- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Here’s a look at what we learned in the SEC during the final week of the regular season:
1. Alabama, LSU stand supreme: The regular season has come and gone, and Alabama and LSU are exactly what we thought they were. They’re the two best college football teams in the country, and it’s really not even close. Hey, it’s still college football, and upsets are possible. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see one Saturday in Atlanta in the SEC championship game when Georgia takes its shot at LSU. But over the course of this season, when you weigh everything, Alabama and LSU stand alone. And really, it should be LSU and Alabama, in that order. The Tigers are No. 1 for a reason. As coach Les Miles said Friday after LSU's 41-17 win against Arkansas, they’ve taken on all comers, beating seven nationally ranked teams along the way, including three top-3 teams. In a lot of different ways, they’re chasing history. There’s been a lot of chatter around the country about not wanting to see a rematch in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, and generally, I would agree. Rematches are never ideal. But when it comes to these two teams, and when you consider that nobody else around the country has exactly knocked the door down to secure one of those top two spots in the final BCS standings, a rematch makes perfect sense. The SEC haters won’t like it, because it ensures a sixth straight national title for the league. But if it’s truly about pairing the two best teams in the country in the national title game, then the Big Easy had better get ready. Alabama and LSU are on their way.
2. Richardson is Heisman worthy: Alabama coach Nick Saban was straight to the point Saturday, which he usually is. “To me, Trent Richardson is the best football player in the country,” Saban said following Richardson’s career-best 203-yard rushing performance against Auburn. Everybody has different criteria in voting for the Heisman Trophy. But if you’re looking for the player who’s consistently been the most dominant player in the country and has consistently done it on the biggest stages, then Richardson will walk away next month from New York City as the second Heisman Trophy winner in Alabama history. He’s been a difference-maker for the Crimson Tide all season long, and while everybody likes to knock the offenses in the SEC, he’s done his work against some of the best defenses in the land. Richardson has piled up his 1,583 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns against eight top-50 defenses nationally. Entering the final weekend of the regular season, no other Heisman Trophy contender had faced more than four top-50 defenses.
3. Arkansas falls short: The Hogs have come miles under Bobby Petrino in four seasons and are clearly in that upper echelon of SEC teams. It’s equally clear that they’re not in the same league as Alabama and LSU. Then again, who is? Arkansas has made some strides defensively, but still has to make a lot more to play at the same level as Alabama and LSU. The Hogs were no match for the Tigers’ bruising running game Friday and simply couldn’t get off the field in the second half. And before everybody blames it all on Willy Robinson and the defense, it does the Hogs no good to roll up 450 and 500 yards on everybody else and then shoot blanks offensively against Alabama and LSU. The Hogs finished with 254 yards against LSU and only 226 against Alabama. They managed just three offensive touchdowns against Alabama and LSU, and they also broke down in special teams against both of the West powerhouses. What’s so frustrating about that for the Hogs is that they were very good all season in the kicking game. But they gave up two punt returns for touchdowns -- one to Alabama and one to LSU. Arkansas is a top-10 to top-15 program right now, no doubt. But to take that next step, the Hogs are going to have to figure out a way to play their A-game in the biggest games.
4. Georgia is coming: Not only are the Bulldogs riding a 10-game winning streak and playing their best football heading into Saturday’s SEC championship game matchup with LSU, but this is a program that should be able to ride that momentum into next season. Most of the key pieces on offense and defense will be back, and the Bulldogs will likely start next season as the team to beat in the Eastern Division and could be a top-10 team nationally in the preseason. Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones says he’s coming back. Top inside linebacker Alec Ogletree will be back, not to mention quarterback Aaron Murray, who’s thrown 32 touchdown passes this season. Running back Isaiah Crowell and receiver Malcolm Mitchell are just freshmen, and the Bulldogs continue to recruit at a very high level. For a program that was supposedly reeling back in September, the future looks bright.
5. More bowls than eligible teams: The SEC won’t be able to fill all of its bowl obligations this season. Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tennessee all finished with losing records and will be staying home in the postseason. So at this point, it looks like the BBVA Compass Bowl won’t have an SEC representative. It hasn’t been a memorable season for the bottom half of the league. In fact, six teams finished the regular season with non-winning records. In addition to the three teams with losing records, Florida, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are all 6-6. It’s the Gators’ worst regular-season record since 1987. First-year coach Will Muschamp didn’t pull any punches following the 21-7 loss to Florida State. He called the program “soft” and said the Gators were not physically or mentally tough enough. Tennessee, once an Eastern Division heavyweight along with Florida, finished with its second straight losing season, the first time that's happened on Rocky Top since 1910 and 1911.
4dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough