A Look At SEC Football In 2001

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about 10 stories that have impacted Southeastern Conference football this season.

As the Southeastern Conference season heads into its final weeks, the division races are still hot. Florida and Tennessee, with one loss apiece, will probably settle the East Division on Dec. 1 in Gainesville. Auburn and Ole Miss, also with one loss apiece, appear to be the only remaining candidates in the West. If the race were to end in a tie, Auburn would go to the championship game because of its 27-21 victory over the Rebels early in the season.

But there's more to the season than the championship races. Here's a look at 10 stories that have stirred interest since the season began two months ago:

No. 1--Games postponed. For the first time in Southeastern Conference history, an entire slate of games was postponed on Sept. 15 in wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Most will be made up on Dec. 1.

No. 2. The collapse of Mississippi State. Many picked the Bulldogs to win the Southeastern Conference West Division. Head coach Jackie Sherrill did nothing to discourage such optimism. But instead of contending for a championship, Mississippi State has lost five straight since winning its opener over Memphis. One of those losses was a 23-9 humiliation at the hands of Troy State, of all people. Sherrill made the decision several years ago to sink or swim with large numbers of players from Mississippi's junior college league. This season, he's sunk.

No. 3.--Auburn's upset of Florida. Before the Gators visited Jordan-Hare Stadium, they were ranked No. 1 in the nation and seemed all but invincible. Turns out they weren't invincible at all. Auburn, unranked at the time, handed Tommy Tuberville his biggest victory as a head coach, 23-20.

No. 4.--The emergence of Eli Manning. No on doubted that Manning would be good in his sophomore season. After all, his bloodlines are impressive. But Manning has been more than good. Because he's there, a team with ordinary talent on offense and less than ordinary talent on defense is cruising along with a 6-1 record after last Saturday's 34-24 victory at LSU. The Rebels have a very real shot at winning the West and playing in the SEC Championship Game. It helps, of course, that they don't have Florida, Tennessee or South Carolina on their schedule.

No. 5. Officiating.--SEC officials are under siege, and rightfully so. Not in recent memory has there been a season with so many flagrantly missed calls. There was a time when the quality of officiating was a point of pride in the SEC. No longer. Though they are barred by rule from talking about it publicly, coaches around the league say privately it has reached crisis proportions.

No. 6.--Alabama's NCAA problems. Alabama officials go before the NCAA Committee on Infractions on Nov. 17, the day the football team plays Auburn. The list of accusations is sobering, to say the least. There is optimism in Tuscaloosa that the penalties might not be as stiff as they might have been because of cooperation from athletic department officials. Kentucky goes before the committee the same day. If Kentucky, with fewer and seemingly less serious charges, gets a harsher penalty than Alabama, the screams will be long and loud.

No. 7.--Dennis Franchione's struggles. Franchione was greeted with great fanfare as Alabama's head coach. There was rampant optimism that the turnaround would be immediate. It wasn't. Alabama didn't go 3-8 last season by accident. Franchione discovered, to his dismay, that the recruiting gurus who said Alabama was loaded with talent didn't know what they were talking about. Alabama, at 3-4, must win three of its last four games just to have a winning season and qualify for a bowl bid.

No. 8.--Woody's last days. Woody Widenhofer brought new optimism and enthusiasm to Vanderbilt's head coach's position five years ago. Unfortunately, like his predecessors, he hasn't been able to bring many victories. It is virtually certain that this will be his last season as the Commodores' head coach. His successor? Don't be surprised if Auburn offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is a serious candidate.

No. 9--Deadly Duval. Auburn kicker Damon Duval made the difference in three straight games with late field goals. His 49-yarder with just over two minutes left was the difference in a 24-21 victory over Vanderbilt. His 47-yarder with 18 seconds left took care of Mississippi State 16-14. His 43-yarder with 10 seconds left sent Florida home with a loss.

No. 10--Arkansas turnaround. After a woeful 1-3 start, Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt managed to find enough in his Razorbacks for back to back wins over Top 25 teams--10-7 over South Carolina and 42-17 over Auburn.

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