ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — OK, all you SEC haters.
Time to get revved up again.
The league that everyone outside the South loves to despise has staked out its usual place in the championship hierarchy after Super Saturday, a coast-to-coast buffet of college football’s greatest rivalries.
Either Alabama or Georgia is assured of playing for the national title.
And the Southeastern Conference even had a backup plan, the Florida Gators, ready to step in if top-ranked Notre Dame faltered in the last big game of the day against Southern Cal.
Just last year, Alabama defeated LSU in an All-SEC matchup for the BCS championship.
No matter what, the conference will have at least one representative in the final game of the year, and rest assured that either No. 2 Alabama or No. 3 Georgia would be a solid favorite to beat the Fighting Irish and give the SEC its seventh straight national title.
The Crimson Tide cruised into the SEC championship game on a high after thumping Auburn 49-0 in the Mismatch Bowl (sorry, the Iron Bowl moniker just doesn’t fit at the moment), surely bringing the Gene Chizik era to an inglorious end just two years after he guided the Tigers to a national championships.
Georgia will be waiting in Atlanta as the East Division winner for the second year in a row, finishing off its regular season with a 42-10 blowout of Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs are our Comeback Team of the Year, somehow finding a way to get back in the mix after taking a four-touchdown whipping at South Carolina.
“The chance to win our league at the end of the year is huge. That means a lot to us,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “What happens beyond that, of course, will be decided by the voters and all those kind of things. But it does look like the winner of that (SEC title) game … more than likely will end up playing for the national championship. So that’s exciting to think about.”
Before the rest of the nation could blurt out, “not again,” Florida positioned itself in the scavenger position with a 37-26 triumph over Florida State. The Seminoles were hoping to follow the Alabama Plan, Version 2.011, by earning a shot in the Jan. 7 title game in Miami even though it lost out to Georgia in its own division.
The Gators were fourth in the BCS standings a week ago and did nothing to hurt their position, stunning the Seminoles and the crowd in Tallahassee with a 24-point outburst in the fourth quarter. As soon as that one ended, coach Will Muschamp and his players headed off to root for the Trojans, hoping they could take down Notre Dame.
Oregon was the only other team with a shot, but the Ducks are likely to remain stuck behind the three SEC teams, even after an impressive 48-24 win over Oregon State in that state’s version of the Civil War.
Hard to believe, but the SEC seemed down and out just a couple of weeks ago. Alabama was knocked off by conference newcomer Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa, leaving three non-SEC teams – Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame – in the lead positions.
Three-fourths of the nation rejoiced.
Its long, Dixie-induced nightmare seemed over.
Of course, everything flipped again seven days later.
Oregon lost. Kansas State lost. Just like that, Alabama and Georgia were right back in the prime positions.
The Tide and the Bulldogs closed the deal Saturday against overmatched opponents, proving once again the SEC has, if nothing else, an impeccable sense of timing. Outside of Notre Dame, every team in the mix had one loss. But Oregon and Kansas State lost last, so they get shortchanged.
Ohio State might have messed things up, finishing off a 12-0 debut season for coach Urban Meyer with a victory over Michigan. But the Buckeyes are on NCAA probation because of Tattoo-gate, the championship dreams pushed off into the future by some shady ink. They look like the sort of program that can challenge the SEC’s dominance, but not this year.
Maybe the new four-team playoff will even things up a bit. Surely, it can’t hurt, because the SEC clearly has this system all figured out.
“I knew the way the SEC works,” Georgia defensive back Sanders Commings said, savoring the big win over the Yellow Jackets in the locker room beneath Sanford Stadium. “I knew we could beat everybody else on our schedule. I was like, `Man, we’ve just got to win out.'”
There will be those who say the SEC is living on its reputation, that the league isn’t nearly as strong from top-to-bottom this season as it’s been in other years. That’s a pretty compelling argument, too. Neither Auburn nor Kentucky won an SEC game. Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas are looking for new coaches, and Auburn will surely be joining the list of schools with a vacancy.
But, for those at the top, there’s another chance to play for a national title.
For the rest of the nation, that playoff system can’t get here fast enough.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963