Marshall Column: SEC Winners and Losers

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about this week's SEC football games and happenings.

As I write this, I can see the Gulf of Mexico outside my window at South Padre Island, Texas, where Auburn's basketball team will play Oklahoma State today. My colleagues who cover the University of Alabama are not having such a relaxed Thanksgiving weekend.

They are instead pursuing the story that has most of the state's attention.

Is Mike Shula staying on as Alabama's football coach? Is he going? Some reports have said his job is safe. Others have indicated he's probably going. Another said Nick Saban was offered the job. Even Steve Spurrier is a popular message board candidate.

Meanwhile, Alabama's administration has done nothing to stop the feeding frenzy. Athletic director Mal Moore's statement, released Wednesday, did not mention Shula by name and only served to further fuel the debate.

It's all yet another sign that university administrators, particularly presidents, live in a world all their own.

If the decision has been made that Shula will return next season, all this could have been avoided with a one-sentence statement from President Robert Witt or Moore. But Witt made it clear that his Thanksgiving vacation came first. Sound familiar?

If Shula is retained, he has been severely wounded by the people for whom he works. It will be dang near impossible for him to make a credible case to recruits or potential assistants that his job is secure. That's because his job won't be secure.

Does anyone really believe he could survive if Auburn wins its sixth consecutive Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium next season?

The real victims in situations such as this are the assistants. If the decision is made to fire Shula, he will get a $4 million check to ease the pain. It's the assistants who will face uncertain futures.

The truth is Moore presides over an unhappy and difficult situation. Alabama has had five non-winning seasons in the last 10. Though Shula took the Tide to a 10-2 record last season, he has failed three times in his four seasons to get past the .500 mark.

But the hardest thing for old-line Crimson Tide supporters to stomach is Auburn's five-game winning streak, though that streak is not as surprising as it might seem.

There's no question that Alabama's program was severely hurt by the scholarship reductions that went with NCAA sanction. But even before that, the days of Alabama's dominance in the series had ended.

Since Bear Bryant coached his final game in 1982, Auburn has had four-game and now five-game Iron Bowl winning streaks. Against the six coaches who have led Alabama's program since Bryant, Auburn's record is 14-10.

And Auburn has had its share of turmoil in those years, too.

Alabama's officials are in a quandary. They crave the kind of stability Auburn has under Tommy Tuberville. But stability comes from winning, and Alabama hasn't done enough of that under Shula.

Surely, by early next week, Moore or Witt will have indicated the direction in which Alabama will go.

My uneducated guess is that Shula will stay on the condition he makes major staff changes. Whether that's the right decision for Alabama, only time will tell.

Moving on...

Auburn's bowl destination probably won't be known until after next weekend's SEC Championship Game. The Tigers are most likely to end up in the Cotton Bowl or the Outback Bowl, but a BCS game is still not out of the question.

For Auburn, the best-case scenario would be for Arkansas to win out and claim the SEC championship and for Florida to lose Saturday to Florida State. It wouldn't hurt if West Virginia or Louisville lost another game.

Assuming Boise State beats Nevada on the road, there'll be one at-large spot available, probably in the Orange Bowl. That spot was Auburn's until before the Tigers lost to Georgia. Now they can only watch and wait.

Your fearless picker had a 7-0 record last week. For the season, the record is 68-15. And now on to the final weekend of the regular season:

LSU (9-2, 5-2) at Arkansas (10-1, 7-0): Want to know why it's a bad idea to play powerhouses from other conferences? If Arkansas had played Buffalo in its opener instead of Southern California it would be two wins away from playing for a national championship. Instead, barring a USC loss, the Razorbacks are out of it.

That won't matter today, of course. LSU must go to Little Rock, where Arkansas has lost just one game under Houston Nutt. That won't change today. Arkansas 27, LSU 21.

South Carolina (6-5, 3-5) at Clemson (8-3): The Gamecocks have been so close so many times this season. They could have beaten Florida, Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee. They didn't beat any of them. They won't beat Clemson, either. Clemson 31, South Carolina 24.

Florida (10-1, 7-1) at Florida State (6-5): The Gators have managed to win despite having very little offense. The Seminoles have managed to lose despite having a really good defense.

Something tells me this is going to be a close one. Historically, Florida does not fare well in Tallahassee. Florida State desperately needs a big win to salvage perhaps the most disappointing season in head coach Bobby Bowden's tenure.

Upset Special:

Florida State 20, Florida 17.

Georgia Tech (9-2) at Georgia (7-4, 4-4): Georgia is not as good as Auburn made it look. Georgia Tech is on its way to the ACC Championship Game. Georgia Tech 28, Georgia 17.

University of Kentucky coach Rich Brooks is looking for win number eight this season.

Kentucky (7-4, 4-3) at Tennessee (8-3, 4-3): Who would have believed the Wildcats would be playing for second place in the East?

Rich Brooks has probably saved his job. Good thing, because Saturday won't be a good day for the Big Blue. Tennessee 38, Kentucky 14.

Mississippi State (3-8, 1-6) at Ole Miss (3-8, 1-6): Both teams have improved over the course of the season. But Mississippi State lost quarterback Michael Henig in last Saturday's loss to Arkansas. Ole Miss 24, Mississippi State 16.

Until next time...


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