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On Sunday morning, SEC fans awoke to a new, unexpected reality. For the first time since November 1, 2008, neither Alabama nor Florida is the No. 1 team in the country. For the first time since September 20 of that year, neither team sits atop its respective division, having been replaced by LSU in the West and South Carolina in the East.
The defending champion Crimson Tide, the nation's undisputed No. 1 team as of Friday, now sits No. 8 in the polls and No. 3 in their own division. The offensively-challenged Gators remain in second despite two losses, a pretty telling sign of how far the East has fallen behind the West.
As has been proven repeatedly in recent years, one loss doesn't usually disqualify the SEC champ from the BCS Championship Game. 'Bama, despite its 35-21 loss in Columbia on Saturday, still has ample time to climb back into the top two. If we've leaned anything about college football, it's that nearly all the other major-conference champs will eventually sustain a loss as well. As Football Outsiders pointed out Saturday night, the stupefying rash of upsets to No. 1 or 2 teams in 2007 did not begin until Week 6. At least one top two team went down eight of the nine weeks after that.
At this point, however, there are two things about which we're much less certain. For one, is Alabama a title-contender that merely stubbed its toe on the road against a top 20 team, or a team whose weaknesses are only now being exposed? It may well be the latter.
The problem with early-season college football is that we're reading a whole lot into results against teams whose rankings are still largely based on what they did the year before. In hindsight, Alabama's 24-3 win over then No. 18 Penn State on Sept. 11 didn't tell us a darn thing; the Nittany Lions are now 3-3, with the Big Ten's worst offense. Similarly, the Tide's 31-6 gem against then No. 7 Florida just a week ago came against a Gators offense ranked 96th nationally. Alabama's signature victory to date is a 24-20 comeback at Arkansas, in which its rebuilt defense showed the first signs of cracks.
Saturday, South Carolina turned those cracks into craters. While quarterback Stephen Garcia played the game of his life (thanks in part to 6-foot-4, Velcro-handed receiver Alshon Jeffery), the story was how Gamecocks running back Marcus Lattimore rumbled right through the middle of the Alabama defense. Backs aren't supposed to be able to do that against the Tide, just like defenses aren't supposed to be able to sack Greg McElroy seven times or shut down Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.
Perhaps six weeks from now Alabama's performance Saturday will seem like an aberration, but there was nothing fluky about South Carolina's physical superiority. This was a far more decisive result than past SEC/BCS champs' slip-ups. Florida's 2008 team lost to Ole Miss when Tim Tebow got stopped on a fourth-and-short run. The '06 Gators lost at Auburn on a Chris Leak fumble that probably shouldn't have been ruled a fumble. And as Les Miles famously said, LSU's 2007 team was "undefeated in regulation."
Alabama flat-out got beat. Apparently even Nick Saban can't replace nine defensive starters without missing a beat. And apparently Steve Spurrier can, in fact, build an elite team at South Carolina, even if it took six years.
Of course, all of this might be irrelevant if No. 7 Auburn (6-0) or No. 9 LSU (6-0) runs the table. If either does, it'll be playing in Glendale. But does anyone really believe that will happen? Three of Auburn's four wins against BCS foes have come by three points, including Saturday night's 37-34 escape against Kentucky, in which every one of quarterback Cameron Newton's 198 rushing yards were needed. As for LSU ... well, anything's possible with The Mad Hatter, but realistically -- c'mon.
More plausible is the possibility that someone -- Alabama, South Carolina, Auburn -- will go into the SEC Championship Game with a chance to finish 12-1, which in almost any year would assure it a spot in the Even Bigger Game -- and a shot at the league's fifth straight national championship.
Which brings us to that second question: Does this year's SEC deserve the benefit of the doubt?
Only the most staunch SEC apologist (and there are millions of them) would argue that the league isn't "down" this year. In recent years one could legitimately argue that the conference's eighth- or ninth-place team would finish third in a league like the Big Ten, but this year the SEC sports at least five mediocre-to-bad teams (Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss). The Pac-10, which has seven teams ranked in the top 40 of CollegeBCS.com's simulated BCS standings, is a deeper league.
But the SEC does have five teams (Auburn, Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Arkansas) ranked in the top 12 of the latest AP poll, and while some may slip a little, it's a good bet all five will stay in or around the top 20 all year. Come December, voters won't be analyzing "depth" -- they'll be drooling over the fact that whichever team hoists the trophy in Atlanta will have beaten five ranked teams.
If the Pac-10, Big Ten and Big 12 produce two undefeated champions between them, the SEC's BCS reign will end. Undefeated TCU or Utah would likely get the nod, too. (Boise State should, but probably wouldn't.) But if the nation's undefeated teams start dropping like flies, an SEC team would still likely emerge first from the one-loss group.
I'm just no longer as confident that team will be Alabama.
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