Marshall Column: The Big Six In The SEC

Phillip Marshall discusses the landscape of the SEC five weeks into the 2005 season.

For 42 years, it's been the same. Southeastern Conference football really is all about six teams. Not since 1963, when Ole Miss won its last championship, has it been any different.

Once integration came and Ole Miss and its rebel flags were banished to the ranks of SEC also-rans, the one sure thing in every season has been that Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee or LSU will emerge as the champion.

Others venture in to the upper echelon only temporarily. Arkansas got into the SEC Championship Game twice, only to be blown out by Florida and Georgia. Mississippi State got there once and lost to Tennessee.

Otherwise, it's been an exclusive party. Florida was always a contender and never a champion until Steve Spurrier arrived in 1990. Auburn was a champion just once and a runner-up oh so many times until Pat Dye arrived in 1981.

Auburn dominated for a while in the 1980s and Florida won five straight championships in the 1990s. Otherwise, it's been a free-for-all. All six teams have won championships since 1999. Any one of them could yet emerge as the champion this season.

We're not even at the halfway point, but Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Kentucky have been reduced to nothing more than potential spoilers. Vanderbilt, its glorious start ruined by last Saturday's loss to Middle Tennessee State, will soon join them.

That doesn't mean one of the spoilers won't, in fact, spoil somebody's season. Arkansas certainly will be dangerous when Auburn goes to Fayetteville on Oct. 15. Ole Miss will view its home game against Alabama on that same day as an opportunity to salvage something out of this season. Vanderbilt, with quarterback Jay Cutler, could still knock off one of the big boys. But none of them will be in the conversation when the championship is decided.

And the championship is a long way from being decided.

Alabama was tremendously impressive in disposing of Florida 31-3 last Saturday. The Tide said loudly and clearly that it is, in fact, back among the SEC contenders this season. Does it mean that Alabama will win it all? Nope. If the Tide should win it all, will that mean Alabama football is poised for another long run of championships? Nope. It will mean the same thing it meant when Auburn was 13-0 last season, that everything came together for a special season.

It's not likely that any of the SEC's big six is going to dominate for a long period of time. Alabama was 13-0 in 1992 and lost three the next season. Tennessee was 13-0 in 1998 and lost three the next season. It remains to be seen how Auburn will follow its 13-0 record of last season. Southern California might be able to dominate year in and year out in the Pac-10, but the SEC is a different world.

Five weeks into the SEC season seems a good time to take a look at each of the six contenders. All have major strengths, and all have issues.

AUBURN: The Tigers' schedule since their season-opening loss to Georgia Tech hasn't been the toughest, but I've not seen many Auburn teams over the years run roughshod through any kinds of opponents like this one has.

In the four games since Georgia Tech, the Tigers have outscored their opponents 176-24. The first-team defense has not given up a touchdown since the first half of the first game.

Saturday night's 48-7 rout of South Carolina was extremely impressive. Yes, South Carolina is at a low ebb. But nobody else has humbled the Gamecocks like that and my guess is that nobody else will.

It's interesting the different ways in which South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier responded to a 37-14 loss to Alabama and a 48-7 loss to Auburn. After the loss to Alabama, he accused his team of not playing with enough energy, told his defensive coordinators to change his scheme and made wholesale lineup changes. Sunday, a day after the loss to Auburn, Spurrier said the Gamecocks were simply overwhelmed. He said he didn't know what they could have done differently and, if they played Auburn again, the outcome probably would be the same.

For Auburn, the road ahead is treacherous. Four of the next five are on the road, where quarterback Brandon Cox has never been as a starter. But the defense will keep this team in every game. And the offense, under the watchful eye of Al Borges, is getting better in a hurry.

The loss to Georgia Tech shouldn't have happened under any circumstances, but it should be remembered that it was Cox's first game and that tailbacks Kenny Irons and Brad Lester had not yet entered the picture.

The Tigers have a real chance to make a return trip to Atlanta, and they don't have to win out to do it. If they lose no more than one game between now and the Nov. 19 Iron Bowl, they'll probably be playing to win the West against Alabama.

ALABAMA: Any way you cut it, Alabama's rout of Florida on Saturday was the most impressive performance by any SEC team so far this season. As I was watching the game, I found the passion and confidence with which the Tide played reminded me of Auburn in 2004. The value of a talented, fifth-year senior quarterback, in this case Brodie Croyle, should never be underestimated.

Alabama lost a lot against Florida, too. When Tyrone Prothro went down with a broken leg, it left a hole in the Tide offense that no one else will be able fill. Any time Prothro was in the game – whether playing wide receiver or returning kicks – his mere presence had an impact on the opposition. He was the most dynamic playmaker in the SEC. Had it not been for his remarkable catch against Southern Mississippi, Alabama could have and probably would have lost that game.

But even without him, Alabama has weapons on offense. More importantly, it has a defense that, so far, has lived up to its preseason hype.

Other than its visit to Auburn, the Tide has all its big games at home. Games against Tennessee and LSU don't appear as ominous as they did in the preseason. As long as the right players stay healthy, I'd be surprised if the Tide has lost more than one game come time for the Iron Bowl.

Mike Shula has Alabama off to its best start under his direction.

TENNESSEE: Because of an early loss at Florida, Tennessee has the most difficult road to Atlanta. The Vols probably have to beat Georgia and Alabama and hope Florida loses another game.

The feel-good story of the year was Rick Clausen coming off the bench to lead a remarkable comeback at LSU. But watching him struggle against Ole Miss last Saturday, it was obvious why Phillip Fulmer tried his best to make Erik Ainge take charge of his team.

Clausen's arm strength is somewhere between below average and way below average for an SEC quarterback. Because he isn't much of a threat to go deep, defenses are going to crowd the shorter routes as the season goes on.

The Vols, who went 18 consecutive possessions without scoring before the second half against LSU, still have some real issues on offense.

With a terrific defense, with Gerald Riggs at tailback and a seasoned offensive line, the Vols are as talented as anyone. Talent isn't always enough.

LSU: Shortly after being named head coach at LSU, Les Miles tried to hire David Gibbs as his defensive coordinator. Gibbs chose to go to Auburn, and Miles hired Bo Pellini.

It's still early, but that doesn't seem to have been a great hire. In the loss to Tennessee and in a victory over Arizona State, to say the LSU pass defense was porous would be putting it kindly. Last Saturday, Mississippi State didn't have the weapons to exploit it. Alabama does. So does Auburn. So does Florida.

You have to feel some sympathy for LSU players. They have gone through two hurricanes. Their opener against North Texas, scheduled for Sept. 3, was postponed until Oct. 29. They had to play a scheduled home game against Arizona State on the road. Their game against Tennessee was postponed for two days. Who knows what kind of impact all that has had?

Speaking of coaching hires, I'm not sure about Miles, either. He'll be a while living down being caught on national TV desperately trying to call timeout on a change of possession against Tennessee.

No team in the SEC has more or better athletes than LSU, but the Bayou Bengals don't look like a championship caliber team, at least not right now.

Quarterback JaMarcus Russell is wildly inconsistent. Unless he starts to make better decisions and defensive backs learn to cover receivers, LSU has more losing to do this season.

GEORGIA: The answer to where Georgia is going might be in the head of head coach Mark Richt.

With perhaps the best pair of running backs and most experienced and talented offensive line in the SEC, will he be able to force himself to think run first and pass second? So far, he has shown no signs that he can. Quarterback D.J. Shockley is as talented as they come, but he doesn't have the kinds of receivers David Greene had.

The Bulldogs opened their season with a rout of Boise State, perhaps the nation's most overrated team, but they haven't been overly impressive since. They were fortunate to beat South Carolina 17-15, a score that should raise all sorts of questions. They didn't play particularly well against Louisiana-Monroe and struggled against Mississippi State.

Yet, through it all, they are 4-0 and ranked No. 4 in the nation. If they can win at Tennessee on Saturday, they will step forward as the favorite in the East.

DJ Shockley and the Bulldogs can take over the driver's seat for the SEC East with a win over the Vols on Saturday.

FLORIDA: I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. From the start, I didn't believe first-year head coach Urban Meyer's offensive scheme would work consistently in the SEC. And against good teams it hasn't. The Gators scored just one touchdown, but parlayed special teams gifts into a 16-7 win over Tennessee. They crushed Kentucky but were inept at Alabama.

The Gators remind me of some of Auburn's teams when Terry Bowden ditched the I-formation that had won 20 straight games and went to a spread attack. That offense looked great against overmatched teams. It didn't look so great against teams with equal athletes.

In big-time conferences, an offense without a physical component is headed for trouble. Chris Leak might be the most talented quarterback in the SEC, but he's not showing it in Meyer's offense. He seemed absolutely intimidated by Alabama's defense last Saturday.

The loss of wide receiver Andre Caldwell and defensive tackle Ray McDonald to injuries against Tennessee were costly. But the Gators have other issues. Their offensive line didn't get much done against Tennessee and got nothing done against Alabama. Their defensive backs seemed lost for much of the afternoon against Alabama.

The Gators, believe it or not, are not as talented top to bottom as the other two contenders in the East. Add an offense that doesn't seem to utilize Leak's talents and you have a prescription for trouble.

Until next time …

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