU's 5-0 record vs. the Pac-10 over the last decade (the rest of the conference is 2-11 over that same span) includes narrow, last - second escapes over Oregon State and Arizona State.
Going into the last weekend of November of 2007, LSU Oregon, and West Virginia were clearly among the top teams in the nation, and had begun to separate from the rest of the pack. The Ducks had Heisman candidate Dennis Dixon, and impressive wins over USC, Michigan, Fresno State, and Arizona State already in pocket. The Mountaineers had the most dynamic backfield in America, with Steve Slaton and quicksilver Pat White at QB. Oregon had the inside track to a BCS title bid, then lost BOTH of their top two signal callers, with Dixon going down first with a catstrophic leg injury vs 10 point dog Arizona. This fortuitous turn of events moved LSU closer; but after losing a heart breaker at home against Arkansas, it seemed academic - as all West Virginia needed was for Pat White to be himself at home against 29-point dog Pitt, and a date with Ohio State in New Orleans was guaranteed. There was no way another team above the Tigers would lose a superstar QB, ...or was there?)
Indeed, the Mountaineers rolled snake eyes, with White injuring his throwing thumb and missing most of the game. Two missed field goals later, WVU had laid a 13-9 egg, and the Buckeyes had awaken to a nightmare scenario: the Tigers in a home game for all the marbles. Book it, LSU - 38, Ohio State - 24.
Top ranked USC lost in the first month, on the road, to a team with a solid QB, and an explosive scatback. Florida lost in the first month, at home, to a team with a solid QB and an explosive scatback. The Trojans dropped to #9 - the Gators to #12. Despite both teams ripping through their remaining schedules, USC was never again ranked above#5, and were leap-frogged by the Gators. Both lost to essentially the same team, but the national media never forgave USC - despite a much stronger non-conference resume', and an undefeated home record. In the title game versus Oklahoma, Florida again faced a team without their most explosive return man in starting tailback DeMarco Murray, and ground out a 24-14 victory - for their second BCS title in three years.
After suffering two embarrassing losses to end 2008, The Crimson Tide were on a mission to recover their pride. They set about their task with ruthless efficiency, winning 10 of 13 by 10 or more points. Only Tennessee put a real scare into them, and Florida got drowned in a Crimson Rip-Tide, 32-13. This set up a saccharine historical match-up of traditional college football royalty in the BCS Title Game - set against the backdrop of the San Bernadino Mountains in the Rose Bowl.
Texas got the early drop on the Tide, going up 3-0, and flushing ‘Bama's QB like a pheasant. After picking off a fake punt attempt, the Horns looked ready to gore Alabama. On a keeper, Texas' Ace QB Colt McCoy got smashed into by a Full House, in the form of ‘Bama tackle Marcel Dareus, - which finished his night. Texas fell into a 24-6 halftime gully, and despite clawing back and ultimately out-gaining the Tide, the Longhorns gave up two cosmetic touchdowns in the final 3 minutes. Royal Flush for Alabama: 37-21.
Florida has not played a regular season, non-conference game outside of the state of Florida since 1991, and hasn’t won such a game since 1987. Why should they? The Gators have played for the national title four times in that span, winning three. Their standard formula of of four non-conference games in-state, with at least two against an FCS or non-BCS team , continues this year. The Florida faithful would pack the stands for a matchup against a team of cadavers, - so despite the tantalizing prospect of Michigan charging into the Swamp, or Florida invading say, Autzen stadium, Florida schedules calculatingly schedules from a position of strength, and will not expose itself. They likely won’t be tested until week 5 at Alabama.
In 2007, Georgia crossed the Continental Divide for the first time in 40 years, defeating Arizona State in convincing fashion. They toppled in equally convincing fashion at Oklahoma State last season, and this season return to the Big 12 for a rematch with Colorado of the 2006 14-13 squeaker in Athens. Although they will be favored, the Bulldogs face the daunting prospect of Boulder’s altitude, which has served as a perennial equalizer over the years, including a 2008 win over West Virginia.
On Sept. 11 Alabama will resume it’s long proud history of inter-sectional match-ups, when it welcomes Penn State to Tuscaloosa. In consecutive openers, the Tide has thumped top ACC teams and propelled themselves to undefeated regular seasons both times. Should they manage to tame Paterno's Pride, there are notother non-conference obstacles. A tough SEC road schedule (at Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, and LSU), however, lies as a gauntlet of trap doors.
LSU and Tennessee are unique among SEC teams in testing themselves out of conference. This year, the Tigers raise the stakes, taking on North Carolina and West Virginia, the latter having beaten Auburn, Georgia and Mississippi State (twice) over the last five seasons. The Volunteers host Oregon –a task made more favorable by the expulsion of All Pac-10 QB Jeremiah Masoli.
Overall, this is the heaviest slate of non-conference opponents the SEC has faced in many years. Regardless of the outcomes, the undeniable winners are college football fans nationwide. Only Georgia will do battle in hostile territory. Whether Lady Luck changes allegiance remains to be seen. After all, as does every lady, she reserves the right to change her mind.
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