- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- As the red and black confetti floated to the Superdome turf early Wednesday morning, Georgia senior defensive end Marcus Howard said what the rest of the SEC has been spouting for years.
"The SEC is the best conference in the nation," Howard said. "You see all these teams winning bowl games. If you want to play the best football, come to the SEC."
Of course, there was one qualifier.
Howard's not convinced the right SEC team will be playing in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game on Monday night. He still believes Georgia was more deserving than LSU and points to the Bulldogs' 41-10 dismantling of Hawaii in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and their seven-game winning streak to end the season as proof.
"We're the hottest team, and I feel we're the best team in the country," said Howard, who earned Sugar Bowl Most Outstanding Player honors after sacking Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan three times.
But the reality is that the Bulldogs' total body of work this season didn't set them apart, which raises another question: Does anything we've seen thus far by the SEC or the Big Ten provide any clues as to what might happen Monday night in New Orleans?
It's always a dangerous thing to compare scores, and doing it this season is pure lunacy.
This much we know: The SEC is 6-2 to this point in bowl games, and the Big Ten is 3-4. There have been two head-to-head matchups. Tennessee beat Wisconsin 21-17 in the Outback Bowl, while Michigan pulled off the biggest upset of the bowl season with a 41-35 win over Florida and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow in the Capital One Bowl.
And that's where the fun starts.
The Wolverines were one of the biggest disappointments in college football this season. Their stunning 34-32 loss to eventual Division I-AA national champion Appalachian State to open the season ranks as one of the biggest upsets in history.
Who knew 40-point underdog Stanford would shock Southern Cal a few weeks later?
Michigan was also blown out at home by Oregon a week after the Appalachian State fiasco, but seemed to regroup. The Wolverines managed to win at Illinois, only to be spanked by Wisconsin.
But with more than a month to get healthy -- and wanting desperately to send retiring coach Lloyd Carr out the right way -- Michigan saved its best performance for the bowl game and shredded the Gators' defense.
That performance could be a little unnerving for LSU, which was vulnerable defensively in the second half of the season. Remember, the Tigers gave up 50 points to unranked Arkansas in a triple-overtime loss at home on Nov. 23, seemingly killing their national championship hopes.
But miraculously, the computer chips in the final BCS standings all fell LSU's way. West Virginia lost to Pittsburgh. Missouri lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game, and LSU survived a scare against Tennessee in the SEC championship game.
So much for the theory that you can't lose late and still play for the national title in the current system.
Not only did the Tigers lose late, but they lost in the next-to-last weekend of the season (to an unranked team at home, no less) and still were able to claim one of the top two spots in the final standings. But then, Ohio State lost to Illinois only two weeks earlier -- again at home.
It's the same Illinois team that was pounded by Southern Cal 49-17 in the Rose Bowl presented by Citi. And afterward, Illinois coach Ron Zook didn't mince words about what such a weak performance meant for the Big Ten.
"There's no doubt in my mind the Big Ten Conference can compete with anybody. I can say that, but we have to do it," said Zook, who's spent the bulk of his coaching career in the SEC as an assistant at Tennessee and Florida, and as a head coach at Florida in 2002-04.
Naturally, the SEC apologists will point to Ohio State's 0-8 record against SEC teams in bowl games as a sure sign the Buckeyes are in trouble.
Their list of victims is not exactly a who's who, either, especially the Ohio "gauntlet" of Youngstown State, Akron and Kent State.
Along those lines, though, how do you explain LSU's losing to both Arkansas and Kentucky? The Razorbacks turned around and were hammered by Missouri 38-7 in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
And if Georgia thinks it has a gripe with the BCS, the Bulldogs might want to check with the folks from Mizzou. The Tigers went from being No. 1 in the BCS standings the final weekend of the season to being left out of the BCS bowls.
The constant in all this may be Ohio State's defense. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 1 nationally in both scoring and total defense and held the Wolverines to 91 total yards and three points in Ann Arbor in the final regular-season game.
That same Michigan team put up 41 points against Florida on Tuesday and lost two fumbles at the goal line, or it could easily have had 50-plus points.
And back to Georgia for a minute. The Bulldogs trailed Tennessee 28-0 before getting drilled 35-14 and didn't even win their division in the SEC. And, yes, that's the same Tennessee team that was humiliated by 39 points by Florida and 24 points by Alabama and then beat Wisconsin in the bowl game, the same Wisconsin team that lost to Illinois and beat Michigan.
What's all this mean?
Maybe Appalachian State deserves a shot.
Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
6hAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna