SEC Truth Meets SEC Perception

Lyn Scarbrough

October 07, 2013 at 12:16 pm.

Dak Prescott (15) and Mississippi State got tripped up again in SEC play. (Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports)

“There is no truth. There is only perception.” — Gustave Flaubert, French novelist

Truth can be a very harsh thing to accept, especially when it runs into perception.

That happened in several SEC stadiums on Saturday and in most cases, it was a jarring head-on collision. Truth was the winner. Some disappointed fan bases were the losers.

Start in Starkville.

It wasn’t that long ago that Mississippi State and head coach Dan Mullen were the darlings of college football. Could it really be just 11 games since the Bulldogs were 7-0, nationally ranked and heading into a game with Alabama, picked by some to pull the upset in Tuscaloosa? That came crashing down, 38-7, and not much good has happened since.

State closed out 2012 losing five of its last six games, the closest margin 14 points in a Gator Bowl loss to Northwestern. This season has been more of the same. The Dogs scored only a field goal against Oklahoma State and lost to supposed also-ran Auburn. Then, came Saturday at Davis-Wade Stadium. Trailing only 31-26 in the fourth quarter against LSU, State totally collapsed, losing the final stanza, 28-0, for the 59-26 margin. The home team led at one point, 23-21. From then on … LSU 38, Mississippi State 3.

In the last 11 games, State’s record is 3-8 and two of the wins were over Alcorn State and Troy. Sure, LSU has an outstanding team, but so does South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama, all still on the schedule. That leaves no wiggle room for other losses if the Dogs hope to play in the postseason.

The reality is that Mississippi State never was as close to the SEC hierarchy as last year’s 7-0 start caused fans to believe. If nobody realized it before the fourth quarter in Starkville on Saturday, they should now.

Before Ole Miss’ fans delight in their in-state archrival’s misfortune, move on to Auburn.

Ole Miss came into the Saturday night game in Jordan-Hare Stadium as a road favorite over the 2010 national champions. The Rebels defeated the Tigers in 2012 in Oxford and hadn’t beaten Auburn in consecutive seasons in 60 years. They still haven’t.

Auburn won the game, 30-22, using a powerful running game and a defense which had six sacks, two interceptions and a dominating front wall when Ole Miss tried to mount a fourth quarter comeback.

Since late 2012, perception had been that the Rebels had turned the corner toward at least the top tier of the Western Division. Fans were euphoric heading into 2013. But, what supported that perception?

For sure, Ole Miss improved last season, but that’s not too difficult coming off back-to-back 4-8 and 2-10 campaigns. The 2012 record was 7-6, but that included exactly one win over a team with a winning record (see Mississippi State above).

The Rebels were picked as high as third in the SEC West, and won its first three games, including a last minute come-from-behind victory over Vanderbilt (see below) and a then-impressive win over what appears to be the worst Texas team in decades.

Next came two of the traditional Western Division powers, the past two national champions. Two games, two losses. Ahead for the next two weeks – Texas A&M and LSU, both in Oxford. The Rebels could still win both games, but don’t count on it. The rest of the schedule is much easier, so a winning season and postseason bowl remains likely.

But that perception is a memory now in Oxford. Ole Miss still has a way to go before reaching the SEC’s upper level.

Despite the win, Auburn fans don’t need to go overboard about the season yet, either. The 4-1 record is better than experts had predicted and the showing against LSU in Baton Rouge was strong. Perception is that the Tigers are much improved, and that is probably true. But, they still have major defensive shortcomings and injuries continue to play a significant role.

Mark your calendars, Tiger fans. That could be reality ahead at Kyle Field on October 19. And, there are other tough Saturdays to follow.

On to Nashville.

Talk about delusional optimism and media darling status, welcome to Vanderbilt. That happens when your team has its first nine-win season since 1915 and won only its second bowl game since 1955. The team posted its longest consecutive win streak since 1948. And, don’t forget, the Commodores massacred downtrodden archrival Tennessee, 41-18, for their largest margin of victory in the series since 1954.

That’s how euphoria is created. Saturday night in Nashville is how it’s killed.

Undefeated Missouri came to Vanderbilt Stadium. The Tigers were picked in preseason as sixth in the Eastern Division. The ‘Dores were predicted to be fourth and play in a bowl game for the third consecutive season for the first time in its history.

Cold water was thrown on expectations in the opening game against Ole Miss (see above), a gut-wrenching last-minute loss after Vanderbilt thought it had won the game with its own late touchdown. A loss to nationally ranked South Carolina was respectable, but a shaky win over UMass waved a red flag.

It was more like a white flag against Missouri. While Vandy certainly didn’t quit, they almost didn’t get started. The visitors led 20-0 before the Commodores finally scored 20 minutes into the game. The 30-7 halftime margin was more than the Tigers needed in the 51-28 drubbing. With a 3-3 record, and with games ahead against Georgia in two weeks, then at College Station and at Gainesville, Vanderbilt has no room for another loss if wanting to qualify for the postseason.

While head coach James Franklin has upgraded the talent level, and increased fan enthusiasm and expectations, the harsh truth remains that Vandy is still Vandy, at least as it compares to the top-tier teams in the conference.

But, Missouri fans, like those other Tiger fans in Alabama, shouldn’t celebrate too quickly either. The team is 5-0, the only undefeated team in the Eastern Division, has matched last year’s win total, and entered the Top 25 this week. With Kentucky still ahead, a bowl invitation is possible, if not likely. But is there a sure win in the other remaining games … at Georgia on Saturday, followed by Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Texas A&M? Beware the fast-start pitfall (see Mississippi State above). That could be reality waiting for you between the hedges in Athens on Saturday, and it could follow you to several other stadiums in October and November.