Even you, the most delusional of delusional of Gamecock homers cannot seriously argue that South Carolina will determine the winner of the SEC West race - the division which has produced six of the last 10 BCS champions (with two more runners-up) and three of the last five Heisman winners, along with top recruiting accolades going as far back as anyone can remember.
Plus - let's be brutally frank. South Carolina has never controlled its own division and cannot guaranty it will manage the trick this year.
Even setting all that aside, with the SEC adopting the 6-1-1 format, aren't cross-division games more on the order of spoilers than kingmakers? So the whole proposition is so much poppy-Cock. Right?
On October 25th, South Carolina travels to Jordan-Hare Stadium on the Plains of East Alabama. The entire SEC West race will hang in the balance of that outcome. Impossible, you say? Then find the fault in the logic here:
The Division is Merciless. We can all agree with the conventional wisdom that the top-line troika of Alabama, Auburn and LSU are the odds-on favorites to win the West - with Ole Miss, Mississippi State and A&M in the second echelon and poised to knock off one of the top three at the slightest sign of weakness. When Arkansas is your Western cellar-dweller, you know the division is merciless.
One Loss or Less Wins the Division. In nine of the last ten seasons, the West Champion has either been an undefeated or one loss squad. In the last decade, only the 2007 LSU Tigers made it to Atlanta with two losses - in what was an unusual year for the Division (with LSU losing a pair of 3OT games to UK and Arkansas before going on to win the BCS Championship; it was also Nick Saban's first year in Alabama while Tommy Turbeville's days were numbered at Auburn). Based on past performance, and with five ranked teams clawing at each other, it's a safe bet that the West Champ will be the one that has just one loss or less.
No Second Tier Team Will Win the West. The order of finish for UM, MSU and TAMU is debatable, but we're on very solid ground projecting these teams will finish with at least two, and likely three, league losses based on their last five seasons and their projected 2014 starters. Could one have a break-out year? Yes. Could they snipe one of their top-tier Division mates? Sure. But for either the Rebs, Dogs or Aggies to finish in the money would require the emergence of a super-star and at least two of Big 3 western teams to be derailed by injuries, dismissal and/or scandal. Barring such an unlikely scenario, we can concentrate on the elite squads in determining who will win the vaunted West.
LSU Will Have Two Losses. In the past six campaigns, LSU has averaged 2 losses a year to Western teams. Having watched more underclassmen decamp to the NFL than any other team, why should we expect the 2014 Bayou Bengals to do any better than two SEC losses? They won't. Even if they run the table against Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and A&M, LSU likely bows to Auburn and Alabama. If the Purple and Gold finish 6-2 in league play, then they are out of the running this year.
Alabama Will Be Undefeated Going Into the Iron Bowl. In 2011, the Crimson Tide lost to Johnny Manziel's crazy-armed heroics. In 2011, it dropped the 9-6 OT game at Baton Rouge. Then there was the 24-21 loss to LSU in 2010. Based on that history, you might be forgiven for thinking that Bama might enter the 2014 Iron Bowl with a 6-1 league mark considering how tough the Western competition has gotten. Most pundits, however, project the Tide to be sitting on a 7-0 SEC record before the Auburn game - and the schedule backs up the prognostications. The only games that look truly dangerous for Bama are @LSU and @Ole Miss, and the Sabanator has open weeks before both of these games (of course LSU has an open week before the Bama game too). Every other good squad (UF, MSU and A&M) comes to Bryant-Denny in 2014; while The Third Saturday in October returns to Knoxville, Butch Jones is still at least several years away from taking out the Tide in a rivalry game. As a result, the smart money is on Alabama to be undefeated heading into the Auburn game.
Pre Iron Bowl, Aubie Cannot Run the Rest of the West and Georgia. Gus Malzahn is a great coach, but barring two fluke plays, the Plainsmen would have finished 2013 with a very respectable 5-3 conference record and third in the West (losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with LSU). Five-and-three likely still would have earned Malzahn SEC CotY honors but not the SECCG. True, Auburn has lots of talent and a potential Heisman QB in Nick Marshall; they are as dangerous as any squad this year. But karma is a kukkurI - as Auburn discovered in the second half of the BCS - and she's likely not done taking a bite out of the Tigers. You might say Auburn's schedule is pretty good - and that is correct; but it's not as good as Bama's either. War Eagle hosts LSU and A&M, but must travel to Ole Miss, MSU and Georgia - three snakepits for the Plainsmen. Unlike the Tide, Auburn is going to drop a game either to another West team, or to Georgia who will be itching for payback after having had to play twice-in-a-row at Jordan-Hare in '12 and '13.
So how does Carolina control the West?
If USC beats Auburn, then the Tigers are likely going to have a 5-2 conference record going into the Iron Bowl to face an undefeated Alabama (by virtue of dropping to Carolina and one other league foe). Under that scenario, Alabama has already clenched the West and will be playing for both pride and revenge - two highly motivating factors to be sure - but irrelevant to determining who goes to the Georgia Dome the following Saturday.
If Auburn beats South Carolina, though, the Tigers can afford a 6-1 SEC record heading to Tuscaloosa on November 29; even if Crimson Tide boasts a 7-0 record going in, then the Iron Bowl winner determines the West Championship - either Alabama by finishing undefeated, or Auburn winning and owning the head-to-head tie breaker if both teams finish 7-1 in-conference.
In other word, Auburn cannot bow to South Carolina and win the West absent a lot of cards turning their way.
Of course under this logic, doesn't UGA control the West too - assuming Auburn has a non-Alabama loss in the West? Well, OK then Mr. Helper. That's true, but we play Auburn first for whatever it's worth. An Auburn loss to USC will have a big impact on Auburn-Georgia.
What could make the South Carolina v. Auburn game meaningless? I can see four scenarios in descending order of probability:
1. LSU still finishes with 2 or more losses, but beats the Tide at Baton Rouge so that Bama goes into the Iron Bowl wih a 6-1 league record; in that case, Auburn could lose to the Gamecocks and one other team, yet still play for the West crown so long as they beat LSU to own a tiebreaker.
2. LSU is the actual best team in the West and wins the berth to the SECCG outright by beating Auburn, Alabama and losing no more than one division game. In that event, the USC/Auburn game is meaningless to the West race.
3. Auburn is best by injuries or suspensions and loses two or more SEC games - not counting USC - rendering our game on the Plains moot. This outcome is probably best for my blood pressure but I am not holding my breath, either (which is bad for the old b.p. too).
4. Still suffering a hangover from the losses to Auburn and OU to end the '13 season, Saban & Crew's squad is flat throughout 2014 and loses two or more SEC games - thereby removing themselves from the West race and making the USC-AU tilt moot.
5. One of Ole Miss, Mississippi State or TAMU breaks through to capture the West title.
A lot of football writers have already circled October 25 on their calendars as a major SEC matchup. Auburn should be favored playing at home where South Carolina has enjoyed nothing but futility. In fact, other than A&M who we've not played yet, Auburn is the only team in the SEC that we have never beaten - a shameful 0-7 record since joining the league in '92 (a streak which should have been erased in 2011 but for the HBC's inexplicable decision to let Stephen Garcia start the 3rd quarter).
True, Auburn has a bye before they host us, but leading up to the game we have a bye then a home game against Furman. With all due respect to the Paladins and the sacred-cow of one-game-at-a-time, we better be working on the Auburn package for the same two weeks Auburn is preparing for us. If not longer.
In any event, we are due.
And if we do beat Auburn, and the conventional wisdom holds, we might just have decided who won the East and the West.