PARITY HAS pervaded college football over the past few years, and nowhere is it more evident than below the Mason-Dixon Line. On Saturday night in the Southeastern Conference, No. 3 Georgia lost 19--14 to a 17th-ranked Tennessee team that had been whipped by No. 8 Auburn the previous week, and No. 12 Florida fell 24--21 to a 24th-ranked LSU team that had just been trounced by Georgia. The Bulldogs and the Vols are now tied atop the SEC East at 2--1, and only SEC West leader Auburn remains unscathed in conference play. Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville isn't feeling all that comfy at the top. "You can't rest on an SEC schedule," says Tuberville, whose team, now No. 4, has tough games with Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama. "Do that, and you lose."
What's up with all the unpredictability? The most obvious explanation is that the SEC is the nation's deepest, most talented conference. With the exception of Mississippi State, any team can shock any other, as unranked Ole Miss showed in a 31--28 defeat of No. 25 South Carolina last weekend. "It's getting difficult to tell the best teams in that conference apart," says Louisiana Tech coach Jack Bicknell, whose Bulldogs have played Auburn and Tennessee. "You can see how one might match up well against one team and not so well against another."
It's no accident that Tennessee and LSU have been up and down and up again this season. Both have filled key holes with freshmen, who, despite prodigious talents, are prone to mistakes. "Our team did a lot of growing, in this week and in this game," said LSU coach Nick Saban late Saturday night. "All year long it's felt like we were standing on a boat. This is the first time I felt this team get grounded."
Coaches and players say the SEC's game-day atmosphere is another factor. There's nothing like an SEC crowd to rattle a favored visitor or galvanize a seemingly overmatched home team. But that intensity can backfire. "It's difficult to reach the emotion of last week," said Georgia senior wideout Fred Gibson, who experienced the low of losing to Tennessee in Athens after the high of beating LSU between the hedges a week earlier.
October 17, 2004
Florida-Georgia on Oct. 30 and Georgia-Auburn on Nov. 13 will give a better idea of who'll land in Atlanta for the Dec. 4 SEC championship game. Until then? If recent history has taught us anything, it's that anyone's guess is bound to be wrong. --K.K.