Now that the regular season is in our rearview mirror, here’s a look at what we learned in the SEC in Week 13:
1. Auburn’s time: Maybe it’s simply Auburn’s time. It’s difficult to call the Tigers a complete football team when you see them give up points and yards the way they have in stretches this season. But then you watch them make every clutch play in the fourth quarter, force turnovers whenever their backs are to the wall and never panic no matter what and you can’t help but think that there’s something special about this team. We certainly know this: They’re led by a special player. Cam Newton hasn’t blinked in the face of the NCAA’s investigation into his recruitment. If anything, he’s gotten better and has accounted for eight touchdowns in his past two games. He’s also proved in the past two games that he can absolutely beat you throwing the football.
2. High on the Hogs: A year ago, Arkansas played Xbox football. The Hogs were one of those teams that was going to throw it every down and hope it could outscore you. This past Saturday, the Hogs all but wrapped up their first BCS bowl trip (the Sugar Bowl is poised to take them if Auburn wins the SEC championship game), and they did it by showing the kind of balance across the board that has defined Bobby Petrino’s club this season. Arkansas beat LSU 31-23 in Little Rock, getting key contributions in areas where the Hogs were once deficient. As explosive as ever on offense, the Hogs are even more potent now thanks to Knile Davis’ emergence in the running game. The defensive improvement has also been obvious. The Hogs held the Tigers to 294 total yards, and more importantly, to a single field goal after LSU twice started possessions in Arkansas territory. With four wins on its résumé against teams ranked in the Top 25 this past week in the BCS standings, Arkansas (10-2, 6-2) is indeed BCS worthy.
3. LSU lost its defensive stinger: Something was different about the LSU defense these past few games, and it ended up costing the Tigers a trip to a BCS bowl. Over the entire course of the season, they were still the best defense in the SEC, but gave up too many big plays and too many total yards in their last four SEC games to be considered a great defense. In those last four games, including the 31-23 loss to Arkansas on Saturday, the Tigers gave up seven scoring plays of 39 yards or longer. They gave up an average of 433.8 total yards in those four games and yielded 19 or more first downs in all four games. The big plays were the killer. The Hogs hit them with two touchdown passes of 80 yards or longer, including the one on the final play of the first half. That’s the kind of thing you simply can’t do and expect to be a great defense.
4. Gamecocks at their best: They’re not limping into the SEC championship game next week. Instead, they’re playing some of their best football heading into the most important game South Carolina has played in school history. The Gamecocks, coming off a 29-7 beatdown of arch-rival Clemson, get a second shot at Auburn on Saturday in Atlanta in the SEC championship game. It’s safe to say that Auburn is a better team than the one that beat South Carolina 35-27 back on Sept. 25 in Jordan-Hare Stadium, but so is South Carolina. Freshman running back Marcus Lattimore wasn’t a factor in the second half of that game, carrying the ball just three times after halftime. Something says the Gamecocks will make sure he gets the ball in the second half this coming weekend. The Gamecocks should also be fresh and ready to go. They’ve had big leads in the second half in each of their past three games, allowing them to rest players.
5. Going bowling: The bowl picture is starting to clear up, and it looks like the SEC will get two teams in BCS bowls regardless of what happens Saturday in the SEC championship game. If Auburn wins, the Tigers go to the BCS National Championship Game and Arkansas likely to the Sugar Bowl. If South Carolina wins, the Gamecocks go to the Sugar Bowl and Auburn likely to the Orange Bowl. LSU may wind up back in the Capital One Bowl for the second straight year, although Alabama and South Carolina could also be options. If it’s LSU going to the Capital One, then Alabama is likely ticketed to the Cotton Bowl and South Carolina to the Outback Bowl. The Chick-fil-A Bowl would like to have Mississippi State, with Florida likely headed to the Gator Bowl, Tennessee to the Music City Bowl, Georgia to the Liberty Bowl and Kentucky to the BBVA Compass Bowl.