Who's No. 1?

East champ Georgia and West champ LSU will be meeting Saturday in Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference football championship while arguably the league's best team watches on TV.

Frankly, I think Auburn is the SEC's finest team. Tommy Tuberville's Tigers beat Georgia 31-30 in Athens and would've beaten LSU in Baton Rouge except that kicker John Vaughn missed five of six field goal attempts, resulting in a 20-17 overtime loss.

That's why I'm giving Auburn the same grade as LSU and Georgia in this week's SEC Ratings. The Tigers are as good as anyone in the league ... maybe better. They just didn't prove it on the field.

That said, here are this week's ratings, based on the usual 1-10 scale:

1. AUBURN (9.0): After a season-opening loss to Georgia Tech, the Tigers (9-2, 7-1) would've gone 10-0 if not for the afore-mentioned field goal follies at Baton Rouge. Auburn was idle last weekend.

2. GEORGIA (9.0): Thomas Flowers, whose fourth-quarter TD return broke Tennessee's back on Oct. 8, returned punts for 33 and 30 yards to set up scores as the Bulldogs (9-2, 6-2) trimmed Georgia Tech 14-7.

3. LOUISIANA STATE (9.0): Les Miles Tigers (10-1, 7-1) took Arkansas lightly and nearly blew the West Division title, ultimately winning 19-17 when the Razorbacks failed on a two-point conversion try. Still, LSU has won nine games in a row, allowing 20 points or less in each of them.

4. ALABAMA (8.0): The Tide (9-2, 6-2) was cruising along until big-play receiver/return man Tyrone Prothro fractured his leg. Bama's offense never recovered from that blow but the defense is superb.

5. FLORIDA (7.5): The up-and-down Gators (8-3, 5-3) trounced Florida State 34-7 Saturday, marking the first time since 1996 they beat their top three rivals – FSU, Georgia and Tennessee – in the same season. Despite a somewhat uneven performance, Chris Leak finished 19 of 28 passing for 211 yards.

6. SOUTH CAROLINA (7.0): Following a 48-7 loss at Auburn, the Gamecocks (7-4, 5-3) won five in a row before losing the regular-season finale to Clemson. They were idle over the weekend.

7. VANDERBILT (5.5): If not for inexplicable home-field losses to Middle Tennessee and Kentucky, plus a hard-luck overtime loss at Florida, the Commodores (5-6, 3-5) would've been 8-3 overall and 5-3 in SEC play.

8. ARKANSAS (5.0): As noted earlier, Houston Nutt's Hogs (4-6, 2-5) gave LSU quite a scare before bowing 19-17. Freshman tailback Darren McFadden finished the season with 1,113 rushing yards and a future filled with promise.

9. TENNESSEE (4.5): The Vols (5-6, 3-5) closed out a nightmarish season by beating Kentucky 27-8 Saturday in Lexington, thanks to another big day from freshman tailback Arian Foster (26 carries for 114 yards and five catches for another 44 yards).

10. KENTUCKY (3.5): The Wildcats (3-8, 2-6) parlayed three trips inside Tennessee's 10-yard line into just six points Saturday in Lexington, costing them dearly in a season-ending loss.

11. MISSISSIPPI STATE (3.5): Sylvester Croom's Bulldogs (3-8, 1-7) averted a winless conference record by hammering Ole Miss 35-14 in the Egg Bowl. Jerious Norwood ran for 204 yards but he's a senior, so MSU's offensive struggles probably will continue in 2006.

12. OLE MISS (3.0): Coming off a 21-point loss to Mississippi State, the Rebels (3-8, 1-7) have to be wondering why they thought Ed Orgeron would do a better job than David Cutcliffe.


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