- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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Sometimes you can see the matchups coming. In college football, every so often you know when the big games, the ones that will determine conference and national championships, will be. In the SEC, we're only halfway through the season and already we can look ahead to two key games that should determine who travels to Atlanta to compete for the conference championship:
What’s at stake: In a word, "everything," seeing as the winner of these two games will likely represent their divisions in the SEC title game. Whether it's Florida or Georgia from the East or LSU or Alabama out of the West, the two teams that make it to Atlanta will be playing for not just a conference title come December, but likely a shot at the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif., as well. All four teams are currently ranked in the Top 25, with only top-ranked Alabama remaining undefeated. But one loss (so long as it doesn't come in the Georgia Dome) won't keep an SEC team out of the national title picture, as seven consecutive seasons with an SEC team hoisting the crystal football can attest.
Roadblocks/derailment opportunities: Alabama needs only to avoid the proverbial banana peel in the road with three more games against unranked opponents (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee) and a bye week before it hosts LSU. Star safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and starting center Ryan Kelly should be back with the Tide by then, and an extra week to rest and prepare always helps. But for LSU, the road to Tuscaloosa, Ala., is not so simple, as it must first deal with No. 6 Florida at home on Saturday and then a trip to Ole Miss the following week. The way LSU's defense has played of late, neither game seems like a cinch victory.
Obviously, Florida's biggest obstacle is this weekend as well. The Gators are still breaking in a young, inexperienced quarterback in Tyler Murphy, and while the defense has played well, it has not faced an offense like LSU's yet. Past LSU, Florida will go on the road to face a surprisingly unbeaten Missouri team that has momentum squarely on its side. Georgia, though, will get Missouri first this weekend. And after the litany of injuries the Bulldogs have experienced in recent weeks, it will be a wonder if Mark Richt's team can hobble its way to Jacksonville without another loss.
How it unfolds: There's no easy way to determine how the Georgia-Florida game will go, as both teams have serious concerns to address in the short term before they make it to Week 9. The Bulldogs aren't getting many of their injured stars back until next season, and the Gators are stuck with Murphy and an inconsistent offense for the foreseeable future. On the one hand, Florida seems like a precarious contender after losing to Miami, but at the same time those Gators beat Tennessee by two touchdowns. Georgia, meanwhile, needed overtime to edge out the Vols by 3 points.
Like their counterparts in the East, neither Alabama nor LSU are without their fair share of flaws. The Tide has been inconsistent thus far, failing to put together a truly complete game until this past weekend against lowly Georgia State. The passing game has shown flashes, but the rebuilt offensive line has been disappointing at times. And LSU, which struggled to score points in recent years, is suddenly an offensive powerhouse. But an up-and-down defense, one that allowed nearly 500 total yards to Mississippi State this past weekend, needs work. With the game at home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama likely will be favored, but the way this series has unfolded in recent years we're likely looking at a toss-up.