First of all, if you're worried about an ESPN-like post about "who needs this game more and will therefore win it," relax. I rarely if ever fall into the trap of needing a game as a sign of who will win, and when I do -- see: Georgia-Mississippi State preview, last week -- it almost always backfires.
But as we approach what will be the biggest game of the SEC season so far, it's important to keep in perspective what the game is and is not. And most importantly, it is not going to decide whether either of these teams makes it to the SEC Championship Game. Not by a long shot.
When it comes to the SEC division standings, all games are not created equal. A loss to Alabama or Florida would be about the best loss either of them could have. Not only would it likely not cost them in the eyes of the pollsters who could decide their BCS fate, it will be one game in the standings, not one and a half. After all, when you lose to a team from the other division, you just lose that game. When you lose to a team from your side of the SEC, you lose a game and a tiebreaker.
By the same token, the game is not unimportant. Alabama has already delivered a loss to Arkansas, one of its challengers for the West, but still faces games against LSU and Auburn. Lose one of those games after having defeated Florida, and it opens things up for what could still be a three-team tiebreaker decided by the name of Nick Saban's last dog. (This is actually in the SEC bylaws; look it up.) But lose to Florida Saturday, and Bama could end up playing a series of elimination games, with a second loss being all but impossible to overcome.
For Florida, a loss would take away what is currently a distinct advantage in the race for the West: South Carolina's loss to Auburn last weekend. (We are excluding Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt for the purposes of this exercise. If anyone has any objection, the comments are there for you. Please, do tell.)
The Gamecocks still have to play Alabama themselves. If South Carolina loses that game, then they could have two losses when they go to Gainesville in November. (This is assuming that South Carolina does not have its customary three or four losses when it plays Florida, which is by no means a safe assumption at this point. We all know South Carolina's capacity to surprise us late in the season.) If Florida remains undefeated to that point, the result of the South Carolina game is meaningless; with the rest of the schedule consisting of Appalachian State -- really, Florida? -- and Florida State, the Gators will be headed to Atlanta win or lose.
But if South Carolina has two losses and Florida has one loss -- well, that's an entirely different game. The winner of the Florida-South Carolina showdown then goes to Atlanta. (Please, Ellis, use a spy when Trey Burton is in the game.) Florida would likely still be favored to win in the Swamp, depending on how each team gets to that game with the requisite number of SEC losses. Best, though, to leave as little to change as possible.
You have to wonder, though, if there is something intangible at risk here. These two teams have been battling each other for the title of best in the conference for more than two years now, dating back to the 2008 march on Atlanta. Over that time period, they are 1-1 against each other. One of them will take the advantage this weekend. The result could also help decide whether there will be a rematch this year, but it won't determine that on its own.