Thursday September 4th, 2003

Ask any self-respecting SEC fan and he'll be glad to share with you his widely held opinion that real football isn't played between the cornfields, but between the hedges. Not near an ocean, but in a Swamp.

Unfortunately for him, reality, at least recently, hasn't been on his side.

On Saturday, two of the league's highest-profile programs, Florida and Alabama, face national powers Miami and Oklahoma, and few people outside the region give the SEC teams much of a chance. On the heels of Auburn's nationally televised flop against USC last weekend -- the Tigers, mind you, were supposed to be the class of the league this season -- the last thing the SEC needs is another embarrassing set of blowouts.

Already, most non-partisan observers would agree that the Big 12 has surpassed the SEC as the nation's most powerful conference. And with Miami -- which last season clobbered both Florida and Tennessee -- joining the ACC next year, SEC fans may actually have to own up to the once-unthinkable possibility that their neighbors to the east have caught up as well.

Perhaps most galling of all, Auburn's loss last week coupled with Mississippi State's to Oregon means SEC teams have now dropped six straight meetings to foes from the supposedly inferior Pac-10.

"The Pac-10 obviously did pretty well against the SEC this past week," said LSU coach Nick Saban, whose team travels to Arizona this weekend. "Our players need to be aware of that and know that our league is nationally-known and when we go play places people are anxious to play us."

If indeed the SEC has fallen off its mighty perch, the obvious question is when did it happen? Just two seasons ago, 2001, the league finished with three teams -- Florida, Tennessee and LSU -- among the nation's top seven.

One can trace the possible decline to three events that took place within a month that subsequent winter, starting the day after the national championship game. That's when Steve Spurrier dropped the bombshell that he was leaving Florida. Suddenly the conference's most dominant program over the past decade found itself in transition, suffering more losses in coach Ron Zook's first season than any of its 12 under Spurrier.

A week later came the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft, with Tennessee learning it had lost one star receiver, Donte Stallworth, while keeping another, Kelley Washington. In retrospect, the Vols probably wish it went the other way. The brash Washington became a detriment to team chemistry, contributing to UT's worst season in 14 years.

Finally, on Feb. 1 that year, the NCAA handed down severe sanctions, including a two-year bowl ban, against the conference's most history-rich program, Alabama. While the Crimson Tide have been thus far unaffected on the field last season, the backlash helped push coach Dennis Franchione to Texas A&M, which, combined with Mike Price's ugly demise, has left the program in a precarious situation.

Amidst this backdrop, there has been at least one bright spot. Reigning league champion Georgia, 13-1 a year ago, showed no sign of a drop-off in its 30-0 season-opening rout of Clemson. But it's also tough to truly gauge how the Dogs stack up nationally, having not faced anyone from the Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-10 since beating Purdue in the Outback Bowl nearly four years ago.

The Dogs, along with rising power LSU, may hold the key to upholding the SEC's prestige in the months and years to come. Or perhaps Tennessee, which stifled Fresno State 24-6 last week, and Florida, with budding star Chris Leak, can get things turned around in a hurry. Meanwhile, Auburn's season is far from over, and Alabama could put reports of its imminent demise as soon as this weekend.

"It'd be nice to win those games [Florida-Miami and Alabama-Oklahoma], for our reputation," said Georgia coach Mark Richt. "But I think the bottom line is, whoever wins the conference ... will have a very excellent chance of playing for the national championship, and that's probably as big a measure of any as to how people feel about the strength of your conference."

Last year's quarterback, Kyle Boller, is now an NFL opening day starter. Also departed are the school's No. 2 all-time rusher (Joe Igber), the Pac-10's leading kick returner (LaShaun Ward) and 11 of last year's top 14 tacklers.

Yet through their first two games -- a surprising 42-28 showing against No. 5 Kansas State and a 34-2 rout of Southern Miss -- the Cal Bears have given reason to believe last year's 7-5 breakthrough under coach Jeff Tedford was no one-hit wonder.

Facing two defenses ranked in the top 20 against the pass in 2002, Reggie Robertson, potentially the latest in a line of successful proteges under QB guru Tedford, has completed 58 percent of his passes for 399 yards, five touchdowns and just one pick. The Bears don't necessarily need Robertson to approach Boller's production. The running game appears much-improved, with both Adimchinobe Echemandu and J.J. Arrington breaking 100 yards against Southern Miss, as does the defense, where rover Donnie McCleskey, a true freshman starter last year, flashed superstar potential with 14 tackles and two sacks.

"It was a tremendous boost for us to see what kind of player he really was," Tedford said of the former high-school running back. "He just keeps getting better every week it seems like."

Bobby Petrino's debut at Louisville last Sunday was a rousing success, not just for beating rival Kentucky 40-24 but for the way the Cardinals did it.

Following five highly successful seasons under John L. Smith's wide-open offense, Petrino's first team ushered in a power running game against the Wildcats. Florida State transfer Eric Shelton, a former Parade All-America recruit, carried 25 times for 151 yards and two touchdowns in his Cardinals debut, junior Lionel Gates 13 times for 75 yards and a score.

"You need to run the ball better nowadays than in the past because of all the zone blitz schemes people have, and, because we were going to have an inexperienced quarterback [Stefan LeFlors], we're playing to our strengths a little bit," said Petrino. "Our strength on offense is at the tailback spot."

It also helps that the Cardinals' offensive line, much maligned a year ago, showed substantial improvement, allowing just one sack against Kentucky. Not bad for a unit that starts two sophomores, tackle Travis Lefew and guard Jason Spitz, and a redshirt freshman, 6-7, 310-pound converted defensive end Renardo Foster.

Suffice to say that rarely has a team's uniform elicited more public opinion than the "lightning" yellow number Oregon donned in its nationally televised opener at Mississippi State last weekend. And while the popular sentiment among traditionalists, particularly sportswriters, was to brand them as an all-out travesty, Ducks coach Mike Bellotti said the fashion statement was a hit with the one constituency that matters most.

"You have to put yourself in the mindset of a 17-year-old kid instead of an old sportswriter," said Bellotti. "[Monday] was the first day we could call recruits, and it was unanimous -- they were fired up about them."

Think the BCS honchos aren't taking Tulane president Scott Cowen's postseason protest movement seriously?

With Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany scheduled testify about the BCS before the House Judiciary Committee Thursday and with a much-anticipated meeting of the two sides scheduled for Monday in Chicago, a BCS spokesman made a point of e-mailing several national writers this week to point out that BCS-conference schools went 20-4 against non-BCS schools last weekend, and that the attendance at the Superdome for Tulane's opener against No. 25 TCU was 28,966.

As if college football doesn't have enough stud receivers named Williams, there may be another one at Oregon. Sophomore Demetrius Williams, a former standout at prep power Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, caught six passes for 135 yards against Mississippi State, including an 86-yard touchdown. ... Washington State's trip to Notre Dame on Saturday marks a homecoming for Cougars head coach Bill Doba, a South Bend, Ind., native who spent 11 years as a high school coach in the area. ... Colorado has little to go on in scouting UCLA, which has yet to play a game under head coach Karl Dorrell. The Bruins, meanwhile, have no shortage of help. Assistants Eric Bienemy, Jon Embree and Doc Kreis served on Barnett's staff, while defensive coordinator Larry Kerr came from CU's rival Colorado State. ... As if San Diego State didn't face enough of a challenge traveling to Ohio State, the Aztecs will be without standout QB Adam Hall, sidelined at least three weeks with a high ankle sprain. ... Florida State running back Lorenzo Booker has dedicated his season to close friend Sevag Davidian, who died Monday from a head injury suffered in a car accident following over a week in intensive care. Booker could be seen screaming his friend's name into the camera Saturday following his first career touchdown against North Carolina. ... Purdue freshman Kyle Ingraham, a 6-foot-9, 220-pound receiver, is expected to be part of the Boilermakers' rotation against Bowling Green.

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