LITTLE ROCK — The first year of the 14-team SEC might have spoiled the upper-tier bowls with ties to the league.
A year ago, the Southeastern Conference produced six teams with 10 regular-season victories or more and the non-BCS sites must have been giddy with Georgia (Capital One), Texas A&M (Cotton), South Carolina (Outback) and LSU (Chick-Fil-A).
This year, three is my over-under on the number of SEC teams with 10 or more Ws. Still mathematically eligible to get to double digits are Alabama (9-0), Missouri (9-1) Auburn (9-1), A&M (8-2) and South Carolina (7-2).
Alabama will probably win all 12, but I like South Carolina and Missouri as next most likely to reach 10.
For the Gamecocks, that means sweeping their last three, including once-beaten Clemson in the season finale. Missouri must defeat Ole Miss or outscore Texas A&M to get to 10 and after seeing the Rebels against Arkansas, I like the Tigers’ chances in Oxford. Ole Miss could not run on Arkansas and Bo Wallace is not as good a passer as his 26-of-33 for 407 yards indicates.
Auburn has Georgia and Alabama and could lose both. A&M must win road games vs. LSU and Missouri and the game in Baton Rouge probably depends on whether the guys in purple and gold shake the Alabama-induced hangover. In LSU’s favor is an extra week to forget.
The upshot is that the Sugar Bowl must be quietly rooting for A&M or Missouri to win out and that some 9-3 teams will be high in the pecking order when the bowl picture comes together.
Teams that finish in the top four in the BCS are guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl — 11-1 Florida was in New Orleans last year because of that rule — but it appears Alabama will be the only SEC team in the top four this year since No. 2 Florida State, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Stanford are expected to win out.
If Alabama goes to Pasadena, the Sugar Bowl will have a priority pick of an at-large team since the SEC champion would be unavailable. In most cases, the Sugar would go for an SEC team. The options could include 10-2 Missouri coming off a season-ending loss, 9-3 A&M with a late-season loss, 9-3 LSU on a two-game winning streak, 10-3 South Carolina badly beaten in Atlanta, 9-3 Auburn with two straight losses and 9-3 Georgia on a five-game winning streak.
Once the Sugar Bowl decides, the Capital One Bowl will choose. After that, the Cotton Bowl has first choice of teams from the Western Division and the Outback is to prefer an Eastern Division representative.
Assuming Alabama gets the opportunity to win its third national championship in four years, the SEC is unlikely to be able to fulfill ties with 10 other bowls. The final selection belongs to Shreveport which had hoped to match the SEC against the Atlantic Coast Conference on Dec. 31.
Ole Miss 34, Arkansas 24 made the Rebels the SEC’s eighth bowl-eligible team and officially eliminated the Razorbacks. Tennessee, Florida, and Mississippi State each need two more Ws and it’s 50-50 whether any of them succeed.
Tennessee’s task includes a must-win over in-state rival Vanderbilt. The biggest disappointment in the SEC, Florida is up against it with South Carolina and Florida State. With Alabama this week, the Bulldogs will have to defeat Arkansas in Little Rock and Ole Miss the next week. Strange as this sounds, Arkansas will be in a good spot to record its first SEC victory since the Bulldogs will have lost three in a row and the Razorbacks will have had an extra week to talk up pride and determine more ways to get the ball to Korliss Marshall.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.