Connor Shaw #14 of the South Carolina Gamecocks reacts after making a first down against the Vanderbilt Commodores during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on September 14, 2013 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
By Dan Wolken, USA TODAY Sports
Even before a four-team playoff was conceived and approved, college football already had a de facto national semifinal. It was scheduled for the first Saturday in December every year in Atlanta.
At the halfway point in the final year of the BCS, however, the race to get to the Southeastern Conference championship game is wide open, with three teams from the West and four from the East very much in contention to play for the league title. And depending on what combination of teams makes it, the SEC championship game could either serve as its usual automatic entry to the national title or be rendered meaningless in relation to the BCS championship game.
After winning seven consecutive crystal footballs, it seemed a perfect storm would be required to stop the SEC from taking No. 8. Well, some awful suspicious-looking clouds are starting to form just off the horizon.
As things stand today, the only way an SEC title game would automatically put the winner in Pasadena, Calif., for the national championship would be if undefeated Alabama faced undefeated Missouri. Any other combination of teams and you could have the SEC's disaster scenario developing at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 7.
"I'm not going to get too much into it with the guys, but we'll see how the dust is settling (in a few weeks)," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "There's no doubt it's tight. It might be who can handle adversity the best, who can figure out a way."
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When the BCS was formulated in the late 1990s, the consensus was that the SEC's depth would serve as a disadvantage in the national title race because the contenders would knock each other off while teams with less-imposing schedules would cruise to the top of the standings.
It hasn't worked out that way. While the SEC has indeed been very good at the top most years, tiers have typically formed to separate the true contenders from everyone else. And more often than not, the SEC has been the beneficiary of parity in other conferences. Perhaps the best example was 2007 when we were on track for a Missouri-West Virginia national championship game until Oklahoma upset the Tigers in the Big 12 title game and the Mountaineers lost at home to Pittsburgh, clearing the way for LSU to sneak in with two losses and beat Ohio State.
This year, though, the tables could very well turn on the SEC, which seems to have a cluster of closely-matched teams below Alabama. And if the Crimson Tide happen to lose Nov. 9 to No. 8 LSU, they probably won't get to Atlanta at all.
Though recent history would suggest the SEC's place in the national championship game is a foregone conclusion, 2007 wasn't the only year it has needed things to break exactly right. In 2006, Florida needed Southern California to lose the season finale to unranked UCLA to get into the championship game. Even last year, if Ohio State hadn't been ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA violations, the unbeaten Buckeyes would have played Notre Dame for the BCS title, shutting out eventual national champion Alabama.
Things might not work out so neatly for the SEC if Alabama happens to lose and fall short of Atlanta this year. At 6-0, No. 2-ranked Oregon has never looked stronger. No. 3 Ohio State looks flawed in some ways, but the Buckeyes are running out of true tests. The winner Saturday between No. 4 Clemson and No. 5 Florida State will be in excellent shape the rest of the way. Even Louisville - a fringe contender, at best - seems to be benefiting from poll inertia, moving up to No. 6 in the USA TODAY Coaches Poll despite its schedule and unimpressive performance last week against Rutgers. Currently, Louisville is ahead of Texas A&M and LSU. Would voters keep either of those teams behind the unbeaten Cardinals even if they won the SEC?
Meanwhile, the SEC East is going to put a capable-but-flawed team into the league title game no matter what. No. 14 Missouri is 6-0 and could come close to wrapping up the division with wins at home over Florida and South Carolina the next two weeks, but quarterback James Franklin is out - perhaps for awhile - with a separated shoulder. Georgia is certainly capable of rallying to the finish, representing the East and winning the SEC, but with two losses, the Bulldogs are not national title contenders. Florida also has two losses and the toughest remaining schedule, so the Gators are the longest shot to make it to Atlanta.
Perhaps the most interesting contender is South Carolina, whose season has nearly come off the rails multiple times. But even if the Gamecocks sweep the board, they'd probably need Georgia and Missouri to lose one more time to win the East
"We've mentioned just briefly that we're still in the hunt for whatever we're in, until we're not," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "We know we have a chance if we play pretty close to how we played last week."
If one-loss South Carolina or two-loss Georgia ended up playing one-loss LSU in the SEC championship game, the SEC would probably once again be in need of major help on championship weekend to get to the BCS title game.
Things have broken the SEC's way plenty of times before, but with so many teams still in the race at the halfway point, the path to an eighth consecutive crystal football is as cluttered as ever.