SCOTT: Let the finger-pointing commence

If the Florida Gators win the SEC championship on Saturday and don't play for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl, they can blame the BCS system, the poll voters, SEC officials, Auburn, USC, Notre Dame, Michigan, PETA, the ACLU, global warming ... and the list goes on and on.

Then they can take a closer look at themselves and figure out why they're not 12-0 with more "style points," a.k.a. "more impressive one-sided victories over beatable teams."

 

Except for early games against Southern Miss and UCF and one late-season game against Division I-AA Western Carolina, which did next to nothing to help the Gators in the BCS standings or the polls, the Gators haven't taken anyone to the wood shed for a good ol' Spurrier-type whipping.

 

Of course this is 2006, not 1996, and it's a different era in SEC football. Florida doesn't own the SEC like it did back then, and there's even more parity in the nation's deepest, toughest and best football conference. Winning the SEC now is a lot more difficult than it was just 10 years ago. Going undefeated is nearly impossible. Just try getting the national poll voters and the BCS computers to understand that.

 

"I think they're doggone good," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "They looked darn second to that 1996 team they had. That's how they looked to me. So much skill running around out there you have to be able to contain them all day long."

 

So why didn't the Gators manhandle a 6-6 FSU team last Saturday? The final score of 21-14 can most likely be explained by the nature of the rivalry, FSU's defense, and playing on the road, but try explaining that to voters who saw USC beat Notre Dame 44-22 late Saturday night.

 

Then again, many voters in the USA Today Coaches and the Harris Interactive polls      probably didn't actually see both the Florida-FSU and USC-Notre Dame games in their entirety. They probably saw the score, maybe read the stilted AP version of the story and left with the impression that USC is a much better team than Florida.

 

Let's face it. It's all about style.

 

"Here's our style: You've got Tennessee, you've got Kentucky, you've got Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Auburn and at Tallahassee," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "So much for style. You want to put that one against anyone in the country, let's go ahead and go.

 

"If that's what's making decisions, then I'm going to stand by my comment from a week ago. Implode it. It's over. If that's what's making the decisions – style points, which I imagine that's what it is – we've got a problem. It's called winning and losing and playing a difficult schedule."

 

There ought to be some value in the fact that Florida beat Florida State for a third consecutive time and improved to 6-0 against its three primary rivals – Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State – in two seasons under Meyer.

 

The Gators also won consecutive games in Tallahassee for the first time since 1986 and won three consecutive games against FSU for the first time since a six-game streak between 1981 and 1986.

 

"To the guys in that locker room and the guys that matter, it's 11-1 and six straight against our rivals," Meyer said. "I think people understand that was a tough game."

 

Too bad that might not be enough to give the Gators a chance at the national championship. If USC beats UCLA on Saturday, Florida might need to crush Arkansas in the SEC championship game in Atlanta just to have a chance to face Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Good luck dominating Arkansas for a one-sided win. That hasn't happened since Sept. 2 ... when USC did it ... to the tune of 50-14.

 

Of course, that's practically ancient history in college football, and Florida will face a dramatically different Arkansas team than the one USC beat way back when, but the Gators still need to be at their absolute best when they play the Razorbacks.

And that – the Gators playing at their absolute best – has yet to happen this season.

"It's frustrating that we haven't been able to put a complete game together," Florida cornerback Ryan Smith said.

 

It's not just week to week, either. Sometimes it's quarter to quarter. For example, look at the third quarter in the FSU game.

 

Florida led 14-0 at halftime and intercepted two passes in the third quarter, but FSU still rallied to tie the score early in the fourth quarter. Having lost versatile receiver Percy Harvin late in the second quarter and tailback Dexter Wynn early in the third quarter, the Gators suddenly looked lost and the offense managed only 32 yards in the third quarter.

 

"We had a bad third quarter," Meyer said. "There was no life on sidelines, no juice. When the coaches have to get the team up, you have a problem. We were in a funk. I can't explain it."

 

If he can't explain it, who can? Who can explain how the Gators seem to drift in and out of consciousness from quarter to quarter, unleashing a multitude of offensive weapons one minute and then going into an offensive coma the next?

 

"Playing teams like we've been playing," said reserve quarterback Tim Tebow, "it's hard to run up the score."

 

Don't expect that to change against Arkansas. LSU proved the Razorbacks can be beaten, but the Tigers didn't exactly blow the Hogs out of the game. The Gators won't either. And unless USC loses, that means the Gators won't play for the national championship.

 

***

 

Of course, Arkansas will have something to say about the outcome of the SEC championship game.

 

First, the Razorbacks must find a way to bounce back from their first loss in 10 games.

 

"It feels very weird to lose. It's a bad feeling," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said, reflecting back on a 31-26 loss to LSU last Friday. "I would much rather have it the other way. It's much more fun that way. Our team played with class and we deserve to go to Atlanta. Give us a couple of days and we will be ready."

 

The Razorbacks need to spend some of that time – OK, a LOT of that time - working on their passing game. After making progress in the passing game late in the season after switching from true freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain to sophomore Casey Dick, the entire situation took a turn for the worse in the LSU game when Dick completed only 3 of 17 passes for 29 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Tailback Darren McFadden actually passed for more yardage by completing both of his passes for 33 yards.

 

Dick's performance hit rock bottom when Arkansas pulled within five, 31-26 and got more chances with 2:04 to play. Instead of driving for the winning touchdown, Dick threw four consecutive incomplete passes. LSU's pass rush obviously had something to do with Dick's inefficiency, but at times he just was plain off the mark.

 

"It's tough for all of us. I obviously didn't play to the best of my abilities, and I take full responsibility for that," Dick said. "Now we just have to regroup just like we did after USC. We missed some key opportunities, but now we have to go to Atlanta and take care of business."

 

***

 

Within the next few days, the SEC's bowl discussions will go into high gear with the SEC attempting to fit nine teams into eight spots.

 

Miami didn't do the SEC any favors last week by beating Boston College 17-14 and becoming bowl-eligible. The SEC had hoped to fill one of the ACC's spots, but that's not likely to happen now. Instead, the SEC will most likely attempt to convince the Motor City Bowl to take an SEC team.

 

Boise State isn't doing the SEC any favors by being undefeated and crashing the BCS party, either. That's one less spot for the college football power conferences to share.

 

South Carolina's 31-28 win over Clemson on Saturday puts the Gamecocks one notch above Alabama in the bowl picture and might leave the 6-6 Crimson Tide on the outside looking in.

 

Just how bad does that 24-16 home loss to Mississippi State look now? As if going 2-6 in the SEC isn't bad enough, now it appears Alabama administrators are shopping for a new coach while leaving current coach Mike Shula dangling in the wind.

 

As of Sunday, university president Dr. Robert Whitt and athletic director Mal Moore had yet to affirm Shula as Alabama's coach in 2007.  And the rumor mills are flying fast and furious, with everyone from Nick Saban to Steve Spurrier lining up to take the job. No word yet on Bill Parcells leaving the Dallas Cowboys for Alabama, but give it time.

 

In the meantime, here's a sampling of some SEC bowl possibilities:

 

Florida: Sugar Bowl with a win over Arkansas in the SEC championship game. Another spot in a BCS bowl with a loss to the Razorbacks.

 

Arkansas: Sugar Bowl with a win over Florida in the SEC championship game. A spot in another BCS bowl is no guarantee if the Razorbacks lose on Saturday. With a loss, the CapitalOne Bowl is a more likely destination.

 

Auburn: Outback or Cotton.

 

Kentucky: Liberty or Independence.

 

Georgia: Chick-fil-A or Music City.

 

Tennessee: Outback or Music City.

 

South Carolina: Music City, Independence or possibly the Motor City Bowl.

 

Alabama: Independence or possibly the Motor City Bowl.

 

LSU: The Tigers still have a realistic shot at a BCS bowl berth. How does a Rose Bowl trip against Michigan sound? If not the Rose, possibly the Outback.

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and featured columnist in Tiger Rag magazine. Reach him at rscottsec@yahoo.com.


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