You could almost flip a coin on who’s the best team in the SEC.
Alabama and Florida have been dead even all season. Fortunately, they’re going to play it off on the field this Saturday in the SEC championship game.
The impossible part is figuring out spots No. 4 through No. 10. Six teams in the league finished 7-5, and the only three teams to finish with a winning conference record were Alabama, Florida and LSU.
Here goes my best college try:
1. Alabama: Why Alabama at No. 1, especially with the scare against Auburn last week? The reality is that Alabama and Florida are so close that it doesn’t really matter. We’re going to find out who’s better on Saturday. But the Crimson Tide (12-0, 8-0) are a little more diverse on offense, a little better right up the middle on defense and have a return man every bit as dangerous as Florida, which is why Alabama gets the slight edge.
2. Florida: The Gators (12-0, 8-0) were the more impressive team last Saturday, and Tim Tebow looked like he was warming up for another memorable SEC championship game performance with three passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns. This is a veteran team that’s dealt with immense pressure all season. Everybody expected the Gators to be here, and here they are -- unscathed. They get a chance to make history this Saturday.
3. LSU: There were no clock management issues for the Tigers (9-3, 5-3) this past week. Rather, they rallied in the final minute of regulation to tie the game and then beat Arkansas in overtime, 33-30, on Josh Jasper’s 36-yard field goal. Two of the Tigers’ three losses were to Alabama and Florida, and both games were close. The one they’d like to have back is the Ole Miss loss. Nonetheless, a win in the bowl game can give Les Miles his fourth 10-win season in five years. Even in this league, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
4. Ole Miss: The Rebels (8-4, 4-4) get this spot really by default. It’s hard to say with conviction that they’re the fourth-best team in the league after the way they played last Saturday in the 41-27 loss to Mississippi State. But they also played well enough down the stretch with wins over Arkansas, LSU and Tennessee that they’re as good a choice as any at No. 4. Maybe the expectations for the Rebels this season were simply too high.
5. Tennessee: The next six spots are completely fluid depending on what happens in the bowl games. The Vols (7-5, 4-4) finished second in the East, which gives them the nod. They also had some quality losses (if there’s such a thing in this league) to Alabama and Florida. Winning on the road at Kentucky in overtime was an impressive way to end the regular season. They were also able to overcome some crippling injuries. All in all, a nice start for Lane Kiffin in the coaching department.
6. Georgia: The Bulldogs (7-5, 4-4) were left for dead after that home loss to Kentucky two weeks ago, but they rebounded to play their best game of the season in a 30-24 win over then No. 7 Georgia Tech on the road. That win tells you a little something about Mark Richt, and it tells you a little something about the pride in the Georgia program. Nobody’s ever going to be happy with 7-5 in Athens, but it’s also worth noting that the Bulldogs played a killer schedule, one that included four top-10 opponents.
7. Kentucky: The Wildcats (7-5, 3-5) were painfully close to finishing the regular season in the top four of the SEC and locking down a berth in the Outback Bowl. But they couldn’t finish the job against Tennessee, losing in overtime at home and falling to the Vols for the 25th straight time. It’s still been a solid season for the Wildcats, who were missing several key players at different points in the season. They ended the regular season by winning five of their last seven games.
8. Arkansas: The Hogs (7-5, 3-5) get the nod here based on their head-to-head wins over Auburn and South Carolina. They were also close to finishing in the top half of the league, but couldn’t hold the lead at the end of regulation and lost 33-30 to LSU in overtime. It was a great season for the Hogs offensively, but it’s the other side of the ball that kept them from being a nine-win team and maybe even better.
9. South Carolina: This season looks a lot better now for the Gamecocks (7-5, 3-5) after their 34-17 spanking of arch-rival Clemson. For one, it stopped the bleeding after South Carolina had lost four of five coming into the contest, and it also means the Gamecocks don’t have to hear all offseason about how they collapsed for the third year in a row. This is a young team that’s going to get better, and the Head Ball Coach sounds sincere about sticking around for a while longer.
10. Auburn: The Tigers (7-5, 3-5) get the short end of the stick among all of the seven-win teams because they ended up losing five of their last six SEC games. That said, what an effort by Gene Chizik’s club last Friday in the 26-21 loss to Alabama. The Tigers came out of their bye week and played one of their better games of the season. It says something about where the fans think this program is headed in that they gave Chizik and the players a standing ovation as they left the field last Friday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
11. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs (5-7, 3-5) might not be going to a bowl, but they charge into the offseason with a lot of momentum after their 41-27 whipping of Ole Miss last Saturday. It was a huge statement for Dan Mullen and his program. A ton of freshmen and sophomores played key roles for the Bulldogs and will be back. Five of their losses this season came to nationally ranked teams. The future appears bright.
12. Vanderbilt: The Commodores (2-10, 0-8) completed their season on Nov. 21 with a 31-16 loss at Tennessee. It was certainly a step backward for Bobby Johnson’s club after seven wins and a bowl victory in 2008. Injuries and youth plagued the Commodores, who didn’t win a game in the SEC for the first time since Johnson’s first season at Vanderbilt in 2002.