Why we love the SEC: Florida throws a shoe; Auburn dumps Gus

When you bill yourself as the league where It Just Means More, you tee yourself up for all manner of tweaking. I plead guilty in the first degree: I cannot type the letters S-E-C without mentioning the slogan that might have been inscribed on a pillar by Ozymandias himself. (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”) But then a comes a weekend like the one we just witnessed, and even the biggest SEC critic must concede:

Down here, it really does mean … well, you know.

Nowhere else could a thrown shoe have reset the parameters of the super-serious College Football Playoff as well as the beauty contest that is the Heisman voting. In a tied game against LSU, Florida cornerback Marco Wilson found himself with the right shoe of Tigers tight end Kole Taylor in his hand. Wilson did what any right-thinking Gator would do: He hurled it 20 yards upfield.

Even in a dense fog, the flying footwear was duly noted. Wilson was penalized, though the refs erroneously identified linebacker Mohamoud Diabate as the offending flinger, for unsportsmanlike conduct. The infraction gave LSU, which would otherwise have punted, a first down. Which led, as you knew it would, to a go-ahead 57-yard field goal. Which was followed, as you knew it would be, by Florida’s slightly amiss 51-yarder to tie. The 3-5 Tigers upset the 8-1 Gators in the spooky Swamp.

Gators coach Dan Mullen, who has run a strong race against Dabo Swinney in the heated Southern derby for silliest commentary of the season, sought to absolve Wilson thusly: “He made the tackle and (as) part of the football move the kid’s shoe is in his hand and he kind of threw it and jumped and celebrated with his teammates.”

Thus did Mullen offer a codicil to the rulebook definition of “football move” — when you find yourself with an enemy’s cleat in your hand, feel free to chuck it with great force. (Mullen again: “I don’t think there was any intent to taunt. It wasn’t like he was throwing it at their sideline.”)

For want of an uncast shoe, a game was lost — and not just any game. Until the Gators feel, there was a real chance the SEC could put two teams in the CFP’s field of four. No longer. Alabama will still make it even if it loses to Florida at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday. Florida isn’t apt to make it even if it wins: No two-loss team, not even as a conference champ, has made the playoff. Oh, and Florida’s second loss diminishes Texas A&M’s shot at slipping in as a one-loss non-champ. The Aggies’ best victory came against – whoops – the Gators.

As we began to move about our Sunday, the vision of Wilson’s majestic heave still in our heads, those noggins were assaulted by another bit of news: Auburn will pay coach Gus Malzahn $21.45 million not to coach Auburn. In a pandemic year, with revenues down everywhere in this world, those earnest denizens of the Loveliest Village are still able to bear any burden and pay any price if it means not losing to Alabama by 29 points next year.

Even funnier fact: Half of not-so-gloomy Gus’ buyout — $10.275 million — is due within 30 days. The happiest of holidays to the Malzahns!

It wasn’t so long ago that, given the frazzled nature of the 2020 season, we wondered if any school could in good conscience fire someone for the venial sin of losing games. The SEC handed us our answer in the boldest of typefaces: Yes, we can! Of the 10 teams on Georgia’s rearranged schedule, three dumped coaches. COVID or no COVID, we’re sick of losing! (Though Auburn, at 6-4, technically had a winning season.)

Even by Auburn’s nutso standards — here we reference Terry Bowden’s midseason abdication, Bobby Petrino’s JetGate and Gene Chizik getting the gate two years after winning the BCS title — Malzahn’s tenure was wild. He came within 14 seconds of a national championship in Year 1, which included both the Prayer at Jordan-Hare against Georgia and Alabama’s Kick Six. He never had a losing season, but he broke 10 wins only once thereafter. He couldn’t find a quarterback who suited his offense as well as Nick Marshall, the former Georgia cornerback who took Auburn to the 2013 SEC title.

Rumors flew that Auburn wanted Gus gone midway through the 2017 season, whereupon he beat Georgia and Alabama when each was ranked No. 1. Auburn decided it had to keep him at all costs — he’s from Arkansas, and the Razorbacks’ job had conveniently come open — and the school agreed to a redone contract it regretted from the moment of its signing. He came close to being fired last year, even after beating Alabama. Apart from his severance package, his legacy is this: He was the last coach to lose to Will Muschamp, who’s also collecting gainful ($15.5 million) unemployment.

Thus is the SEC doing as it always does — moving toward its Atlanta finale having generated enough Talking Points to see us into the New Year. In a season with fewer games and fewer fans in the stands, we’re again reminded that there’s no conference like this. And even though Georgia won’t be playing for the SEC title for the first time since 2016, the Bulldogs still gave us with the biggest what-if.

When Stetson Bennett hurt his throwing shoulder in the first quarter against Florida, what if Kirby Smart had opted not to let the gimpy quarterback continue, instead replacing him with JT Daniels? Might the Bulldogs have won the game they wound up losing 44-28? Might they be getting yet another crack at Alabama? Might the shoe be on the other foot?