Senior College Football Columnist

Georgia-Alabama clash proves one loss not a killer -- if you're in SEC


Will Muschamp leads UF to a one-loss season, but it is not enough to make the SEC title game. (US Presswire)  
Will Muschamp leads UF to a one-loss season, but it is not enough to make the SEC title game. (US Presswire)  

ATLANTA -- This place at this time forces you to choose.

Would you believe the defending national champion is here in the Georgia Dome for the SEC title game? (Alabama, but without the kingly championship robes of 2011.) So is Georgia, for some reason or another. One problem: The SEC's best team might not be in attendance for Saturday's college Super Bowl of the Southeast.

That's what one loss will do to you in this league. Question your worth. That's what the SEC will do to you -- make you greedy.

"I can switch and go to Atlanta if he'd like," said Florida coach Will Muschamp earlier this week. That was his reaction to Nick Saban's contention that Saturday's SEC Championship Game should also go to a BCS bowl.

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"Be careful what you ask for Nick," said Muschamp, whose Gators beat three top-10 teams this year.

"Boom" isn't going to say it out loud but an outstanding case can be made for No. 4 Florida being here. Oregon and Kansas State, too. They're all one-loss teams That the Bulldogs and Tide have made it is a product their survival skills and a college football climate that has been conditioned to accept one-loss SEC teams as the best one-loss teams.

Just don't ask the survivors to explain it.

"Because the BCS voted us that way," Georgia coach Mark Richt concluded. "There's a formula and here we are."

Yes, but it's not a clear formula.

"Six [SEC] teams in the top 10," Saban said.

Three of which, from the SEC East, Alabama didn't have to play.

Same for Georgia, which didn't have to face the top three in the SEC West. The Gators aren't here because they lost head-to-head to Georgia, which had been embarrassed by South Carolina, which was embarrassed by Florida.

We can go on like this, but the point is this: The system rewards the rich and the football rich -- until further notice -- continue to gather here the first week of December to celebrate their richness.

Alabama somehow snuck through after losing at home for the second consecutive year in November. The Tide lost to No. 15 Texas A&M, helping to shape a Heisman frontrunner (Johnny Manziel). They haven't given up a point since then in a pair 49-0 wins over Western Carolina and Auburn.

Beats the heck out of last season when Alabama couldn't even claim an outright SEC West division title.

"I don't think there's any question it was a disappointment," Saban said. "When you don't get in this game, don't give yourself a chance to be successful, you don't give yourself a chance at your own self-determination. Somebody else has got to beat somebody else. If you're here ... if you have success, you control your destiny." Georgia lost so badly -- to currently 10th-ranked South Carolina -- that it would tie Oklahoma in 2003 for the worst loss by a BCS title game participant (28 points).

"Whether you're in this league or not, it's hard to get a team ready to go 12 times in a row ... ," Richt said. "When you lose one if feels like death." Since 2007, seven bowl-eligible teams from BCS league have finished the regular season undefeated. Three are from the SEC -- Alabama, 2009; Auburn, 2010, LSU, 2011. All three played for national championships. Two of them won.

The seventh, No. 1 Notre Dame, was barely mentioned here on Friday.

Since that same year, 22 teams from BCS leagues have finished with just one loss. Counting Saturday's winner, three from the SEC have played for a national championship -- more than any other league.

Alabama was deemed worthy of playing for it all last season because it had a "better" loss than No. 3 Oklahoma State. In 2008, Oklahoma won the controversial Big 12 South tiebreaker over Texas. The Sooners finished first in the BCS basically because they were allowed to play in the Big 12 title game. Texas finished third, percentage points behind No. 2 Florida.

The first week of December marks such high holy days in the South because five of the last six SEC title game winners have gone on to the win the national championship. The one time it didn't, last season, Alabama was that West outlier.

"You see it in players late in the season," Saban said of the A&M loss. "I saw it in our players when we played Texas A&M, that their personalities sort of changes from a competitive standpoint. Maybe it's feeling the pressure, I don't know. I saw it a little bit in games with some other highly ranked teams. When you become outcome-oriented you become tentative."

Saban compared it to running a 200-meter race to win instead of aiming for a standard, such as 19.3 seconds. Hey, whatever works when you're out of clichés?

Richt was just glad to have a second chance. He didn't have much of a postgame speech for the forlorn players staring back at him after the 35-7 loss to the Gamecocks on Oct. 6.

"I was thinking, 'What am I going to say now?' Richt said on Friday. "We just got beat badly. The bad news is that we got whipped pretty soundly. The good news is we got whipped together.' "

Safety Shawn Williams put a nice little bow on the situation by calling his defense "soft".

"You know, when I heard it I wasn't really that mad," Richt said. "I kind of grinned because I knew something was about to give here."

In hindsight, Georgia might have this season's "best" loss. Even though it was by four touchdowns, it was on the road and South Carolina was ranked sixth at the time. It was also 55 days ago, which helps. Memories of voters tend to wander.

The Dawgs had a bye week after the destruction. By the time they kicked off again, the Gamecocks had lost twice.

"We were already back in the driver's seat which is very rare, very unusual," Richt said.

Three weeks later, Georgia beat then-No. 2 Florida to completely rehab itself.

"We knew the rules of engagement at the beginning of the season. I'm not one that's going to sit there and complain about it," Muschamp said. "I'm not going to sit there and belly ache about the rules. They were set when the season started. I'm not going to sit there and complain about it. We should have won the game."

For the second consecutive season, Alabama has lost in November at home and remained in contention for the national championship. Following that 29-24 loss to the Aggies, Kansas State and Oregon cooperated by losing the next week.

Sometimes the answer to all this dominance is realizing a case of brand recognition --– Alabama > Kansas State -- and a calendar.

The last to lose among the contenders usually pay the price -- usually just in time for the college Super Bowl of the Southeast.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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