Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Auburn, with three losses, has a beef about not being ranked. Florida is the only three-loss team that is ranked, and it has wins over No. 4 LSU and No. 9 Georgia and a near-miss against No. 7 Miami.
Anyway, I decided to ask something of an "expert" how Auburn would stack up against those teams. I haven't placed a friendly or unfriendly wager on a football game in almost 30 years, since I was young and stupid enough to believe someone who convinced me to load up on a "lock" that turned out not to be a lock at all. I asked a friend who has yet to learn that lesson to put me in touch with his bookie. I wanted him to tell me what the betting line would likely be if Auburn were playing any of the teams in the Top 25 on a neutral field. Some of the results were a bit surprising.
He said only one team--No. 1 Oklahoma--would be a double-digit favorite over Auburn. Auburn, he said, would be favored over nine of the teams in the coaches poll, including No. 12 Texas Christian, No. 17 Tennessee, No. 18 Minnesota, No. 20 Bowling Green, No. 21 Pittsburgh, No. 22 Oklahoma State, No. 23 Northern Illinois, No. 24 Ole Miss and No. 25 Louisville. Here's how this friendly neighborhood bookmaker saw the lines on these hypothetical games:
Auburn vs. No. 1 Oklahoma: Oklahoma by 16
Auburn vs. No. 2 USC: USC by 7
Auburn vs. No. 3 Florida State: Florida State by 6
Auburn vs. No. 4 LSU: LSU by 8.
Auburn vs. No. 7 Miami: Miami by 7.
Auburn vs. No. 8 Michigan: Michigan by 3.
Auburn vs. No. 9 Georgia: Georgia by 2
Auburn vs. No. 10 Iowa: Iowa by 3.
Auburn vs. No. 11 Texas: Texas by 4
Auburn vs. No. 12 Texas Christian: Auburn by 3
Auburn vs. No. 13 Washington State: Pick ‘em
Auburn vs. No. 14 Purdue: Purdue by 1
Auburn vs. No. 15 Michigan State: Michigan State by 2.
Auburn vs. No. 16 Nebraska: Pick 'em.
Auburn vs. No. 17 Tennessee: Auburn by 2
Auburn vs. No. 18 Minnesota: Auburn by 4
Auburn vs. No. 19 Florida: Florida by 1.
Auburn vs. No. 20 Bowling Green: Auburn by 8
Auburn vs. No. 21 Pittsburgh: Auburn by 2
Auburn vs. No. 22 Oklahoma State: Auburn by 2.
Auburn vs. No. 23 Northern Illinois: Auburn by 9.
Auburn vs. No. 24 Ole Miss: Auburn by 4.
Auburn vs. No. 25 Louisville: Auburn by 10.
What these hypothetical betting lines point out is the difficulty of ranking teams that play very different schedules. Auburn would certainly be highly ranked if it had played a schedule like those of Louisville, Northern Illinois, Bowling Green or many of the Big Ten teams. My opinion--and the opinion of people more knowledgeable than I--is that the Big Ten is actually in a down year. But, for whatever reason, Big Ten teams always get the benefit of the doubt in the polls. None of the really means a lot, but I found it interesting.
Whether this Auburn season will be one to remember happily or a major disappointment will be determined over the next three weeks. And none of those games is bigger than Saturday's game against Ole Miss at Jordan-Hare Stadium. If the Tigers win, they will remain in the hunt for the West Division championship. A win over Ole Miss, a loss on the road at Georgia and a win over Alabama would still land them in a nice bowl. A loss to Ole Miss would mean elimination from the race for Atlanta and the possibility of a 7-5 or even 6-6 finish. That would make this season one of the bigger disappointments in recent Auburn history.
It is possible, of course, that the Tigers could win out and still not go to Atlanta. Going 9-3 overall and 7-1 in the SEC would certainly have to be considered a successful season even if there is no trip to the SEC Championship Game. Going 8-4 and 6-2 would not be cause for celebration, but it would be a good accomplishment after an 0-2 start.
Auburn caught LSU at just the wrong time. The Bayou Bengals, probably the most talented team in the SEC and certainly the fastest, are hitting their stride. They scored 49 first-half points against Louisiana Tech last Saturday before coasting home in the second half for a 49-10 victory. That's the same Louisiana Tech team that beat No. 15 Michigan State earlier in the season.
Here is what Louisiana Tech coach Jack Bicknell had to say: "If they're not the best team in the country, I'd be shocked. I just feel the speed out there was unbelievable. We played Miami, and I just promise you, I even feel like they were better than Miami. I really do."
Though LSU could still find its way to New Orleans and the Sugar Bowl for the national championship game, the most likely destination for the SEC champion this season is the Orange Bowl. The Houston Bowl joins the SEC list this year, reducing the likelihood that a bowl eligible team could be left home for the holidays. It will feature an SEC team against a Big 12 team on Dec. 30 at Reliant Stadium.
In this space last week, I guessed Auburn would go 8-4 and play in the Outback Bowl. Florida's victory over Georgia changed that picture. Unless Auburn can win out, it is not likely to end up in a Florida bowl. The East Division race must unravel before the bowl picture can become really clear. If Georgia, Florida and Tennessee all win out, they will tie for first and the representative in the championship game will be determined by a vote of athletic directors. The highest ranked team--probably Georgia--would most likely get the nod. But something tells me there is a trap awaiting Tennessee at Kentucky. If Georgia and Florida end up tied, Florida would go to Atlanta because of its win last week.
For what they are worth, here are my predictions for records and bowl destinations for SEC teams:
ORANGE BOWL: LSU (12-1, 7-1) vs. Florida State
CAPITAL ONE BOWL: Georgia (10-2, 6-2) vs. Michigan
OUTBACK BOWL: Florida (8-5, 6-2) vs. Michigan State
COTTON BOWL: Ole Miss (8-4, 6-2) vs. Texas
PEACH BOWL: Auburn (8-4, 6-2) vs. North Carolina State.
MUSIC CITY BOWL: Tennessee (8-4, 5-3) vs. Wisconsin
Until next time…