On any given Saturday any SEC team can beat any other SEC team.
How many times have you read or heard that? It is one of the standard cliches that goes with being a member of the SEC family, either as a coach, a player or a fan? But in the past did you really believe it? Not likely.
Well, believe it now. This has been a season of near misses or minor upsets and now we've added a major one.. Ole Miss beating South Carolina was certainly an upset. Kentucky taking the Gamecocks to the wall before finally losing 12-7 was a near miss. But nothing, absolutely nothing, compares in this 2004 season with Mississippi State's 38-31 win over Florida.
Ron Zook may as well start making his arrangements with some Gainesville moving company. And Steve Spurrier had better stay away from the golf course for a week or two because it is quite possible his phone may be ringing with a job offer.
Would the Gators take him back? In an ever loving heartbeat, if the fans have their way. What the administration's position would be is the question. They had to literally empty a bank to pay him what he wanted last time. How much gold do you have to find for a guy who was already the highest paid college football coach in the country--or certainly one of the Top 3?
But let's return to last Saturday and the Miracle of Starkville.
It is common for fans in states which share two or more major college teams to hear "Of course I'm an Ole Miss fan but I pull for Mississippi State whenever they are playing somebody else" or "South Carolina is my team but I always want Clemson to win except against us."
That's another cliché I've never really believed. Most fans want the other guy to lose them all, if it's possible. It affects recruiting because kids still want to play for a winner. It hurts the other school in the pocketbook because winners always sell more tickets than do losers. The TV networks want competitive games involving competitive teams and your school will not be in your den if their level of play makes a blowout likely. And it is better to poke fun at Clemson or Mississippi State supporters, for example, than it is to having them poking fun at you if you're a Gamecock or a Rebel.
Last Saturday the Bulldogs got lucky. CBS had first choice for a TV game and, as you would expect, they took Alabama-Tennessee. ESPN with second choice elected to carry Arkansas and Georgia which looked to be a highly competitive game. Jefferson-Pilot had the third pick.They had their choice of Mississippi State-Florida, Auburn-Kentucky or LSU-Troy State or Vanderbilt- Eastern Kentucky. Both Ole Miss and South Carolina had open dates. Obviously they were not going to pick games involving Troy or Eastern Kentucky, schools with no TV drawing power. That left Auburn, which had been on TV time and again his season and would be on for the next game against Ole Miss, against a poor Kentucky team which is lightly regarded even by its own people or Florida-Mississippi State. Granted State wasn't very good but at least you have the romance of Sylvester Croom to talk about, the SEC's first African-American head football coach.
MSU literally got the nod by default. There wasn't any other game to which Jefferson -Pilot could turn. As a result, the network was the beneficiary of the upset game of recent years, one which pulled scanner viewers in when they heard the score and held them to the end because of the quality of the game itself. I know. I was one of them.
I tuned in just before half time. I never left again.
This was not the same Mississippi State team I'd seen earlier in the season. The other guy was certainly not the same group from Florida. The Dogs played amazingly well, precise and with energy. Meanwhile the Gators sometimes were playing as if they wished they were someplace else on that fine day, anywhere but in Starkville, Mississippi. Florida receiver Andre Caldwell said it best.
"We came to the game to whip up on them but they came out the better team. We are hurt about them tearing (the posts) down.They acted like the better team." That's because on that day they were.
When Coach Croom was asked whether or not this was the greatest win of his career the veteran of many football wars as both a player and a coach, clouded up and acknowledged it was the high point, the best of the best. It was touching because there is no question but that he inherited a situation far worse than he knew when he took over the Dogs and he had been going through hell from day one. He's had to cut some people and motivate others. He's moved players around trying to find the best place for them to play and kids don't like to be shuffled back and forth in mid season. But he's done what he had to do and last weekend he received his reward.
Is Mississippi State now a good team, one that can be competitive for the rest of their schedule? Not likely. They should, or could beat Kentucky this week, will certainly be the underdog against Alabama at Tuscaloosa on Nov. 6 and they do have a chance against Arkansas at Starkville. But by the time Nov. 27th rolls around it is possible Ole Miss will be rolling as they were expected to be this season and I doubt if the Bulldogs can handle the Rebels.
I do believe Croom was sincere when he said at his post season news conference, "This is just the beginning to build a championship program."
But one game does not a season nor a program make. Championship programs are not easy to come by in a league so tough that any team can beat any other on any given Saturday,. That's a lesson both Florida and Mississippi State learned only a week ago and one that coach Croom had best not forget. But last Saturday is one game he should, and will, always remember.
There doesn't seem to be any issue in the SEC West. Auburn is unbeaten. They'd have to lose all three of their remaining games, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama for someone else to slip in. Amazingly enough Ole Miss could do it by winning this week and then taking care of Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State while the Tigers were losing one to either Georgia or Alabama. LSU could do it by defeating Vanderbilt, Alabama, Ole Miss and Arkansas. I admit the door is open a crack but only a little one. As it stands today Auburn controls its own future.
But in the East, South Carolina is very much in the race for the title. They have one major job. They must defeat Tennessee this weekend which would give both the Vols and the Gamecocks two losses. Georgia would return to the golden chair with only one defeat but the Bulldogs still have a very angry Florida and a very potent Auburn on their schedule. Lose them both and South Carolina is in the running if, and that's an all capital IF, if they can defeat the Vols. It would be their sixth win which would qualify them for a bowl game and it would keep them in the running for the SEC East title.
As it stands today, three SEC teams are already bowl eligible. Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia. All have the necessary 6 Ws. LSU has five wins with four games to play and should defeat Vanderbilt this week. Ole Miss is iffy. They'd have to win three of their last four. Alabama needs only one win and will be favored over Mississippi State.
In the East, as we said, South Carolina needs only one win and Florida needs two with Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida State still to play. For all intent and purpose Vandy and Kentucky are both out of it.
They say that games played early in the season count as much as those played late. Agreed, but they're not as important. Early on you believe you know what you have to do. At this time of the year, you're sure.
Upsets part of SEC football
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