Column: Irish smiling, but SEC eyes another title
(Eds: Updates throughout with Notre Dame beating USC. AP Sports Columnist Tim Dahlberg is on vacation. This is a replacement column. With AP Photos.)
By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP National Writer
ATHENS, Ga. -- Thanks, Notre Dame.
At least we don't have to endure another All-SEC matchup for the BCS championship.
But the conference everyone outside the South loves to hate staked out its usual place in the championship hierarchy on Super Saturday, a coast-to-coast buffet of college football's greatest rivalries.
Either Alabama or Georgia will be playing for No. 1.
The Southeastern Conference has already won an unprecedented six straight national championships, and here's betting the Crimson Tide or the Bulldogs will make it seven in a row on Jan. 7 in Miami.
Nothing against top-ranked Notre Dame, the best story in college football all season. The Fighting Irish (12-0) wrapped up their first perfect regular season since 1988 with a 22-13 victory over Southern California, leaving no doubt they have stifling defense and tremendous heart. Plus, they deserve bonus points for handing Trojans coach Lane Kiffin another loss, the perfect capper to his season-long plunge from No. 1 to irrelevance, with a few deflated footballs along the way.
All hail the Irish.
They deserve it.
"We're not done yet," Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson said. "We've got to keep going."
Not so fast. It will be a month and a half before the champion is crowned, a ridiculously long wait in a sport where players are used to taking the field in tidy, one-week intervals. Offenses, which rely so heavily on timing and communication, tend to suffer more from these long delays, so points will be hard to come by in South Florida.
That levels the playing just a bit, since all three of the title contenders have top-shelf defenses.
Still, Alabama and Georgia both have more weapons offensively, which is why either team should have an edge on the Irish, no matter which one emerges as the winner in next Saturday's SEC championship game.
The only thing that didn't go the SEC's way on rivalry day was Notre Dame beating USC. Without the Irish gutting out another win, we very well could've had a repeat of an SEC game doubling as the title game, with Florida hoping to follow the Alabama Plan, Version 2.011.
A year ago, the Tide team didn't even win its division but got a do-over against LSU for the national title. Alabama romped in the rematch, 21-0.
From the rest of the nation, a giant yawn.
This time, the Tide cruised into the SEC championship game on a high after thumping Auburn 49-0 in the Mismatch Bowl (sorry, the Iron Bowl moniker just doesn't fit at the moment), surely bringing the Gene Chizik era to an inglorious end a mere two years after he guided the Tigers to a national championship.
Georgia will be waiting in Atlanta as the East Division winner for the second year in a row, finishing off its regular season with a 42-10 blowout of Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs are our Comeback Team of the Year, somehow finding a way to get back in the mix after taking a four-touchdown whipping at South Carolina.
"Keep up the good work," Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal told the Bulldogs after presenting a trophy for their big win over the Yellow Jackets. "We're looking for a national championship."
So was Florida, which was fourth in the BCS standings a week ago. The Gators did nothing to hurt their position, stunning Florida State with a 24-point outburst in the fourth quarter on the way to a 37-26 victory. As soon as that one ended, coach Will Muschamp and his players headed off to root for the Trojans, hoping they could take down the Irish.
It wasn't to be. Notre Dame clinched the win with a brilliant goal-line stand, stuffing the Trojans after they had first-and-goal at the 1.
Oregon was the only other team with a shot, and the Ducks took care of business with an impressive 48-24 win over Oregon State in that state's version of the Civil War. But they're all done, too. Heck, the Ducks didn't even make the Pac-12 title game; Stanford locked up the spot with a victory over UCLA.
Hard to believe, but the SEC seemed down and out just a few weeks ago. Alabama was knocked off by conference newcomer Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa, leaving three non-SEC teams -- Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame -- in the lead positions.
Three-fourths of the nation rejoiced.
Its long, Dixie-induced nightmare seemed over.
Of course, everything flipped again seven days later.
Oregon lost. Kansas State lost. Just like that, Alabama and Georgia were right back in the prime positions.
The Tide and the Bulldogs closed the deal Saturday against overmatched opponents, proving once again the SEC has, if nothing else, an impeccable sense of timing. Outside of Notre Dame, every team in the mix had one loss. But Oregon and Kansas State lost last, so they get shortchanged.
Ohio State might have messed things up, finishing off a 12-0 debut season for coach Urban Meyer with a victory over Michigan. But the Buckeyes are on NCAA probation because of Tattoo-gate, the championship dreams pushed off into the future by some shady ink. They look like the sort of program that can challenge the SEC's dominance, but not this year.
Maybe the new four-team playoff will stir things up a bit. Surely, it can't hurt, because the SEC clearly has this system all figured out.
"I knew the way the SEC works," Georgia defensive back Sanders Commings said, savoring his team's position in the locker room beneath Sanford Stadium. "I knew we could beat everybody else on our schedule. I was like, `Man, we've just got to win out."
There will be those who say the SEC is living on its reputation, that the league isn't nearly as strong from top-to-bottom this season as it's been in other years. That's a pretty compelling argument, too. Neither Auburn nor Kentucky won an SEC game. Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas are looking for new coaches, and Auburn will surely be joining the list of schools with a vacancy.
But, for those at the top, there's another chance to play for a national title.
For the rest of the nation, that playoff system can't get here fast enough.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org and www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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