It's been a rough bowl season for the SEC West. Coming into the postseason with the media touting it as likely the best division in college football, the division finished Wednesday at 2-3 and needed wins by Auburn and Alabama just to guarantee a winning bowl record -- or a .500 mark, depending on how you count the national championship game.
But with Wisconsin edging Auburn, 34-31, in a back-and-forth Outback Bowl on Thursday, even counting two Alabama wins (should the Crimson Tide pull that off) would only give the SEC West a breakeven record in the bowls. Granted, the division drew an unmatched three New Year's Six berths in addition to Wisconsin and its other bowl opponents, but it's still not a good look when you're trying to say you're the best.
The Auburn offense largely did what it needed to do for the Tigers, cranking out 435 yards of total offense. Nick Marshall went 15-of-22 passing for 217 yards and two touchdowns, the running game generated 219 yards on 43 carries, and the Tigers didn't turn the ball over. It wasn't by any means the most explosive performance of the year, but it might have been enough to get the job done if Auburn could stop Melvin Gordon.
Alas, the last part of that sentence proved to be almost as impossible for the Tigers as it was for everyone else this year. Gordon carried the ball 34 for 251 yards, including touchdown runs of 53, 25 and six yards. Wisconsin was 3-of-3 on fourth-down conversions. Joel Stave had a pretty bad day, going 14-of-27 passing for 121 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions -- but it doesn't matter when Gordon and Co. churn out 400 yards rushing on the day and 7.4 yards a carry. (Corey Clement also crossed the century mark, putting together 105 yards on 15 carries.)
Still, the Tigers managed to push the game to overtime, and had a chance to win or at least extend the game in their half of the first extra period. But the offense faltered and lost three yards -- and Daniel Carlson's field goal attempt sailed to the right for his second miss of the day, giving Barry Alvarez yet another "last" win as a head coach.
The loss doesn't tell us much about Auburn that we didn't already know from the regular season: The Tigers have tremendous talent on offense and almost as many issues on defense as anyone else in the conference. (South Carolina and Texas A&M save them from having that distinction to themselves.) It will take Will Muschamp (who was on hand Thursday) more than one game to fix what's wrong on the Plains.
As for the SEC West -- regardless of the giddiness of its critics this week, a bad round of bowl games doesn't entirely negate the division's reputation. It does prove that some of the early-season hype was too much, but almost no division in college football could live up to the things that were said about the SEC West when they were UNDEFEATED AGAINST THE UNIVERSE. And if Alabama can win the national title, it could do the same thing for the division that the crystal football did for the SEC for so many years: Preserve its reputation, whether or not it's deserved.