The Wild, Wild SEC

On yet another crazy Saturday in the Southeast, LSU spoiled Alabama's perfect season--and that wasn't the half of it
November 21, 2005

JaMarcus Russell apologized last Saturday evening when he realized that the play he was describing to a group of reporters was not the one he had been asked about. "I got mixed up," said Russell, LSU's supersized quarterback. "With everything that happened out there today, it's hard to keep it all straight." He was referring to the Tigers' 16-13 overtime victory over previously unbeaten Alabama, which gave LSU the inside track on a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game, but Russell could have been talking about a dizzying day throughout the SEC that was, depending on your point of view, exhilarating or devastating. ¶ How do you like your football? Dramatic? There was the 62-yard pass on fourth-and-10 from Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox to wideout Devin Aromashodu that set up the winning field goal with six seconds left in the Tigers' 31-30 win at Georgia. Historic? South Carolina dumped 12th-ranked Florida 30-22, a galling defeat for the Gators not just because they were beaten by their former coach, Steve Spurrier, but also because it was the first time they had lost to the Gamecocks since FDR was president. Inspirational? Players for No. 5 LSU drew on the emotional strength they developed in dealing with the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita to recover from a poor first half and beat the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide. Just plain entertaining? Even conference also-rans Kentucky and Vanderbilt put on a compelling show, with the Wildcats surviving a late Vandy rally to win 48-43.

Once it had all been sorted out, the crazy day in the SEC clarified the national championship picture. Alabama's loss left Southern Cal and Texas as the nation's only two unbeaten teams, meaning that if the Trojans and the Longhorns run the table, the season, mercifully, will be free of further BCS title-game debate. LSU, which can win the Western Division of the SEC by beating lowly Mississippi and Arkansas in its final two games, helped prove what had already been suspected, that Alabama's offense doesn't pack enough punch for the Tide to be national championship material. Alabama's attack had been so anemic since top receiver Tyrone Prothro broke his leg on Oct. 1 that when quarterback Brodie Croyle hit DJ Hall on an eight-yard scoring pass in the second quarter on Saturday, it was the first touchdown by the 'Bama offense in six quarters.

That score helped stake the Tide to a 10-0 halftime lead, and the Tigers headed for the locker room knowing that they had been clearly outplayed. But after a season of upheaval in which their campus was used as an emergency relief center after Katrina and they were forced to change the date or location of three of their games because of the two hurricanes, a 10-point halftime deficit, on the road, in front of Alabama's leather-lunged fans, with the specter of the late Bear Bryant peering down at them from the scoreboard video screen, hardly qualified as a hardship to the Tigers. "Knowing what we've been through, knowing the hearts and the minds and the character of the men on this team, there was no doubt in my mind that we would come back in the second half," said coach Les Miles.

A blistering halftime speech by defensive tackle Kyle Williams helped firm the LSU players' resolve. "We were missing tackles and missing assignments," Williams said. "Guys were starting to point fingers at each other. I had a few things to say." He said them loudly. "I could hear him on the other side of the room," Russell said. "I was over with the offense, but I was half-listening to what he was saying. He got me fired up, and he wasn't even talking to me."

LSU opened the second half with an 80-yard drive that resulted in a one-yard, fourth-down touchdown run by Justin Vincent. The Tigers smothered the Alabama offense for the rest of the half, keeping Croyle under constant pressure and sacking him four times. Throw out a harmless 40-yard pass on the last play of regulation, and LSU held the Tide to 24 yards on 25 plays in the second half. After the Tigers limited Alabama to a field goal on the first possession of overtime, the 6'6", 252-pound Russell, who has a turbocharged arm--"He flicks his wrist and the ball goes 60 yards," says Tide defensive coordinator Joe Kines. "If he grunts, it goes 90"--shot a laser to wideout Dwayne Bowe in the end zone for the winning score on a third-and-six play from the 11.

Even though it went into overtime, the LSU-Alabama game was a snoozer compared to the events that took place later that night in Athens, Ga. (Not that it should have come as any surprise: The Auburn-Georgia series goes back to 1892--it's the oldest rivalry in the Deep South--and heading into their 109th meeting, the Tigers had outscored the Bulldogs 1,619-1,618.) Auburn and Georgia traded the lead eight times, and the Bulldogs appeared finally to have prevailed after Brandon Coutu's 41-yard field goal gave them a 30-28 lead with 3:25 left and they then forced Auburn into the last-gasp, fourth-and-10 situation. That's when Aromashodu caught Cox's pass in stride slanting across the deep middle and raced for the end zone. Defensive back Paul Oliver caught him just short of the goal line and punched the ball loose, into the end zone. "It was terror," Aromashodu said of the feeling he had when he fumbled. But then came relief. Hustling behind the play was fellow wideout Courtney Taylor, who recovered the ball. Because a fourth-down fumble can be advanced only by the player who dropped it, the ball was placed at the spot where Aromashodu was stripped, on the Georgia three.

Four plays later the Tigers' John Vaughn kicked the winning 20-yard field goal. It was a role reversal for Vaughn, who had missed five of six field goal tries, all from 37 yards or more, in a 20-17 overtime loss to LSU on Oct. 22. His father, Mark, told him after that game that if he made the winning kick against Georgia or Alabama, those misses would be forgotten. That might be a bit of a stretch--this is the SEC, where fans rarely forgive and never forget--but the kick did provide Vaughn with a bit of redemption.

The Bulldogs, who still can earn a berth in the conference championship game by beating Kentucky this Saturday, won't soon forget their own miss--the missed chance to clinch the SEC East. That opportunity arose when Florida fell to Spurrier's Gamecocks earlier in the day, the first time South Carolina had beaten the Gators in 15 tries dating back to 1939. Urban Meyer, Florida's first-year coach, may be new to the conference, but he surely knows that losing to the Ol' Ball Coach is not the best way to endear himself to Gators fans. Spurrier, who won seven SEC titles and a national championship in 12 seasons at Florida, left for the Washington Redskins in 2002, but the Gators had a chance to lure him back to the Swamp after last season. When Spurrier withdrew from consideration, reportedly because Florida asked him to interview for the job, the Gators turned to Meyer.

Meyer's first season has had more low points than Gator nation expected, including a 31-3 drubbing by Alabama, but even that defeat wasn't as embarrassing as losing to South Carolina. At least Spurrier, who has never been known as the most graceful winner, resisted the urge to gloat over the victory, saying he took no special satisfaction from beating the Gators, and downplaying the significance of his flirtation with Florida after last season. "I left [Florida] to go somewhere else," he said. "I didn't leave to come here. Three years later this was the best play for me." But Spurrier's players weren't buying his nonchalant act. "He says it didn't mean anything," quarterback Blake Mitchell said, "but we all know it did."

Surprisingly, Spurrier didn't cook up anything exotic on offense against the Gators. Mitchell threw only 17 times, completing seven for 126 yards. Maybe because Florida had expected the Gamecocks to pass more often, the Gators had trouble stopping the South Carolina running game when they really needed to.

Although both teams have 5-3 conference records, Spurrier is being hailed as a hero in Columbia while Meyer has some explaining to do in Gainesville. "Three losses in the SEC? Obviously we need to do better than that," Meyer said. The Gamecocks, meanwhile have a school-record five straight SEC wins, an almost certain bowl berth (for the first time since the 2001 season) and the sense that with Spurrier, nothing is impossible. "It's more fun when your team is not a dominating team," Spurrier said. "It's neat the way our guys are winning. We are defying logic."

South Carolina is not a dominating team, but this year no one in the SEC is. The conference is full of flawed but tough-minded squads that, as Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville says, "don't have any give-up." That might not make for the strongest conference, but it does make for a deliciously unpredictable one, which is why Georgia and LSU, the teams most likely to meet in the conference title game on Dec. 3 in the Georgia Dome, had better watch their step. Last Saturday was the wildest day of the season in the SEC. So far.

SI.COM

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PHOTOPhotograph by Damian Strohmeyer  FIRED UP
Williams (95) lit into his teammates at intermission, then was in on three sacks of Croyle in the second half.
PHOTOBOB ROSATO  WORKING OVERTIME
The 6'6", 252-pound Russell gunned a third-down throw into the end zone for the game-winning score in OT.
 
PHOTOAL TIELEMANS  CLOSING IN
Wideout Dwayne Jarrett and USC need to beat Fresno State and UCLA to reach the title game.
PHOTOBILL FRAKES  LUCKY ONE
Aromashodu (1) fumbled when stripped by Oliver, but the ball bounced Auburn's way.
PHOTOSEAN MEYERS/ICON SMI  LONG TIME COMING
Spurrier showed losing QB Chris Leak some love after South Carolina beat the Gators for the first time since 1939.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)