LSU-Auburn and Gators-Vols were grabbing the attention of SEC fans throughout the offseason, and everyone in the conference was pointing to September 16 as the first truly significant Saturday of the 2006 season. But as big as these games figured to be from an offseason perspective, they've become even bigger in the present moment. Scratching your head on that one? Well, just consider this (it might be overly blunt or harsh, but the truth of the matter seems hard to deny): Arkansas and South Carolina, two prime sleeper candidates to wreak havoc in the Western and Eastern divisions respectively, have turned out to be dogs with fleas. Houston Nutt is quickly losing his team in the midst of a quarterback soap opera that rivaled the daytime television spectacle witnessed at Arizona State a month ago. In Columbia, Steve Spurrier didn't need to utter a single syllable about the stupidity of his Gamecocks; the brain-dead nature of their point-challenged performance against Georgia s aid all that needed to be said.
And beyond all that, Alabama is scuffling, Vandy's still mumbling (about another game in which the Commodores did just enough to lose), and other traditional doormats (the Mississippi schools, Kentucky) are still tumbling. Some SEC schools haven't played a conference game yet, but with the exception of Georgia's games against Tennessee and Florida, these Saturday showdowns (especially the one in Jordan-Hare) are the ultimate SEC games of 2006. The losers will most certainly have their joy killed, and then kicked around town for good measure.
The fact that these games are so enormous--in stature and consequence--makes it that much more important to look at the emotional mindset inhabited by these four teams on Saturday, first on the Plains and then in Knoxville at night. In September football, style points--in all likelihood--are not going to win the day. Attitude will. These early-season pressure cookers either forge the mental toughness of a champion, or reveal the inner frailty of talented teams and individuals who will settle for second-best at the end of the season.
With respect to the LSU-Auburn game, remember two seasons ago? Jason Campbell entered the 2004 LSU game as a quarterback with a weak mind who had not fulfilled his potential under Tommy Tuberville's watch. But after completing an ice-veins fourth down pass to Courtney Taylor and then a winning touchdown pass in the game's dying moments, Campbell--after that 10-9 Auburn victory--left the field a transformed man. He would never look back for the rest of that '04 season. Three and a half months later, he'd find himself walking off the Superdome field with a Sugar Bowl victory, an SEC title in hand, and a 13-0 record.
This Saturday, JaMarcus Russell and Brandon Cox will both pursue that kind of career-changing moment. Two turnover-prone quarterbacks can--with an iron will and a high football IQ--relegate mistake-filled football to the rearview mirror of history, and become the uber-leaders who will turn talented teams into bona fide juggernauts.
Not much is different with Gators-Vols. The time is now for both Chris Leak and Erik Ainge. Time to win an SEC division and league championship. Time to turn promise into power, talent into triumph. One could say the same thing for both programs in general, given that Georgia has usually swooped in to pick off the SEC East crown over the past four years (winning the division three times). Florida and Tennessee aren't just playing to win a big-time grudge match, but to catapult themselves to bigger and better things as the season continues. An attitude of excellence--what Urban Meyer astutely refers to as "changing the culture"--will be pursued along with a huge victory in a must-have game. Such an attitude will reveal toughness and physicality in the trenches, but also restraint and wisdom in dead-ball situations (Dallas Baker will surely want to remember this principle after the hoo-hah with Jonathan Wade two years ago in Knoxville). You know a winning attitude when you see it, so you'll know which teams will prevail on Saturday, when the Southeastern Conference stages two very Significant Events of Consequence.
Joy is waiting to blossom for two teams, but it's going to die a fiery death for two others. Let the gladiatorial combat begin.