Marshall Column: Running the SEC Gauntlet

Phillip Marshall writes about the Southeastern Conference race and the challenges it offers.

It's a fact of college football life that, at this stage of the season, there are far more questions than answers.

We really don't know who the legitimate national championship contenders are. And we won't know for a few more weeks.

Ohio State is everyone's darling at the moment, and the Buckeyes did look impressive in easily handling Texas on the road. But how good is Texas? That we don't know.

Notre Dame looked very impressive in mauling Penn State, not so impressive in squeaking past Georgia Tech with the help of a phantom call by a Big Ten official. Which one is the real Notre Dame? And how good is Penn State?

Southern California had perhaps the most impressive performance in putting 50 points on Arkansas on the road and took last week off. How good is Arkansas? To this point, the Razorbacks don't look like much.

The bottom line is that I don't know and nobody knows who has what it takes to be there at the end, who will suffer a season-altering injury, who has the mental makeup and leadership to play with intensity and determination for 12 Saturdays (13 for teams in championship games).

We'll know more about Auburn and LSU as darkness falls Saturday night. The winner will march on with national championship dreams alive and well. The loser will have an uphill fight, though not an impossible one, to get to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

But the odds are very long against either team going through the season undefeated.

Auburn, even if it beats LSU, must beat Florida, Georgia and Arkansas at home and beat Ole Miss, South Carolina and Alabama on the road. And then it would probably have to win a rematch with Florida or Georgia in the SEC Championships Game. The odds are pretty good that won't happen.

If LSU beats Auburn, it still must beat Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas on the road and Mississippi State, Kentucky, Alabama and Ole Miss at home. And then there's that pesky championship game. That probably won't happen either.

The other two supposed contenders in the SEC--Florida and Georgia--have similarly difficult roads to travel.

The problem SEC teams have isn't the polls. It isn't how much air time they get on ESPN or what Lee Corso or Kirk Herbstreit say or where ESPN's Gameday crew goes on a given Saturday or how some reporter votes in the poll.

The problem is each other.

No other conference can come close to matching the power among the upper echelon of the SEC. Auburn, LSU, Georgia and Florida are going to beat each other up. Alabama and Tennessee are both 2-0 and are certainly good enough to knock off any one of those four on a given Saturday. Tennessee gets a shot at Florida at home Saturday.

The SEC's best chance to produce a national champion this season is probably for there to be no more than one perfect record among BCS conference teams, meaning a one-loss team will have a chance.

Someone may run the SEC gauntlet without losing, but it isn't likely.

LSU won the BCS championship in 2003 despite being dominated in a midseason 19-7 loss to Florida at home. Something similar will probably have to happen this season for an SEC team to win it all.

That's why Steve Spurrier had it right in his days as Florida coach. He never talked about winning the national championship. He talked about getting to Atlanta and playing for the SEC championship.

Spurrier is widely regarded--and rightly so--as one of the great coaches in SEC history. But he never had a perfect season.

His only national championship had a large element of luck. The Gators lost their regular-season finale at Florida State, but a string of losses by the teams ahead of them set up a rematch with the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl.

Pat Dye accomplished so much at Auburn that the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium bears his name. He never had a perfect season and never won a national championship, though his 1983 team certainly had a claim as valid as anyone's.

We'll know more about this SEC season after Auburn plays LSU and Tennessee plays Florida on Saturday. But we won't know everything.

The winners will celebrate. The losers will weep. And next week, they'll all go back to practice and the season will go on.

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