SEC mailbag: Sorting out the East race

Inquiring minds want to know. It’s the reason we empty out the SEC mailbag every Friday:

Bruce in Aiken, S.C., writes: Chris, handicap the East for us. Who needs to beat whom? Who’ll be standing at the end? I hope it’s my Gamecocks.

Chris Low: The door is still open for the Gamecocks, but they’re going to have to do something they’ve never really done – and that’s finish strong. If I were handicapping it right now, I would say the winner of the Florida-South Carolina game on Nov. 13 in Gainesville will be the team that ends up representing the East. The tough part for the Gamecocks is that they have to play Arkansas at home the week before traveling to Florida. None of the other leading contenders in the East faces a two-game stretch that difficult the rest of the way. The easiest way to explain it is that if the Gamecocks win out, they win the East. The same goes for the Gators if they win out. Georgia would need to win out, which means the Bulldogs would have to beat Florida on Oct. 30 in Jacksonville and Auburn on Nov. 13 in Auburn, and then hope South Carolina loses two more. If Kentucky can beat Georgia at home this weekend, then the Wildcats are worth watching. They would then need to win out against Mississippi State on the road, Vanderbilt at home and Tennessee on the road and then hope that Florida loses one more and South Carolina loses one more. Tennessee and Vanderbilt are still mathematically in the picture, but I don’t think either team has a realistic chance. And if everybody in the East ends up losing at least four games – which could happen – I give up.

Jare in Brandon, Miss., writes: Chris, I keep reading online at the PSU forums that there is a lot of hot rumors swirling that Dan Mullen will replace Joe Paterno. What are your thoughts on this? We do not need to lose Dan Mullen. Why has college coaching gone away from the greats like Bear Bryant and others being very successful and staying for decades with that team. Why do coaches only stay two or three years and then leave?

Chris Low: The answer to your last question is easy? It’s called cold, hard cash. Look at what the big-money schools in the SEC are paying their head coaches. Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Les Miles and Mark Richt are all making $3 million or more per year. Plus, the days of coaches staying at the same school in the SEC very long are over because they get fired as soon as they have one or two bad seasons. The tough part for a school like Mississippi State is that when it does land a top-notch coach who turns the program around, there are always going to be other schools with deeper pockets that try to lure him away. The list to replace Paterno will be a long one. Mullen has only been a head coach for two years, so I’m not sure he would be at the top of that list. But he’s definitely going to be a hot commodity. He’s done an excellent job in Starkville. There’s a lot of energy and a lot of momentum surrounding that program right now. Other schools will come after him. Mississippi State fans should brace themselves for that, but I also don’t think Mullen is in a hurry to leave. He’s not going to jump at just any offer.

Ralph in Asheville, N.C., writes: Mike Zimmer isn't worthy of an interview! Who gives a crap about his opinion? That was low even for you Low.

Chris Low: First of all, I didn’t seek Zimmer out for an interview. He made his comments about Bobby Petrino earlier this week to Cincinnati-based reporters, and naturally comments that explosive are going to become national news. Zimmer did work on that Falcons’ staff under Petrino, so I’d say he has every right to express himself. Doesn’t make him right, but doesn’t make him wrong, either. The bottom line for Arkansas is that Petrino has been good for that program, and regardless of how his hiring went down, getting a coach of his stature was a home run for the Hogs.

Corey in Decatur, Ala., writes: There was a recent poll that rated atmospheres based on stadium quality, fans, city/surroundings, traditions and history. The SEC did very well leading the country with six teams ranked: 1. Alabama, 4. LSU, 6. Florida, 8. Tennessee, 11. Georgia, 14. Auburn. Since you are very well traveled in the SEC, what are your SEC stadium rankings based on these qualities?

Chris Low: In terms of atmosphere, it changes a little bit each year. For instance, I haven’t been anywhere this season that was more electric for the entire game than Jordan-Hare Stadium. The crowd there has been a huge advantage for Auburn. But based on the past decade, I’m on record as saying that LSU is my favorite place to attend a game when you consider everything. I love the aura of Tiger Stadium, the tradition there, hearing those first few notes from the band echo across campus and the world-class tailgating. Honestly, attending an LSU football game at night in Tiger Stadium is one of those things every true sports fan should experience. As far as stadiums, I think with the recent renovations and expansion that Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium is the nicest. Tennessee has also done a bang-up job renovating Neyland Stadium. It looks like a different place now inside and out. So my top-5 game-day experiences overall in the SEC would be: 1. LSU, 2. Alabama, 3. Tennessee, 4. Auburn, 5. Georgia.

Jayson in Canby, Ore., writes: I’m an Oregon Duck fan and am worried about Auburn potentially stealing a spot from Oregon in the BCS title game. Let’s just say that Oklahoma, Oregon, and Auburn all finish undefeated with Auburn and Oklahoma winning their conference championship games. Auburn as of right now ranks ahead of Oregon in the BCS computer rankings, so that wouldn't have changed. Oregon ranks No. 1 in the two BCS human polls, so that wouldn't have changed. However, if Auburn runs the table and wins the SEC undefeated, Auburn would undoubtedly be No. 2 in both BCS human polls. Would they steal enough first-place votes from Oregon in the human polls and leap-frog the Ducks in the final BCS standings?

Chris Low: My sense is that if Auburn, Oklahoma and Oregon all win out and are unbeaten heading into those final BCS standings, then Oklahoma would end up being the odd team out. Obviously, there are a lot of variables involved. For example, does one of those teams win a couple of ugly games against weaker foes and drop down in the polls? It doesn’t look like the Western Division champion in the SEC this season will get much of a lift in the polls by winning the SEC championship game, at least not with the East as jumbled as it is. Ultimately, I think at least two of the teams you mention will end up losing a game. If Oregon gets past USC next weekend, I don’t think the Ducks will lose in the regular season. I’ll say this: If Auburn and Oregon do wind up playing in the BCS National Championship Game, that scoreboard is going to light up like a Christmas tree.

Noah in Granger, Ind., writes: Can the Florida Gators go to Atlanta and compete for the SEC championship. Will they at least go to a bowl game.

Chris Low: Noah, as much as Florida has struggled on offense this season, I still lean to the side that says the Gators will end up in Atlanta. This is a key open date for them, to try and get some things sorted out offensively and get some of their playmakers (Jeff Demps) healthy. Either way, they will definitely be in a bowl. It just won’t be the kind of bowl they’re used to, especially if they lose a couple more games along the way. If that’s the case, Gator fans might want to start checking on things to do in Atlanta, Nashville and Jacksonville, maybe even Memphis.