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LSU-Alabama was the pinnacle, but SEC is headed for downward slide

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.

For all the buildup to Saturday's purported Game of the Century, I can tell you that few of us in the press box were talking football -- or even watching football -- in the hours before kickoff. Instead, we were trying to digest the disgusting, jaw-dropping bombshell that came out of State College, Pa., this weekend. Jerry Sandusky, a longtime revered Joe Paterno assistant, was arrested Saturday on 40 counts related to sexual abuse of minors, while athletic director Tim Curley was charged with perjury by the grand jury that investigated Sandusky.

"This is a major blemish on the reputation of Penn State University," State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, the chairman of the state Senate Education Committee, told the Harrisburg Patriot News. "This makes recruiting violations look like small potatoes."

Piccola is absolutely correct. Penn State, which prides itself on never having committed a major NCAA violation and which uses "Success with Honor" as a motto, is involved in something infinitely more disturbing than what we normally see in the sports world. You can pour through the full allegations here (be warned: they will turn your stomach), but they boil down to this: Sandusky is painted as a sexual predator who allegedly used his position as founder of The Second Mile, a charity that provides support for at-risk children, to lure eight victims into sexual relationships, including grotesque incidents that occurred in the Nittany Lions' locker room (which he had access to even after retiring in 1999). And Penn State officials Curley and Gary Schultz, a senior vice president also indicted for perjury, are accused of failing to report knowledge of an incident to law enforcement.

Late Sunday night, following an executive session of Penn State's Board of Trustees, Curley asked to be placed on administrative leave, and Schultz stepped down.

Sandusky will face his day in court and, if found guilty, will be punished appropriately. But in the weeks to come, Penn State will face an avalanche of questions about how its overseers handled the accusations when they became aware of them. The report does not paint a favorable picture of one incident in particular.

According to prosecutors, in 2002 current receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Mike McQueary, who was then a graduate assistant, witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a minor in the showers of the Penn State locker room. According to the report, the shaken McQueary went to Paterno's house the next day to report what he had seen. Paterno in turn notified Curley. A week and a half later, McQueary met with Curley and Schultz and again described what he had seen. All that resulted from it, however, was that the two banned Sandusky from bringing Second Mile children to the building, a move university president Graham Spanier then approved "without any further inquiry on his part."

Attorneys for Curley (who told the grand jury that the McQueary merely reported conduct he described as "horsing around," not sexual assault) and Schultz maintained their clients' innocence Saturday and vowed to fight the perjury charges. Spanier, chairman of the BCS' Presidential Oversight Committee, issued a statement condemning Sandusky but expressing his "unconditional support" for Curley and Schultz. It shouldn't be surprising, because if the grand jury's version of events is found true, Spanier would seemingly share culpability in the matter.

But of course, the man everyone is already asking about is Paterno. The grand jury did not find the coach at fault for anything, and he will reportedly serve as a witness for the prosecution. But he will now face an avalanche of scrutiny over what he did or didn't know about his longtime assistant. In a statement released Sunday night, Paterno said: "If this is true we were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things, and we grieve for the victims and their families." He recounted the meeting with McQueary and reporting the information to Curley, but said that "at no time [McQueary] related to me the very specific actions contained in the Grand Jury report."

In our rush-to-judgment society, many are already calling for Paterno's head, blaming him for not immediately calling police about Sandusky's alleged activity and thus enabling him to abuse more victims. I would caution everyone to pump the brakes. This is not like questioning a coach's third-down call. This is real life, involving extremely serious matters about which I for one cannot even attempt to give qualified analysis. The legal process has barely begun to play out. SI's Joe Posnanski, who is currently living in State College while writing a book about Paterno, explains just how difficult it is to navigate this story.

All we know right now is this: As we approach what many already believed will be the final two months of Paterno's storied tenure, his immediate superior is on administrative leave. Curley and Spanier would be the two key decision-makers in handling a potentially messy situation if the 84-year-old decides he wants to keep coaching, and both are themselves embroiled in scandal. All the while, JoePa is chasing another Big Ten title, and we know the coach gets annoyed about having to answer questions about anything besides his team.

But this story is far bigger than a Nebraska or Ohio State game. Depending on the resolution, this scandal threatens to tarnish a sterling legacy Paterno spent 46 seasons building. But those matters seem superfluous compared to the unthinkable trauma those eight children allegedly encountered.

Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games:

Title game: LSU vs. Oklahoma StateRose: Stanford vs. WisconsinFiesta: Oklahoma vs. Boise StateSugar: Alabama vs. Virginia TechOrange: Clemson vs. Cincinnati

For weeks I'd been projecting a Big Ten team for the Fiesta Bowl, but it seems increasingly unlikely the Big Ten will produce a second team with fewer than three losses. Penn State is the only one left with less than two. I'm still predicting Wisconsin to win the league, which will require it beating Penn State (which I'm also assuming will lose at Ohio State) in its finale and then winning the conference title game.

Therefore, the Fiesta Bowl uses its first at-large choice to take undefeated, top five Boise State in a five-year anniversary rematch of the Oklahoma-Boise classic. That won't leave the Sugar Bowl with many appealing options. I gave it Virginia Tech, but that only works if the Hokies win out but lose in the ACC title game. Clemson would be a more popular pick if it did the same. One result that could change this entire scenario next week: If Oregon beats Stanford, putting the Ducks in the Rose Bowl driver's seat, pushing the Cardinal to Glendale and the Broncos to New Orleans.

• No. 3 Stanford (9-0) heads into this week's showdown with Oregon pretty beat up. During Saturday's 38-13 win at Oregon State, receiver Chris Owusu suffered a concussion and tight end Levine Toilolo went out in the second quarter and did not return. The Cardinal were already playing without tight end Zach Ertz (knee), safety Delano Howell (hand), tackle Cameron Fleming (leg) and kicker Jordan Williamson. Some could return this week.

• For their part, the sixth-ranked Ducks (8-1) appear to be returning to health. Running back LaMichael James rushed for 156 yards and quarterback Darron Thomas (13-of-25 for 169 yards and a touchdown) went the distance in a 34-17 win at Washington (6-3). Most impressively, Oregon's defense held Washington star Chris Polk to 80 yards on 24 carries and sacked quarterback Keith Price six times. "The defense showed up and we did our job," said defensive end Dion Jordan.

• It was a day of milestones Saturday for two of college football's most venerable quarterbacks. With 407 yards in a 56-13 rout of UAB, Houston's Case Keenum passed former Hawaii quarterback Timmy Chang for No. 1 on the alltime career passing list (17,212) while leading his team to its first-ever 9-0 start. "It's been a very special season," Keenum said. Meanwhile, Boise State's Kellen Moore broke Colt McCoy's FBS record with his 46th career win, 48-21 over UNLV.

• There have been way too many of these this year. Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles, the NCAA's career receptions leader and one of the sport's brightest stars, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the sixth-ranked Sooners' 41-25 win over Texas A&M. "He's such a special, special player," said coach Bob Stoops. "It's deflating for him and for all of us." The injuries are piling up for Oklahoma, which lost top rusher Dom Whaley for the season last week.

• Northwestern (4-5) may have salvaged its season with a 28-25 upset at ninth-ranked Nebraska (7-2). It marked coach Pat Fitzgerald's second road win in three years over a Top 10 foe (Iowa in 2009), but this one came out of nowhere. A previously horrid defense held Huskers running back Rex Burkhead to 69 yards and forced two key fumbles, and backup quarterback Kain Colter racked up 229 total yards in just over a half. "A great program win for us," said Fitzgerald.

• A week after I sung the praises of Oklahoma State's oft-criticized defense, the No. 3 Cowboys (9-0) needed a last-second stop to survive No. 17 Kansas State, 52-45, in a classic Big 12 shootout. Brandon Weeden threw for a career-high 502 yards but also tossed two picks, while the Cowboys' defense allowed the Wildcats' 86th-ranked offense to rack up 507 total yards. "In a perfect world, they're all going to be double-digit wins, but it's not like that," said Weeden.

• While the nation fixated on LSU-Alabama, No. 8 Arkansas (8-1) broke open a close game in the fourth quarter to finish off No. 10 South Carolina, 44-28, and remain very much alive in the SEC West, a scenario not many have pondered. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks' loss means once-forgotten Georgia (7-2), which has won seven straight and improved to No. 14 in the rankings, moved atop the SEC East standings heading into a critical home game against 6-3 Auburn.

• If you're looking for a convoluted mess, try the Big Ten's Legends Division. Nebraska's loss Saturday coupled with Iowa's 24-16 win over Michigan -- in which the Hawkeyes forced four Denard Robinson incompletions from the three-yard line in the final seconds -- left Michigan State (7-2, 4-1) back in first just a week after losing 24-3 in Lincoln. And Iowa (6-3, 3-2), a week removed from losing at Minnesota, controls its destiny, with remaining dates against the Spartans and Huskers.

• Could the Big East be on its way to another four-loss BCS representative? Louisville (5-4), which started 2-4, knocked off West Virginia 38-35 to move to 3-1 in conference play. Freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater continues to progress, going 21-of-27 for a personal-best 246 yards against the Mountaineers (6-3). Louisville, however, is still looking up at No. 23 Cincinnati (7-1, 3-0), which won 26-23 at Pittsburgh on Saturday and previously beat the Cardinals.

• Texas coach Mack Brown brought in offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin to resuscitate the Longhorns' recently non-existent rushing attack, and it appears to be working. Led by freshman tailback Joe Bergeron's 191 yards and three touchdowns, Texas (6-2) racked up 439 rushing yards in a 52-20 rout of Texas Tech (5-4), despite top rusher Malcolm Brown sitting out with a sore foot. The 'Horns have averaged a staggering 370.3 ground yards over their last three games.

• Speaking of powerful rushing attacks, Wisconsin's Montee Ball sprung for a career high 223 yards on 20 carries and added three touchdowns for a national-best 21 in the Badgers' 62-17 rout of Purdue. Meanwhile, quarterback Russell Wilson (21 touchdowns, three interceptions) still leads the nation in pass efficiency (196.7). Either or both would likely be in the thick of the Heisman race if Wisconsin hadn't allowed those consecutive last-second touchdown bombs.

• Virginia (6-3) became bowl eligible for the first time in four years with a 31-13 win at reeling Maryland (2-7). The Cavaliers ended a 13-game losing streak in November. "Being bowl-eligible is only part of it," said second-year coach Mike London, whose team could still win the ACC's Costal Division. "I feel extremely humbled because of where the program was and the progress we've tried to make."

• After allowing at least 42 points in seven straight contests, Kansas (2-7) managed to hold Iowa State (5-4) to just 13 points. Unfortunately the Jayhawks only scored 10.

• Conference USA's version of LSU-Alabama may come Nov. 26. That's when Tulsa (6-3) and Houston -- both 5-0 in league play -- meet in a regular-season finale on the Hurricane's home field.

• Boston College's streak of 12 consecutive bowl seasons is officially over after Florida State (6-3) humiliated the Eagles (2-7), 38-7, last Thursday.

• After watching Kentucky (4-5) throttle Ole Miss (2-7, 0-6 SEC), 30-13, you have to wonder: What job has Jimmy Sexton lined up for Houston Nutt next?

Left for dead two weeks ago, Rick Neuheisel's Bruins are not going down without a fight -- and not the kind they engaged in at Arizona a couple weeks back.

With their coach's job status on life support following a humiliating meltdown on national television two weeks ago, the Bruins (5-4, 4-2 Pac-12) have taken control of the Pac-12 South. Seriously. UCLA stunned No. 20 Arizona State (6-3, 4-2) on Saturday, 29-28, after running back Derrick Coleman scored a go-ahead touchdown with 46 seconds remaining and Sun Devils kicker Alex Garoutte missed a 46-yard field goal as time expired.

The Bruins now sit in a three-way tie for first with USC and ASU, but the Trojans are ineligible for the Pac-12 championship game.

"That was the victory I have been waiting for my whole life," said Coleman.

UCLA fans have been waiting the better part of four years for Neuheisel's team to even play in a game of such importance, much less win it. Like all UCLA games, it was far from pretty -- the Bruins' game-winning drive included two fumbles (both recovered) and an offensive pass interference call -- but it was also a far cry from that 48-12 loss at Arizona (2-7) two weeks ago. Last week UCLA beat Cal despite three of its top four receivers serving suspensions from the melee in Tuscon.

"Obviously a lot was broken on that Thursday night, but we've worked hard to correct it," said Neuheisel. "I'm thrilled with the resolve."

UCLA still has its work cut out. Its three remaining games include trips to Utah (5-4) and USC, whereas the Sun Devils close with Washington State (3-6), Arizona (2-7) and Cal (5-4). And AD Dan Guerrero has not hid the fact that Neuheisel is on his last legs. Just reaching a bowl game won't be enough. It may indeed take an appearance in the conference title game to save Neuheisel's job. But the fact that it's even a possibility seemed unthinkable two weeks ago.

MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher must be enjoying the NBA lockout more than anyone.

With a notable void in weeknight sports television since the World Series ended, the MAC's usually overlooked midweek games on ESPN and ESPN2 drew extra attention last week. SportsCenter even led with highlights of both last Tuesday's Toledo-Northern Illinois shootout and Wednesday's Temple-Ohio game.

The Toledo-NIU game in particular had folks scrambling to change the channel after seeing updates on Twitter. In a game in which both offenses seemed to be playing against air, the Huskies (6-3) topped the Rockets, 63-60, in a game that included the following: 1,121 combined yards of offense; consecutive kick returns for touchdowns by NIU's Tommylee Lewis on Toledo's first two kickoffs; star Rockets receiver Eric Page catching five touchdown passes; and the teams combining for six touchdowns and a field goal in the fourth quarter alone.

In a bizarre ending, Toledo coach Tim Beckman declined to call any of his three timeouts as the Huskies were driving for an eventual game-winning Chandler Harnish touchdown pass with 19 seconds remaining. "Our job as a defense was to stop them and we didn't get that taken care of," he said.

Ohio's 35-31 win over Temple the next evening wasn't quite as dramatic, though the Bobcats (6-3, 3-2 MAC) did score the go-ahead touchdown with less than two minutes remaining to take over first place in the MAC East from the Owls (5-4, 3-3).

If you missed the fun, don't worry. There's another round of "MACtion" on tap this week. NIU makes another Tuesday night appearance at Bowling Green (ESPN2), while Miami (Ohio) visits Temple on Wednesday night (ESPN).

Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:

Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech, Thursday (8 p.m. ET): It's been a forgettable season of Thursday night games, but this one may finally end the slump. Both teams had extra time to prepare and first place in the ACC Coastal is on the line. Can inconsistent Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas shine on a big stage?

Oregon at Stanford, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): It's not No. 1 vs. 2, but it's No. 3 vs. 6, and it's sure to feature a slew of touchdowns. This will be Andrew Luck's Heisman showcase game, and most believe it's his trophy to lose, but the Ducks put up 52 in handing the Cardinal their last loss 17 games ago.

TCU at Boise State, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): This was supposed to be the Broncos' "big" conference game, but the 7-2 Horned Frogs have not looked remotely like their 2009-10 selves. Still, they're currently in first in the Mountain West, and the teams have a nice recent history of closely contested bowl games.

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