League boasts of balance in bowls
By Chris Low, Special to CNNSI.com
Brandishing its collective might this bowl season will be anything but a stroll in the park for the SEC.
Seven of the league's nine teams to qualify for bowls are underdogs, beginning with Arkansas against UNLV in the Las Vegas Bowl.
It's been an equally difficult struggle the past two years. During that span, the SEC has managed only to break even with an 8-8 record in bowl games.
And against its chief rival, the Big Ten, the SEC is just 1-4 the last two years in head-to-head bowl matchups.
Could it be that the conference many consider the toughest in the land is softening a bit?
Not hardly, say the coaches.
"It's the toughest in the country," said Arkansas' Houston Nutt. "If you'll look real closely, they're going to get tougher.
"They're all young teams. Florida's young, Auburn's young. Tennessee's young. Even with the youth, you look at our league, and everybody beats up each other. Very tough."
Indeed, the fact that the SEC has nine teams in bowl games is a testament to the league's balance. It's the first time in NCAA history that one conference has placed nine teams in bowls in the same year. Eight of those teams won seven games, too.
The only two teams favored this year are Georgia against Virginia in the Oahu Bowl and Mississippi against West Virginia in the Music City Bowl.
Moreover, only one SEC team (Florida) finished among the top 16 teams listed in the final BCS standings. The Gators face Miami in the Orange Bowl, but are the only SEC team to play in a BCS bowl. In each of the past two years, the SEC had two teams in BCS bowls.
While Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer isn't buying that the league is somehow getting any easier to negotiate on a weekly basis, he does think that it wasn't quite as strong at the top this season.
"I don't think it was as strong, as far as that one dominant team," Fulmer said. "You saw a lot of transitions this year. Georgia had the injury at quarterback. Florida had some things. We had our own share of problems.
"We just didn't have that one dominant team, or two teams maybe, that we've had in the past."
South Carolina's Lou Holtz gets a kick out of hearing outsiders say that the SEC might be watered down this year. His take is that the league is simply young.
"I have a lot of coaches say to me, `How do you play that schedule every year?'" said Holtz, whose Gamecocks will take on Ohio State in the Outback Bowl.
"I'm talking about coaches in other conferences. So I think the people who coach are pretty well aware that they don't want to line up with Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State. We have a pretty good reputation."
The SEC's .500 record in bowl games the last two years is somewhat misleading. That record during the past five years is considerably better at 20-13.
The same goes for the SEC vs. Big Ten head-to-head matchups.
The Citrus Bowl has matched those two conferences since 1992, and the Outback Bowl has done the same since 1995. In those 13 games, the SEC holds an 8-5 advantage.
The last time Florida and Miami rumbled on the football field was 1987. But they will rekindle their rivalry in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.
To the Gators' players, it might as well be the first time they've played.
"Obviously, Miami has a great program," said redshirt freshman quarterback Rex Grossman, who's from basketball-crazy Indiana. "That's really all I know."
The irony of the teams meeting this year is that a deal was struck between them to play a two-year series beginning in 2002. The NCAA will allow teams to play 12 games in 2002 and 2003.
When Florida coach Steve Spurrier returned to his alma mater in 1990, he wanted then to get Miami back on the schedule. But the SEC expanded and added a game in 1992.
And with the Gators already playing Florida State every year -- plus the SEC schedule -- it just didn't make sense. "You only have so much emotion," Spurrier said. "At the end of the year, nobody ever asks me, `Who did you beat last year, Coach?' They always ask, `What was your record?' That's all anybody cares about when it's over."
Big hit?The Gators could take a big hit from underclassmen leaving early.
Most people close to the Florida program expect defensive end Alex Brown, defensive tackle Gerard Warren and offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker to all declare early for the NFL draft.
Florida also learned recently that offensive lineman Tommy Hillard will give up football after suffering three concussions this season.
Vols thinking bigThe biggest news to hit Tennessee in the last month was that Outland Trophy winner and junior defensive tackle John Henderson was coming back for another year.
And in doing so, the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Henderson is determined that Tennessee kicks off that year in the proper way against Kansas State on Jan. 1 in the Cotton Bowl.
Consider it a prelude to what Henderson thinks will be a run for the national championship next season.
"I told myself that I was going to get a ring before I leave here," said Henderson, who wasn't eligible under NCAA rules to receive a ring during the 1998 season when he sat out as a partial qualifier. "That was one of my motivations for coming back.
In Henderson's mind, it all starts with Kansas State, the highest ranked team the Vols have faced since Florida and probably the most veteran team they've faced all season.
But the part Henderson likes best about the matchup with the 11th-ranked Wildcats is their physical nature.
"It's going to be our kind of game," Henderson said. "The front line on both sides, offense and defense, will decide it. It's going to be a battle all game. The best team with the most heart is going to win." Tennessee safety Andre Lott joined Henderson recently in announcing that he was also returning for another season. Defensive end Will Overstreet is expected to do the same, even though he said he wouldn't make any final decisions until after the Cotton Bowl.
The Vols could have as many as 16 starters returning next season.
"I think we're definitely in the [national championship] hunt next year, no matter what happens or who goes or who stays," Overstreet said. "We've got enough players on this team that we can make a run for it. It's one of those teams that's going to be special."
Green GamecocksThis bowl business might as well be a foreign language for South Carolina players.
But not for their coach.
Holtz is taking his fifth different team to a bowl game, the first coach in NCAA history to accomplish that feat. None of the players on this team, however, have ever played in a bowl game.
The Gamecocks' last postseason trip was to the 1995 Carquest Bowl, where they defeated West Virginia. That victory remains South Carolina's one and only bowl victory in school history.
This year's Outback Bowl matchup with Ohio State is the Gamecocks' first New Year's Day bowl since playing in the 1946 Gator Bowl.
Holtz figures his players feel about like he did when he enlisted in the service.
"I didn't know what was around any corner," Holtz said. "If I knew what was ahead, I probably would have gone to Canada. They don't know what they're in for, and they will have fun finding out."
Georgia's plightSaying they started the season together and would finish it together, fired Georgia head coach Jim Donnan agreed to coach the Bulldogs one last time in their Oahu Bowl game against Virginia. It's actually a matchup of lame-duck coaches. Virginia's George Welsh has also announced that he is stepping down and this will be his final game.
"We're looking forward to the bowl," insisted Donnan, who was fired after the Bulldogs lost three of their last four games. "This isn't some kind of chore. I told our team that it's important to be remembered as a team that won four straight bowls."
The buzz now in Athens centers around who will replace Donnan, who won 67.2 percent of his games at Georgia, but flopped against rivals Florida, Georgia Tech and Tennessee.
Athletic Director Vince Dooley met with Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt while in New York a couple of weeks ago.
Georgia is also looking to the NFL ranks. Ray Sherman, the receivers coach for the Green Bay Packers, interviewed in Athens on Monday, while Dooley and school president Michael Adams flew to Miami on Monday night to interview Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey.
Other potential candidates include Southern Miss head coach Jeff Bower and Georgia Southern head coach Paul Johnson, who's also in the hunt at Virginia.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The Tennesseean.