Don’t look now, but both Vanderbilt and Mississippi State enter this week’s games one victory away from bowl eligibility.
And yet a sense of impending doom is already hovering over both programs, which have scrapped and clawed to get into this position but might not receive the rewards.
Eleven of 12 Southeastern Conference teams currently have winning records, not surprising in what has been a chaotic season. Six wins ensure bowl eligibility, but it doesn’t promise an invitation.
The Southeastern Conference has automatic ties-in with eight bowl games. Do the math. Vanderbilt or Mississippi State or another school with six wins could simply be squeezed out in a numbers crunch.
If so, the SEC would look to find other bowls in which to place its teams. Only one bowl, the Poinsettia, has a designated at-large berth, and a six-win team can’t be picked over a seven-win team in an at-large situation.
Another option includes placing teams in bowls with tie-ins to conferences that don’t have enough bowl-eligible teams.
“We’ll do everything in our power to try to find a bowl opportunity for all those that meet the eligibility requirements,” said Mark Womack, the SEC’s associate commissioner who coordinates the league’s bowl relations.
Teams such as Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, if they reach six wins, can only hope and wait.
“It’s a little aggravating,” Commodores center Hamilton Holliday said. “We’ve always been told six wins gets you a bowl game. Now, all of a sudden, that may not be good enough. That’s the way it works. We understand that playing in this conference.”
Vanderbilt, 5-3, is seeking its first bowl appearance since 1982.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State has quietly become one of the SEC’s best stories and is fresh off a 31-14 win at previously 14th-ranked Kentucky last week. The 5-4 Bulldogs haven’t been bowling since 2000.
MIXED MESSAGE?: Calling his decision “inappropriate,” Georgia coach Mark Richt sent a letter of apology this week to SEC commissioner Mike Slive after the Bulldogs were flagged for a bench-clearing excessive celebration penalty in last Saturday’s game against Florida.
The entire Georgia team, at Richt’s orders, ran onto the field to celebrate after the team’s first touchdown in a 42-30 victory. Some have applauded Richt’s motivational ploy, while others have called it a classless.
“The people who are upset about this need to get over it,” former Auburn coach Terry Bowden told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “What Mark did was not a sin. Here is a guy who spends his vacation in South America taking care of poor people. He knows that this is just a game. The punishment for what he did is not going to hell; it’s a 15-yard penalty. Mark knows that.”
My take: Richt verbally scolded and shoved his players for dancing on the Vanderbilt Stadium logo Oct. 13 after the Bulldogs beat the Commodores. Was there at the least not a somewhat contradictory message being sent in light of last week’s incident?
FEEL THE HYPE: The national spotlight will burn down on Tuscaloosa on Saturday when No. 17 Alabama hosts No. 3 LSU.
Not only will the winner take the upper hand in the SEC Western Division race, the game marks the first time Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban will coach against LSU, which he left after the 2004 season and led to the 2003 national crown.
Of the 123 players on LSU’s roster, 30 were on the team under Saban in 2004. Seventeen of the 30 were in the starting lineup Oct. 20 for LSU’s 30-24 victory over Auburn.
In addition, 11 of LSU’s top 15 tacklers this season were recruited by Saban.
“I don’t take ownership for this at all, OK?” Saban said. “I think the players go to LSU because it’s LSU, OK? I just happened to be the coach there who was involved in recruiting them, working them —whatever you want to say — to try to work and develop a program that was good for the players and the state to come to and be proud of.”
FEELING SWAMPED: Florida’s banged-up defense is down to only three healthy defensive tackles heading into Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt: senior Clint McMillan, redshirt freshman Lawrence Marsh and true freshman Torrey Davis.
The situation is so dire that coach Urban Meyer said the Gators are considering the use of a three-man defensive front instead of their usual four-man scheme.
Florida lost starting tackle Javier Estopinan to a season-ending knee injury last week. Backup Terron Sanders will miss several weeks with an ankle injury. Brandon Antwine, a potential starter heading into the season, is out for the remainder of the year with a muscular condition in his lower back.
“The majority of our time spent is putting the puzzle together and the game plan together for the guys that will be able to play,” Meyer said.
SEC quick hitters: Ole Miss defensive end Greg Hardy said he’s unsure of his football future after being suspended for the rest of the season by coach Ed Orgeron for violating team rules. Hardy, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound sophomore, leads the SEC in tackles for a loss (15) and sacks (eight). … Kentucky starting safety Marcus McClinton is out for the rest of the regular season with a broken scapula. …Georgia last week dismissed forward Takias Brown from its basketball team for a violation of team policy. He led the Bulldogs in scoring last season at 14.8 points per game. …Former Vanderbilt women’s basketball player Katie Antony is giving up her senior season at LSU to focus on academics. She played two seasons for the Commodores before transferring in 2005. …Forty-one former SEC players were on opening-day NBA rosters this week. Florida and Kentucky top the list with 10 each.
Brett Hait covers Vanderbilt and the Southeastern Conference for The City Paper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .