South Carolina, Georgia and Florida have each completed half their SEC schedules. None of them, however, has emerged as a consensus favorite to win the East. But each of them still controls their own destiny. So which one will prevail? Let's discuss their chances.
You might think that the Gators are in the deepest hole. Unlike UGA and USC, they had to play Bama and LSU - and have already dropped both in rather humbling fashion, losing their senior quarterback in the process. As a result, UF already has two conference losses. Insurmountable, right? Wrong.
The Gators' remaining schedule is @ Auburn, Georgia (n), Vandy and @ South Carolina. If UF wins out, then Coach Muschamp & Co. finish 6-2 and own tiebreakers with UGA and USC - even if the the Dawgs and Cocks also finish at 6-2. Will they win out though? While it's within the realm of possibility, I don't see it.
Auburn, Georgia and USC will be favored. The Gators' two best QBs are injured. UF has a potent running attack, true, and a Top 25 defense, also true - but there are just too many questions in year one of a new coaching regime. The wildcard game is the rivalry match-up with UGA. The Dawgs have won just three times since 1990 and only twice this decade - I think the Pups are due if they play four quarters (see below). UF likely goes 2-2 in the second half of conference play and finishes 4-4 in league play. I do like their chances against the hapless 'Noles. Muschamp waits for next year to make his move.
What would be best for USC? We probably root for Auburn next week to lay a third loss on the Gators, but then we hope UF upsets UGA at the WLOCP the following week. If UF takes care of UGA, and then we take care of UF (giving them a 5-3 or 4-4 finish) we go back to Atlanta.
The Dawgs are certainly going to get the most love and attention from here on out - their story simply fits too many media narratives (Richt supporters like Tony Barnhardt, Boise-State supporters [i.e., the anti-BCS crowd] like Tim Brando, and all the outlets who make more money if the Atlanta media market is fully engaged like ESPN, the AJC and Finebaum).
Like the Gators, the Dawgs have a very favorable schedule - in fact, they almost certainly have the easiest row to hoe. They finish out with Vandy, Florida (n), Auburn and Kentucky - i.e., three home games with one short trip down to Jax. Their realistic, worst-case scenario is 5-3; you have to think they will finish the second half of league play no worse than 3-1, with an overall 2011 SEC record of 6-2.
So who do they lose to? Auburn or UF? I am thinking Auburn - and here is why. UF and Auburn are without a doubt UGA's top two historic rivals (not counting the in-state rivalry game with the Yellow Jackets). Despite all the media love, UGA's three game SEC win streak has come against lower-division teams - Ole Miss, Miss State and the Vols. Each time they've stalled out in the second half. A UGA partisan might argue that was because they were sitting on leads and put the ball on the ground; watch the games, however, and you can see that they're being stymied - it's the running game that is saving them, not causing the anemic offense. Whatever faults Auburn and Gene Chizik may have, they play four full quarters.
Even with a timely cupcake game between UF and Aubie (the hapless New Mexico State Aggies), you got to expect either the Gators or the Plainsmen to be motivated to knock of the Dawgs, and one of them likely to exploit UGA's weaknesses - whose mid-season offensive and defensive stats are fairly mediocre, despite the talent of Murray and Crowell. [What happens in UGA-GA Tech will be a total mystery - the Yellow Jacket defense stops playing in the second half - right around the time the UGA offense starts to go anemic. Which team's inertia will be the irresistible force to the opponent's immovable object?]
What would be best for USC? We root like hell for Auburn and Florida. If we take care of business on our end, and UGA finishes no better than 5-3, we go back to Atlanta.
If we win out, we win the East. We can't cry over spilt milk (the Auburn loss) but needless to say it may come back to haunt us. We finish @ MSU, @ UT, @ Ark and Florida. Everyone will be pointing to a three-game SEC road trip (broken up by one bye week). Those are four winnable games, but we've been snakebit at Knoxville forever, and have had little success at Fayetteville of late; more to the point, Arkansas is a more complete team than Carolina right now (the Hogs are a more complete team that UF and UGA too, but they don't have to play 'em).
Georgia has showed us how to beat MSU and UT. Those are the two super-critical games. If we lose either, then we've likely dug ourselves an insurmountable hole - plus, we'll have shown that we're merely a decent-but-flawed club, not a championship contender. Win them both and we come into Arkansas with some momentum (and can possibly keep our post-season hopes alive even if the Hogs outplay us).
I like our chances on paper. MSU is in a deep funk. Like us, they've had to start a new QB (Russell) in place of a guy who had graced a few pre-season honors' lists (Relf). Not only do they lose Relf's formidable legs, but Tyler Russell was fairly mediocre against UAB (admittedly a good C-USA squad), while Connor Shaw will garner at least an SEC honorable mention against UK. Not only does Carolina's re-discovery of the forward pass mean that the Bulldogs can no longer sell-out to stop Lattimore, but our new spread schemes will mean Mullen & Co. have to go back to the drawing board this weekend - wasting any advantage they received by scheming for us while preparing for UAB. MSU is a decent club, but they're about as good as Auburn - which means that if we protect the ball, we should be favored. I like that it's a noon game at Starkville - Davis Wade stadium (even avec cowbell) is not as intimidating during the day. (Editor's note - I remain jealous of their big board though).
UT is still mathematically in the SEC East race, but they get the (literal) 1-2 punch of LSU and @ Alabama these next two weeks. If skinny Tyler Bray survives those two defenses, he will have earned our respect. But I believe UGA showed us how to beat the Vols, and the Orange and White will be reeling once the Bayou Bengals and Tide have had their way. This is golden opportunity for Carolina to get a rare win at Neyland Stadium. The recruiting advantage which will result makes this game a must-win, too.
Win these next two games and I like our chances against the Razorbacks and Gators. Lose to MSU or UT, and there is no margin of error. I don't see a three loss team in the Georgia Dome on December 3 - not without a lot of crazy help, at any event. Champions don't shrink from three game road trips.
What would be best for USC? Do we even need to ask? Win out. Finish the second half 4-0 and you go to Atlanta; go at least 3-1, and you have a really good chance. Play like hell's a comin. ' Cuz it is.