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Whether or not the game lived up to its gargantuan hype, Saturday's bout between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama was a showcase for everything great about SEC football. But you had to be in Tuscaloosa to truly appreciate it.
The tailgates spanned all the way from the filled-to-the-brim RV lot down by Black Warrior River to the rows and rows of crimson-and-white tents in the donor lot across the street from Bryant-Denny. In the plaza outside the stadium, Alabama fans started lining up to greet the team nearly two hours before its arrival; inside closer to kickoff, the place erupted when Bear Bryant's growl played on the loudspeaker during a montage of great Crimson Tide moments.
Then the game began, and while it certainly wasn't aesthetically pleasing, LSU's 9-6 overtime win against Alabama showed exactly why the SEC has won five straight national championships. Simply put, the conference's best teams play better defense than other conferences' best teams. Gangs of LSU and Alabama tacklers swarmed to stuff ballcarriers before they could even break into stride. The one time Alabama looked to have scored a touchdown, on receiver Marquis Maze's pass to tight end Michael Williams from the Wildcat formation, LSU's Eric Reid matched Williams step for step and wrestled the ball away from him for an acrobatic interception. It was fitting that in overtime -- when weary defenses often begin to falter -- LSU's grew more ferocious, moving 'Bama backward and forcing Cade Foster to kick a hopeless 52-yard field goal.
In reasserting their stranglehold on the No. 1 spot in the rankings, the Tigers now become the odds-on favorites to bring another crystal football back to the SEC. Fellow contenders Oklahoma State, Stanford and Boise State certainly should not be dismissed, but you'd be hard-pressed to bet against an LSU defense that has now put the clamps on two top five teams, Oregon and Alabama. And the Tigers still have another test ahead of them against No. 8 Arkansas' high-powered passing attack.
Before the game, I talked with SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who seemed genuinely astonished that this was the first time in conference history a No. 1 and No. 2 team had met in the regular season. He shouldn't have been. For most of the 20th century, the pollsters were far more enamored with Notre Dame and Nebraska than any team south of the Mason-Dixon Line not coached by Bear Bryant. This was the crowning moment to date in the SEC's recent ascension to national superiority: The entire country tuned in to a game played in early November because of the overwhelming sentiment that this was the de facto national championship.
And then, the next morning, Slive's league finally announced the decision that will mark the beginning of the end of the SEC as we know it.
"The Presidents and Chancellors of the Southeastern Conference are pleased to welcome the University of Missouri to the SEC," Florida president Bernie Machen said in a release. "[Mizzou] is a prestigious academic institution with a strong athletic tradition and a culture similar to our current institutions."
With all due respect to Dr. Machen, the only part of that last sentence anyone could back up with facts is "academic institution." Missouri's "strong athletic tradition" consists of winning its last conference championship in football in 1969, despite playing in leagues largely ruled by two contenders: Oklahoma and Nebraska in the Big 8 and Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12. Now it will be joining a conference in which five different schools have won BCS championships.
As for "a culture similar to our current institutions?" Saturdays in Columbia, Mo., in no way resemble the scene Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. But don't worry, the Tigers are joining the East; few cultures are as similar as Florida and Missouri.
In its mad quest for television sets, the SEC, presumably intent on starting its own network, has irreparably diluted what had become the nation's premier conference. At its core, the charm of the SEC was that it really was one of the last conferences in which all 12 schools were geographically and culturally similar. The same scene we saw Saturday night in Tuscaloosa takes place in similar variations every week in Auburn, Baton Rouge, Oxford and Athens. Visiting fans make road trips in droves, because they can. Missouri, on the other hand, is an average 600-plus miles from the rest of the conference. Walk around an SEC tailgate lot or tune in to the Paul Finebaum Show and you'll quickly learn just how poorly this move is playing with the constituents.
New members Missouri and Texas A&M won't threaten the continued dominance of Alabama and LSU. They are likely the league's next South Carolina and Arkansas, the former of which took 20 years to reach its first conference title game, the latter of which made its first BCS bowl last year. But paired with the NCAA's recently approved stricter admissions standards and the SEC's own move last spring to cut down on oversigning, the league's golden era is likely drawing to a close.
Its top teams will still sign the best recruits, largely because those players live in the South. But we may not see too many squads quite as loaded as the pair that butted heads Saturday night. And while they'll never stop tailgating on the Quad (Tuscaloosa) or the Grove (Ole Miss), a little chunk of the league's signature charm will die the first time South Carolina plays a conference road game in the other Columbia.
The SEC obviously timed Sunday's announcement to avoid overshadowing Saturday's all-important game, but the news made for an interesting juxtaposition nonetheless. Saturday represented all that's been great about the SEC the past five years. Sunday touched off everything that will be awkward about the league in the future.
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