Yes, the locals will merely want their own team to win, but if SEC fans want to be able to say their league is the best, they'll need to see quality football this weekend, because it's one of the more fascinating September weekends in the SEC's long and storied football history. Such a bold contention might seem like a gross overreach, but it holds up under further scrutiny on a number of levels.
First, consider the reality that head coaches --- in moments of both weakness and greatness --- are magnified by the intensity of the glare of the Southern football microscope. Only at Notre Dame and a few other national programs can coaches immediately acquire the stature, visibility, and potential for college football immortality that they automatically inherit when they become the coach at any of the SEC's several brand-name programs --- Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, Alabama, Auburn. On Saturday, three of these six programs will be playing particularly meaningful games, and the presence of an SEC coach at an unheralded conference school --- Steve Spurrier at South Carolina --- will make Alabama's game with the 'Cocks a particularly compelling contest from both sides of the divide. The careers of four men --- Philip Fulmer, Mike Shula, Spurrier, and especially Urban Meyer --- will encounter large occasions this Saturday.
Fulmer's Tennessee tenure --- so pockmarked with humiliation over the summer --- could take a noticeable turn for the worse if Florida's new coach humbles him. Conversely, the stink of offseason scandal will be wiped away in the public view if the Vols assert themselves in Gainesville, just as they've done the previous two times they strolled into the Swamp.
For Shula, the heat of pressure and expectations burns with noticeable intensity, and in his team's SEC lid-lifter, Alabama's coach will go onto the road to play a game it expects to win, but against a coach it has rarely beaten. If Don Shula's son stumbles badly against Steve Spurrier, it's just a fact of life that the vultures --- some of them, at least --- will be out come the Sunday coach's shows. It's not your average conference opener for Shula.
Spurrier, after an encouragingly competitive and spirited performance at Georgia in which he didn't get the woodshed whipping Dog fans so desperately hoped for, now has a chance to build off that momentum and continue to reshape the culture of South Carolina football. Getting a CBS game in his home conference opener provides Spurrier an opportunity to win on CBS, something South Carolina hasn't done very well. And when you're losing on network television, you don't get invited back to the dance very often, crippling your school's national football reputation. The Gamecocks won't win the East, but they need to win this game.
And then there's Meyer.
Safe to say, the prominence of Spurrier as the second-greatest coach in SEC history, not to mention his place as one of college football's most fascinating, colorful and controversial characters, has made the Florida head coach one of the most closely scrutinized jobs in all of college football, let alone the SEC. It's flatly undeniable that the biggest question of the entire upcoming weekend concerns one thing: is Meyer an Urban Legend in the legitimate sense or the hollow and disappointing sense? College football's "it" coach will be dissected to the -nth degree for what he does (and doesn't do) on Saturday in his first taste of not just SEC football, but the Vol-Gator rivalry that so electrified America in the 1990s and the early part of this decade.
For a league where coaches' reputations are always evolving, four coaches with big names face contests that will force people to reassess --- or reaffirm --- their strengths and weaknesses. That's one reason this particular SEC weekend sings with meaning and crackles with pressure.
But the second and even more significant reason why this SEC weekend is so important is that you have a fascinating blend of contests. You have a heavyweight fight in Gainesville, and you have the middleweight division bout in Columbia, but you also have a very, very attractive Jefferson Pilot lightweight bout in Nashville.
When you consider what makes a conference truly strong, one vital ingredient is quality depth. When your conference is appreciably competitive top to bottom, it speaks to the overall excellence of the league. Therefore, the SEC's reputation as a conference --- while obviously affected by the Tennessee-Florida game and partly by the Bama-Carolina contest --- will be very much influenced by the showings Ole Miss and Vanderbilt when these two unbeatens tangle in Music City. Between the presence of Mississippi's instantly celebrated head coach, Ed Orgeron, and the cash-money performances of Jay "I Can Back Up Preseason SEC Poll Hype" Cutler --- who has the Commodores poised for a bowl season for the first time in nearly a quarter century --- two teams used to playing in the lower halves of their respective SEC divisions will find themselves playing a game that will make the winner unbeaten by the time October 1 comes across the calendar. The fact that the Rebels and 'Dores are playing such a meaningful game gives the SEC a chance to show that it's getting even tougher and more balanced as a league. Ole Miss-Vandy won't be the five-star showcase Vols-Gators will prove to be, but in a paradoxical way, it could actually serve to be the barometer of the league's top-to-bottom quality. It's a rare treat to have these two programs playing a game that can legitimately be labeled as "attractive" and "worth watching for SEC fans of other teams."
This SEC weekend is unique in the annals of its long and decorated football history. You don't often have a scenario where six teams, three games, and four particularly notable coaches all receive spotlight treatment on the same day. A midday lightweight bout, a late-afternoon middleweight fight, and a prime-time heavyweight slugfest give this weekend a feel of its own... and a proud football conference a chance to strut its stuff.
SEC fans should hope that their brand of football, even more than three specific teams, wins the day.
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