The rubber-stamp nature of the 2011 SEC Championship game has been accepted since summer. The conventional wisdom has been correct to this point – the season was more or less a matter of seeing who of LSU or Alabama emerged and then which team from the East would serve as the sacrificial lamb in Atlanta. It’s no surprise then that this storyline continues on into championship week. CBSSports had a nice poll up last night asking whether LSU should rest its starters in the SEC Championship. Such is life when you’re a double-digit underdog in a championship game. Dawg fans are characteristically whining about respect and indignant about falling in the BCS standings, but that can all be taken care of this weekend.
By this point, we shouldn’t need anyone else’s validation. A ten-game winning streak against any schedule is impressive, and everyone in the Georgia camp has seen the improvement for themselves. They’ve pulled off wins against their top four rivals for the first time in nearly 20 years. I don’t really care in what state those programs are. There’s nothing about which to apologize or feel anything less than a sense of real accomplishment for the Georgia program.
Dawg fans are acutely aware of the schedule, and we’ve noted the possibilities opened up by such a schedule since it came out. Nothing new there. I’m fairly sure though that last year’s Georgia team would not have done as well against this schedule. Mississippi State and Auburn proved to be lesser than they were a year ago, but on whole this slate wasn’t much easier than the one that gave Georgia a losing record in 2010.
Same with the outcome of the SEC East. It played out pretty much as expected, only with Florida and Tennessee a little weaker and Vanderbilt a little stronger. If anything changed, it was the assumption that a relatively weaker division meant more margin for error for the team that emerged on top. Credit to South Carolina for keeping it together and producing a quality season by anyone’s standard. They survived the midseason loss of their starting quarterback and tailback and still won ten games, besting their rival and former national contender Clemson in impressive fashion.
South Carolina’s refusal to budge made Georgia’s job clear but tough: win. The Dawgs couldn’t afford to regress to 2010 quality even against the worst of their competition. They didn’t. Georgia and South Carolina both lost to the best SEC opponent they faced this year – Georgia to South Carolina and South Carolina to Arkansas. As both teams kept winning, their seasons and prospects in the SEC East came down to a single common opponent: Auburn.
As Saturday wound down, this was the question on my mind: was South Carolina’s 16-13 loss to Auburn the most shocking SEC regular season outcome in 2011? The Tigers lost to Alabama, LSU, Georgia, and Arkansas by a combined 170-45. None of those teams scored fewer than 38 points, none gave up more than 14 points, and none won by fewer than 24 points. South Carolina picked a bad time to have a poor game against a team that was a whipping boy for the rest of the top of the league. What’s more, they flopped at home and with Lattimore and Garcia in the lineup.
That Gamecock performance against Auburn is a good illustration why it’s so hard for any team to sustain winning over the course of a season. On any day, your starting quarterback can go 9-for-23, or your stout defense can give up 141 yards to a good tailback that didn’t manage but 67 YPG against the top four teams in the league. If Georgia had one of those games against, say, Florida, they were able to find a way to overcome it and still win. That’s why Georgia is representing the East this week, and they deserve to do so.