Blame Alabama, Tennessee, and the inferiority of the SEC’s Eastern Division if the Sugar Bowl is stuck with a three-loss SEC representative for the first time since LSU played on Jan. 1, 2002.
The team in Tuscaloosa is a league of its own, the group in Knoxville is a disappointment, and the Eastern Division leader didn’t threaten Arkansas during a visit to Fayetteville, making it likely teams from the East will be 1-13 vs. the West.
As a result, the SEC’s bowl participation is scrambled and Arkansas is among several teams with a three-week window of opportunity.
After Arkansas embarrassed Florida in every way possible, a 9-3 record — unthinkable following 56-3 at Auburn — is doable and would make the Razorbacks a viable choice for something as prized as the No. 3 bowl game in the SEC.
Only four SEC teams have two losses or less and each has at least one difficult assignment, including games against each other. Beginning with Arkansas on Saturday, LSU holds the key to the puzzle.
If the Tigers have anything in the tank after a draining effort in a 10-0 loss to Alabama and win out, they will take down A&M and Florida and affect the Razorbacks’ bowl destination.
From the top down, the schedule:
—Alabama, 9-0, plays Mississippi State, Chattanooga, and Auburn.
—Auburn, 7-2, plays at Georgia, Alabama A&M, and at Alabama.
—Texas A&M, 7-2, plays Ole Miss, Texas-San Antonio, and LSU.
—Florida, 6-2, plays South Carolina, LSU, and at Florida State.
Most likely, the Crimson Tide will remain perfect by beating Auburn and be the only SEC team with less than three losses in the regular season. A&M’s chances of 10-2 improve if quarterback Trevor Knight, who left the Mississippi State game with his right shoulder in a sling, is available. Lacking big-play capability, Florida can lose any Saturday.
Only something weird, like Florida losing one or two and then winning in Atlanta, could keep the SEC champion out of the College Football Playoff. Once the best team in Alabama qualifies for the CFP, the next highest team in the Selection Committee rankings will represent the league in New Orleans. When the rankings are revealed tonight, A&M may be outside the Top 10, Florida could be gone from the Top 20 and Auburn should advance one spot to No. 8.
If the Tigers win their next two and are competitive vs. Alabama, only a 10-win A&M will keep them out of New Orleans. If Auburn wins in Tuscaloosa, Alabama would “fall” to the Sugar Bowl.
Once the top two SEC teams are accommodated, the Citrus has first choice and the spot in Orlando is truly up for grabs. The SEC rep could be LSU, A&M, Auburn, and, even Tennessee or Arkansas — both 6-3 and capable of winning out. Florida is also in the mix, but the Gators were in Orlando last year.
Although Arkansas figures to be favored in the last two games, the Razorbacks will not dominate another opponent the way they did Florida. The 31-10 victory produced a slew of telling stats, none more surprising than Florida converting 1-of-11 third downs against a defense that was 124th stopping opponents on third down. Undoubtedly, Arkansas’ defense benefitted from personnel changes.
After the Citrus chooses, the conference office matches league teams with bowls in Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, Fla., Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C. and Houston. The SEC considers the six bowls to be on equal footing and there is no significant difference in the payout per team.
A week ago, the Razorbacks’ most likely destinations were believed to be Nashville or Charlotte, but all bets are off.
Although proximity to the bowl site is in play, Arkansas is unlikely to play in Memphis or Houston considering the selection process includes “variations of assignments to help prevent repetitive postseason destinations.”
Arkansas beat Kansas State in Memphis last year and defeated Texas in Houston a year earlier.
Harry King is sports columnist for GateHouse Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org