Think about that, especially when you consider that it hasn't been one or even two teams doing all the damage. I don't know who's going to win it all 12 months from now. But I'd say it's a good bet that whoever gets through the SEC will have a big-time shot. And by the way, in case you're already looking that far ahead, Alabama and Louisiana State are both supposed to be really good. LSU beat Alabama this season, but has to play at Alabama in 2011.
Auburn became the latest SEC team to get it done, by beating previously unbeaten Oregon Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium, 22-19. It gave the Tigers a 14-0 season, and their second title ever. They got the first 53 years ago. But the real accomplishment might have been just surviving the SEC West, where Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi State all finished in the Top 25. And in their bowl games, Alabama won by 42 over one-loss Michigan State, LSU won by 17 over a Texas A & M team that hadn't lost in a while and Mississippi State won by 38 over a bad Michigan team. Arkansas lost by five to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, but had a chance to win late before Ryan Mallett threw an interception.
That's what Auburn had to deal with. And you can toss in two games against South Carolina. So maybe we shouldn't be so surprised anymore when the SEC survivor figures out a way against whoever the other last team standing is. Whatever it had to do to get there was every bit as tough.
Auburn wasn't supposed to be able to keep up defensively, especially in the secondary. Turned out, its front seven was able to disrupt Oregon's fastbreak attack most of the game. Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James ran for 49 yards. He'd been averaging 152. The Ducks totaled 75. They'd been getting 303 per. Only twice had they been held under 200. But maybe the rest of the Pac-10, except for Stanford, just wasn't that good. At some point, beating a lot of Oregon States and Arizonas simply doesn't constitute the same road. And Auburn's offensive line also seemed to have the better of it. Sure, the Tigers are able to throw a lot of Cam Newton at you. But this time, they also seemed to wear down the Ducks' smaller defenders, and Michael Dyer ended up rushing for 143 yards. He was especially huge on the last drive that led to the game-winning field goal at the buzzer.
For whatever reasons, the Ducks seemed to be a popular pick. It's happened before. Remember when Urban Meyer had to lobby voters just to get his Florida team into the 2006 game instead of Michigan? Well, once again the SEC reigns supreme. Only this time, the moment belongs to a team that was barely in the Top 25 to start the season. Nobody really knew. That's what made this one a little different.
Yesterday morning, second-year Auburn coach Gene Chizik was handed all the trophies.
"You savor the moment,'' he said. "There is no question that last night was a great moment for so many people for Auburn football. But, you know, the great thing about college football and especially in our league, which is so competitive in every way, not just on the field but in recruiting and things of that nature, there are no days off, to be honest with you. They're few and far between. That's just kind of part of the deal. So we'll have a great memory of what happened last night, and crank it back up today. In terms of football, we have to start all over again starting today.''
That's the reality. But the rewards, if you're fortunate enough to get this far, are forever.
Auburn probably won't repeat in the SEC West, even if Newton stays. Which he probably won't. But whatever happens in the immediate future and beyond, it always will have this.
"It was long overdue,'' Chizik said. "I was just glad I could be a part of sharing in that with [our fans]. I've never seen anything like the Auburn family. They've been waiting. It was magical. There's a lot of ingredients that have to be in place. The ball has to kind of bounce in your direction a couple of times during the year. You have to play well and be very resilient. You have to have great team chemistry. All of those things happened for us.
"The foundation is still continuing to be built. We feel good about it. We're not there yet. The moment we feel like we've arrived, we're in trouble. I think we're moving in the right direction . . . There are a lot of great conferences out there. Everybody ought to think they have the best. I mean, that's the way it ought to be. I know that we have a lot in our conference that other conferences and other people would love to be a part of. It doesn't mean that it makes us head and tails above everybody else.
"I know that ours is very difficult. And I know that the numbers would tell you that if you look at it from 10,000 feet, it looks like this conference is a very dominating conference over some of the others. But I don't know that that's necessarily true. I think every year is probably a case by case. Year by year, everybody has the same chance.''
At least in theory.
"The facts are the facts,'' Chizik said. "In our league, you are going to have as many or more draft picks than any other. I think the passion and the venues that you play in week to week are second to none. If you get to Atlanta right now [for the SEC final], there's not a guy in our league that really believes you don't have a shot to play for the national title.
"There's a certain level of confidence that comes with being able to win in our league, and going on to the next step. And that whoever you play after that, you believe you can beat anybody in the country. That's not being pompous or anything else. There's just a lot of confidence that comes from being able to win the league. It's an extremely tough league to win. Football in the Southeast is king. It is a way of life. It is what you do from the time you get on the playground. That's just who you are.''
Right now, what the SEC is is unstoppable. But maybe one of these years . . . *
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