We were debating whether to ask what bowls are the SEC teams destined for or a "what if" question that ultimately altered the landscape of each team's season. Then we asked, "Why not both?" Why not indeed.
1. Auburn (11-1 overall, 7-1 SEC)
What if ... the Tigers had not rallied to beat Mississippi State in the final 10 seconds in September? This question carries metric tons worth of perspective and hypothetical possibilities. The Tigers' biggest strength has been a steely will and an iron belief and several other metal-themed attributes that have been forged by winning close games, and the first step in that process was paramount. Plus, it was the moment that quarterback Nick Marshall started to step into his role and the big-boy shoes of being the starting QB on an SEC title contender.
• Projected bowl matchup: vs. Central Florida in the Sugar, Jan. 2
2. Alabama (11-1, 7-1)
What if ... Alabama had a reliable kicker the last four years? Well, the dominance that has been the Tide's dynasty would be even more eye-popping. Alabama has lost three games in the last three years. One was to Johnny Football and the magic Heisman ride Texas A&M was on last year. The other two were by one-possession scores to LSU in 2011 and Auburn last Saturday, and each included four missed Bama field goals. Even Harvey Updyke can do the math on those.
• Projected bowl matchup: vs. Clemson in the Orange, Jan. 3
3. Missouri (11-1, 7-1)
What if ... Missouri had not imploded in the fourth quarter and overtime against South Carolina? The Tigers' one loss came to the Gamecocks with the following caveats: Mizzou led 17-0 in the fourth quarter; Mizzou QB James Franklin was injured; Mizzou's kicker missed two short field-goal tries, one in the fourth quarter that could have sealed the game and one in the second overtime that could have extended the game. Despite all the talk of Auburn's magic and the THE Ohio State's weak schedule, Missouri has every bit the argument to be in the BCS title game as the other Tigers or the Buckeyes.
• Projected bowl matchup: vs. Iowa in the Outback, Jan. 1
4. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2)
What if ... the Gamecocks had not laid an egg in Knoxville? Man, don't you know that Steve Spurrier is playing and replaying that inexplicable loss over and over in his head. Heck, he may lean up in bed at night, awakened by bad dreams and a cold sweat, and scream, "MARQUEZ North!" If South Carolina toppled UT, Spurrier and the Gamecocks would be getting ready for the SEC title game. Still, the fact that Spurrier has crafted three consecutive 10-win seasons in Columbia only cements his place on the all-time Mount Rushmore of SEC football coaches.
• Projected bowl matchup: vs. Wisconsin in the Capital One, Jan. 1
5. LSU (9-3, 5-3)
What if ... LSU had not lost close to a dozen underclassmen from last year's team, including nine defensive contributors? The Tigers reload with talented pieces year after year, and winning nine games in the toughest conference in the country having to rebuild a defense and replace 15 starters from a year ago is a testament to the program. That beat will continue next year. In fact, one of the splendid highlights lost in the wake of Michigan going for two and Auburn's second November miracle was LSU needing a 99-yard drive to beat Arkansas in regulation with freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings taking over for the injured Zach Mettenberger last Friday. Johnson delivered, meaning yet again LSU will reload, replacing talent with talent.
• Projected bowl matchup: vs. Baylor in the Cotton, Jan. 3
6. Georgia (8-4, 5-3)
What if ... well, Georgia is as flush with "what ifs" as it is peaches and peanuts, so pick one. OK, here's the biggest: What if Todd Gurley had stayed healthy? The best running back in college football missed a big chunk of the loss to Clemson and the entirety of the losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt. Despite all the defensive hiccups and head-scratches, Georgia is a completely different team -- a top-10 team -- with Gurley on the field. Period.
• Projected bowl matchup: vs. Michigan in the Gator, Jan. 1
7. Texas A&M (8-4, 5-3)
What if ... Johnny Football comes back next year? Hey, if we're going to play what-ifs, let's play. Johnny Football and stud duck receiver Mike Evans, who also is likely to go pro, would be the top tandem in college football -- heck, they were for most of this year as it was. That said, Johnny Manziel's return to campus is unlikely, and it makes you wonder about the monster extension Texas A&M gave Kevin Sumlin, considering that Sumlin's 18-6 record in two SEC regular seasons was with the most dynamic player in SEC history on the roster and it netted the Aggies two good but not elite bowl trips.
• Projected bowl matchup: vs. Duke in the Chick-Fil-A, Dec. 31
8. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4)
What if ... James Franklin stays and continues to build on a Vandy program that now has won eight games in back-to-back seasons? Franklin appears content in Nashville and the biggest opening on the market has been filled since Southern Cal hired Steve Sarkisian. It's impossible to put a direct gauge on the amazing turnaround that Franklin has orchestrated, but here's a good place to start: Didn't we all expect Saturday's come-from-behind win over Wake Forest? And if you think about the past two decades of Vandy football, we all expected them to find a way to get close and lose in emotional fashion. Franklin has changed the fabric of the program in three years. Read that again, and know that Butch Jones would be tickled with that timetable.
• Projected bowl matchup: vs. Marshall in the Liberty, Dec. 31
9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5)
What if ... the Bulldogs had made a play on the final drive against Auburn? It was so early in the season for two young teams, that that drive spun each program into spirals of seasonlong vectors in opposite directions. On the reverse of that, what if the Bulldogs had not answered the bell defensively in the Egg Bowl? Well, a loss in the Egg Bowl would have meant coach Dan Mullen would be on the hottest SEC coaching seat this side of Gainesville. The Egg Bowl win, however, means Mullen is now the first MSU coach to reach the postseason in four consecutive years, and he now is 4-1 against Ole Miss. From the hot seat to sitting pretty in one overtime.
• Projected bowl matchup: vs. Houston in the BBVA Compass, Jan. 4
10. Ole MIss (7-5, 3-5)
What if ... take your pick with this bunch, good and bad for the Rebels contingent. There are the somewhat surprising wins over Texas and LSU and the disappointing loss to Johnny Football and A&M as Johnny Football did Johnny Football things -- and the heartbreak that was last week's Egg Bowl. In truth, the Rebels will spend a long while asking what if about the turnover-plagued overtime loss to their state rivals, and right when they stop wondering about the dozen or so ways that game could have been different, Mississippi State fans will remind them. Rivalries in college football are great.
• Projected bowl matchup: vs. Georgia Tech in the Music City, Dec. 31
11. Florida (4-8, 3-5)
What if ... the Gators had drunk more milk? Not sure it would have helped, but Mom always said milk made for stronger bones and teeth, and the injury-ravaged Gators were plagued by health concerns every step of the way. And yes, four-win seasons in Gainesville go over like a screaming baby on an airplane, but what team would have been able to survive and thrive with what turned into season-ending injuries for your top two QBs, your best RB, your best receiver, your top two offensive tackles, your best defensive lineman and your best linebacker? So injuries give Will Muschamp a mulligan; but if he does not flip the script to at least eight wins next year, his seat will be nuclear-reactor hot.
12. Tennessee (4-8, 2-6)
What if ... Marquez North does not make arguably the best catch of the college football season not involving two Georgia safeties and Auburn wideout Ricardo Louis? North's leaping, one-handed snare amid double coverage against South Carolina was the key piece to the game-winning drive in what turned out to be the second-biggest upset in college football this year. (West Virginia over Oklahoma State ranks as more impactful.) And without that upset win in October, year one of the Butch Jones era would have been the worst season ever for UT. So, yeah, that catch was pretty large, even for a 5-7 team that will spend the holidays in the weight room.
13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8)
What if ... Jen Bielema had not tweeted out "Karma" after Wisconsin's tough-luck loss in September, which came on the heels of Arkansas' last win of the season before a nine-game losing streak? In truth, that had zero to do with the Razorbacks' implosion. Or did it? Karma indeed. We do know this: When you can't top John L. Smith's less than lofty marks from the previous year, well, maybe some mystic forces are at play.
14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8)
What if ... Kentucky got John Calipari to be the football recruiting coordinator? Dude can land major talent and assemble galaxies of stars. In truth, Mark Stoops and Co. are doing fine on the recruiting trail, but not unlike the bunch in Knoxville, the new talent can't get here quickly enough.
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...