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Column: Irish smiling, but SEC eyes another title

Sunday - 11/25/2012, 12:47am  ET

By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP National Writer

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - Thanks, Notre Dame.

At least we don't have to endure another All-SEC matchup for the BCS championship.

But the conference everyone outside the South loves to hate staked out its usual place in the championship hierarchy on Super Saturday, a coast-to-coast buffet of college football's greatest rivalries.

Either Alabama or Georgia will be playing for No. 1.

Sound familiar?

The Southeastern Conference has already won an unprecedented six straight national championships, and here's betting the Crimson Tide or the Bulldogs will make it seven in a row on Jan. 7 in Miami.

Nothing against top-ranked Notre Dame, the best story in college football all season. The Fighting Irish (12-0) wrapped up their first perfect regular season since 1988 with a 22-13 victory over Southern California, leaving no doubt they have stifling defense and tremendous heart. Plus, they deserve bonus points for handing Trojans coach Lane Kiffin another loss, the perfect capper to his season-long plunge from No. 1 to irrelevance, with a few deflated footballs along the way.

All hail the Irish.

They deserve it.

For now.

"We're not done yet," Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson said. "We've got to keep going."

Not so fast. It will be a month and a half before the champion is crowned, a ridiculously long wait in a sport where players are used to taking the field in tidy, one-week intervals. Offenses, which rely so heavily on timing and communication, tend to suffer more from these long delays, so points will be hard to come by in South Florida.

That levels the playing just a bit, since all three of the title contenders have top-shelf defenses.

Still, Alabama and Georgia both have more weapons offensively, which is why either team should have an edge on the Irish, no matter which one emerges as the winner in next Saturday's SEC championship game.

The only thing that didn't go the SEC's way on rivalry day was Notre Dame beating USC. Without the Irish gutting out another win, we very well could've had a repeat of an SEC game doubling as the title game, with Florida hoping to follow the Alabama Plan, Version 2.011.

A year ago, the Tide team didn't even win its division but got a do-over against LSU for the national title. Alabama romped in the rematch, 21-0.

From the rest of the nation, a giant yawn.

This time, the Tide cruised into the SEC championship game on a high after thumping Auburn 49-0 in the Mismatch Bowl (sorry, the Iron Bowl moniker just doesn't fit at the moment), surely bringing the Gene Chizik era to an inglorious end a mere two years after he guided the Tigers to a national championship.

Georgia will be waiting in Atlanta as the East Division winner for the second year in a row, finishing off its regular season with a 42-10 blowout of Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs are our Comeback Team of the Year, somehow finding a way to get back in the mix after taking a four-touchdown whipping at South Carolina.

"Keep up the good work," Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal told the Bulldogs after presenting a trophy for their big win over the Yellow Jackets. "We're looking for a national championship."

So was Florida, which was fourth in the BCS standings a week ago. The Gators did nothing to hurt their position, stunning Florida State with a 24-point outburst in the fourth quarter on the way to a 37-26 victory. As soon as that one ended, coach Will Muschamp and his players headed off to root for the Trojans, hoping they could take down the Irish.

It wasn't to be. Notre Dame clinched the win with a brilliant goal-line stand, stuffing the Trojans after they had first-and-goal at the 1.

Oregon was the only other team with a shot, and the Ducks took care of business with an impressive 48-24 win over Oregon State in that state's version of the Civil War. But they're all done, too. Heck, the Ducks didn't even make the Pac-12 title game; Stanford locked up the spot with a victory over UCLA.

Hard to believe, but the SEC seemed down and out just a few weeks ago. Alabama was knocked off by conference newcomer Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa, leaving three non-SEC teams _ Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame _ in the lead positions.

Three-fourths of the nation rejoiced.

Its long, Dixie-induced nightmare seemed over.

Of course, everything flipped again seven days later.

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