GO AHEAD, MAKE YOUR reservations for Atlanta and New Orleans. Despite one of the darkest weekends in recent memory for college football in the state, South Carolina and Clemson will rebound to win the SEC East and play in the Sugar Bowl, respectively.
As difficult as it might be for USC and Clemson fans, they must dismiss the losses to Tennessee and Florida State and look at the bigger picture: Both teams are in excellent position to complete outstanding seasons.
On the surface, it appears USC’s loss to an unranked Tennessee squad was most devastating. Yet, it was third-ranked Clemson’s humiliation at the hands of fifth-ranked Florida State that probably did the most damage.
Clemson has the great misfortune this season of playing in the same division as the best team in the league. The loss to Florida State not only knocked Clemson out of the national championship picture, but also virtually eliminated the Tigers from the Atlantic Division chase.
For Clemson to capture the division crown, it would have to win out and Florida State would have to lose two games. With remaining league games against N.C. State, Miami, Wake Forest and Syracuse, Florida State is not going to lose twice.
That does not mean the season is over for Clemson. The Tigers still have an excellent chance of running the table as they did before losing to Florida State. Clemson likely is to be the favorite in its remaining games against Maryland, Virginia, Georgia Tech, The Citadel and USC.
Florida State is likely to be playing in either the BCS National Championship Game or the Orange Bowl as the ACC champion. That would leave an 11-1 Clemson team as an attractive invite for the Sugar Bowl.
As for USC, all it lost in Knoxville was a chance at winning the national championship. Because the Gamecocks play in a balanced — OK, not great — division, actually remain in good position to capture the title. USC benefits from playing in a league where the best teams — Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn — all play in the SEC West.
A two-loss team will win the SEC East, and USC will be the only team with that number of conference defeats by the end of the regular season. If USC can get past Missouri this weekend, it will be favored in remaining conference games against Mississippi State and Florida. A sweep of those three games will leave USC 6-2 in the SEC.
A spate of injuries have rendered both Florida and Georgia shells of the teams that began the season. Both have two league losses and are likely to lose once more. Florida will lose to either Georgia or USC or both. Georgia will fall to either Florida or at Auburn or both.
So, it really comes down to USC and Missouri for the SEC East crown.
I believe in the up-and-down theory of college football. A team that is “up” one week usually is “down” the next and the other way around.
USC obviously had a down week against Tennessee and should be at the top of its game against Missouri, even if quarterback Connor Shaw is sidelined. Dylan Thompson is an able and experienced replacement and has proven he can lead USC against any competition.
Missouri has played at a high level in consecutive wins at Vanderbilt, at Georgia and at home against Florida. This is a team due for a letdown. Its dreams of an unbeaten season likely will be dashed Saturday.
All USC needs, besides winning its remaining conference games, is for Missouri to lose one of its last four. Missouri is more likely to lose at least half of its final four games against Tennessee, at Kentucky, at Mississippi and at home against Texas A&M.
That will leave USC alone atop the SEC East and headed to Atlanta to play in its second league championship game in the past four seasons.
As USC fans begin making reservations for their stay in Atlanta, Clemson fans will be eyeing a week on Bourbon Street in preparation for the Sugar Bowl. And that bleak Saturday back in mid-October will be a distant memory.