SEC Football: One Moment Can Transform A Season

We're smack dab in the middle of August, the month when anyone and everyone in the college football world either makes predictions or has to deal with the buzz generated by them. Funny thing about predictions, though: they never won anyone the title, even preseason number one or number two teams who ran the table and won their bowl game. You always have to win a championship by the sweat of your brow and the excellence of your club.

You have to have top-flight coaching, you need quality depth, and most of all, you need to pass through the one or two crucibles that come your way. It's this last dimension of any successful football season that gets overlooked in August, the month of predictions.

Last year's Auburn Tigers provided the perfect example of how loads of preseason prognostications can go out the window in "One Shining Moment," a song that applies just as much to the college football regular season as it does to college basketball's postseason. In one brief but telling event, an entire offseason of ink can be rendered meaningless, a whole stack of print annuals made obsolete. All it takes is one man-making motivational moment to transform the emotional dynamic of a team, and with it, the trajectory of a whole season in the SEC and the sport of college football.

Going into last year's game with defending national champion LSU, Auburn was a mental midget. The Tigers of Alabama vintage got smacked around in Baton Rouge the year before, and Tommy Tuberville nearly lost his job. Against Nick Saban's confident bunch, Auburn --- and particularly oft-maligned quarterback Jason Campbell, a man who had been noticeably small in big-time situations in his three previous seasons on the Plains --- needed to answer the bell with a prime-time performance. For the first 56 minutes, that performance wasn't there, as Auburn tallied a meager three points against the defense of Saban and respected LSU defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. On fourth and 12 from the LSU 29 inside the final minutes, it looked as though Campbell and Auburn would suffer another devastating defeat which --- by occurring at the hands of their chief division rival --- would have severely crippled their SEC West title hopes in September.

But then Campbell found a level of poise under pressure he'd never been able to find in previous years under center. He found Courtney Taylor, his go-to receiver, for a first down, and later threw a touchdown pass that, with a replayed extra point courtesy of illegal leaping by LSU's Early Doucet, lifted Auburn to a 10-9 win. At the time, no one could have known just how much that victory would affect Auburn's season. But in retrospect, there's no getting around the fact that that triumph was supremely cathartic for Campbell and the entire Auburn team. After that game, there was no looking back for an evidently confident team that steamrolled its opponents and persevered on the few occasions when it was pushed. The end result was a 13-0 SEC champion and Sugar Bowl winner that deserved to play USC for an outright national title, but which had to settle for personal declarations of a national championship within the Auburn family.

The glory of a college football season lies in the reality that the emotions of the sport produce these cathartic crucible-conquering moments, these images that become frozen in time and remain so as the years go by. Winning a week three game in the NFL is a somewhat pedestrian experience, but in Toomer's Corner, they'll talk about that LSU comeback forever. It undeniably served to be the moment that transformed an autumn littered with questions into the greatest season in Auburn history other than the 1957 campaign. You never know when that bonding moment will come. You can never anticipate exactly where a team will find an unshakable confidence that never fades or falters. It's these things that make teams great --- Florida's great teams of the 90s won with swagger just as much as talent. Same for the Miami, Florida State and Nebraska teams of those vintage dynasties, who gained two touchdowns a game just by intimidating the bejeezus out of opponents.

So exactly what will happen this year? August doesn't answer any questions --- it only provides them. Everything is pure speculation until the games begin. And then, there will be a moment. You might not know it will change a season, but you will realize it will have transformative potential. Then, in mid-December, you'll realize that yes, one play --- one tough game, one defining moment of passage --- turned a preseason's predicted third place finish into a surprise division crown at season's end.

When will that moment come for Florida? It will likely come against Tennessee, for better or worse, but then again, one can't fully know at this point. It's not as though a win over the Vols guarantees the East for UF, or a loss puts them definitively out of the running (the 1997 season would serve as such an example). The Gators' moment of truth could come in the Cocktail Party or even against a certain remotely-known individual in Columbia, South Carolina in mid-November.

But one thing's for sure. A defining moment of some sort will come. Be ready for that moment, instead of clinging to speculation that, come Labor Day weekend, will explode into --- as Shakespeare said --- "a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

The play's the thing, especially "One Shining Moment." Basketball does not have an exclusive claim to that song.

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