Week In, Week Out, SEC Proves It's Most Exciting Conference in College Football

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterOctober 7, 2013

Week In, Week Out, SEC Proves It's Most Exciting Conference in College Football

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    Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

    Is the SEC the toughest conference in college football? Seven straight titles are in the conference's corner, but the stunning lack of defense this year begs the question, is the SEC still the best?

    While that question won't be answered until after bowl season at the earliest, there's no question that the SEC has provided the most exciting games of the 2013 season.

    Sure, most have been shootouts; but nearly every week, there's a nail-biter involving a Top 10 team or a surprisingly close mid-level game that features a fantastic finish.

    Just how thrilling have the games been? Let's look back at the young season and rank the best of the best.

7. Georgia at Clemson: Week 1

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    The biggest game of opening weekend featured two Top 10 teams battling it out for border supremacy as Georgia headed across the South Carolina state line to take on Clemson on Saturday night in the ACC's version of Death Valley.

    It didn't end well.

    The two high-octane offenses battled back and forth for three quarters, but Georgia botched a potential game-tying field goal late in the third quarter. After the two teams traded punts, Clemson drove the length of the field on 12 plays and punched it in for a touchdown to build a 10-point lead with 7:40 to play.

    Georgia scored a late touchdown, but couldn't recover the onside kick and fell to the Tigers 38-35.

    With the Tigers still unbeaten and a signature win already on the schedule, this could be the most important game of the year in the SEC. If the conference cannibalizes itself and Clemson keeps winning, a one-loss SEC champion will not jump over the Tigers in the BCS.

6. South Carolina at Georgia: Week 2

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    It's not a coincidence that most of the SEC's great early-season games involve the Georgia Bulldogs. Their schedule is incredibly front-loaded and their defense is young, which means blown assignments will be exploited.

    South Carolina went between the hedges looking to extend its winning streak over the Bulldogs to four, with superstar defensive end Jadeveon Clowney looking to rebound from a rather pedestrian opening night performance versus North Carolina.

    After digging a 17-3 hole, the Gamecocks clawed back on the heels of running backs Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds to take a 24-24 tie into halftime. After Georgia built its lead back to 10, South Carolina cut it back to a four-point game early in the fourth with a short Davis touchdown run.

    With all of the momentum on the Gamecocks' side and Georgia facing 3rd-and-13, Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray hit a wide open Justin Scott-Wesley for an 85-yard touchdown to put the Dawgs up 11.

    But hope was not lost for South Carolina. With 2:37 to play, South Carolina's defense forced a 4th-and-2 from the Gamecocks' 32-yard-line. In no man's land and without kicker Marshall Morgan available, Georgia head coach Mark Richt went for it, calling star running back Todd Gurley's number. Gurley converted, the Bulldogs ran out the clock, and they earned a critical intra-division tiebreaker over the Gamecocks in the SEC East.

5. Ole Miss at Vanderbilt: Week 1

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    The first Thursday of the college football season featured a conference game between two programs on the rise, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.

    After Ole Miss got off the deck to take a 32-28 fourth-quarter lead, Vandy stormed back. After vomiting on the turf after a brutal hit, Commodore wide receiver Jordan Matthews came back later in the drive to catch a critical 42-yard completion on 4th-and-18 to set up the go-ahead touchdown.

    Vandy's lead didn't last long.

    Rebel running back Jeff Scott went 75 yards on the second play of Ole Miss' ensuing drive to score the game-winning touchdown with 1:07 to play to give the Rebs the win.

    It was a fantastic way to close out the first Thursday of the season, and apparently the start of the shootout trend in the SEC in 2013.

4. Mississippi State at Auburn: Week 3

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    Mississippi State headed to the Plains on Sept. 14 to take on Auburn, and the two provided one of the most thrilling ballgames of the year in the SEC.

    This game featured a last-minute drive, a quarterback growing up before our eyes and a self-pass that nearly went the distance.

    The two teams traded scores early, and with Mississippi State up six early in the third quarter, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall—making just his third start—completed a tipped pass to himself and took off 37 yards down the sideline before being pushed out of bounds. The drive led to a field goal to cut the Bulldog lead to 20-17. 

    It stayed that way until late in the fourth, when Auburn got the ball with 1:56 to go. Marshall led the Tigers the length of the field, completing six of eight passes for 66 yards, converting a crucial 3rd-and-10 on the ground and tossing the game-winning 11-yard touchdown to C.J. Uzomah in the back of the end zone with 10 seconds left to give the Tigers the win and push their record to 3-0.

    It was Marshall's coming out party, and it couldn't have come at a better time for first-year head coach Gus Malzahn.

3. Alabama at Texas A&M: Week 3

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    Alabama's trip to College Station in Week 3 was billed as the game of the year in the SEC. After Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel stunned the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa a year ago and temporarily sidetracked their title run, revenge was on the minds of Alabama head coach Nick Saban and the Tide.

    This game didn't just live up to the hype, it exceeded it.

    Alabama wasn't going to let Manziel beat it with his legs again. Saban knew it, A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin knew it, and everybody watching knew it.

    So what did Manziel do? He came out firing, airing it out on the first two drives of the game and leading his team to an early 14-0 lead.

    But Alabama reeled off 35 straight points, culminating in a sizzling 73-yard interception return for a touchdown from safety Vinnie Sunseri, his second in as many games.

    A&M wasn't done, though.

    After getting back within two touchdowns and recovering a T.J. Yeldon fumble on A&M's 4-yard-line, Manziel hit Mike Evans for a 95-yard touchdown to bring the Aggies within one score.

    The two teams traded touchdowns, and A&M attempted an onside kick with 15 seconds left, but couldn't recover and Alabama escaped College Station with a win.

    It's not often that Alabama gets forced into a shootout, but it was on Sept. 14, and the result was one of the most compelling games of the season in the SEC.

2. Georgia at Tennessee: Week 5

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    Coming off of a clutch Week 5 win over LSU, Georgia couldn't possibly be upended by Tennessee, could it?

    Well, it almost was, which provided us one of the most thrilling and unexpected games of the season.

    Georgia built a solid 17-3 lead on the home-standing Vols, but it wasn't without attrition. Running back Keith Marshall tore his ACL in the first quarter, wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley tore his in the third quarter, and wide receiver Michael Bennett also went out with a knee injury in the third frame.

    Tennessee battled, as quarterback Justin Worley hit Marquez North tiptoeing on the sideline to cut the lead to seven in the third and then returned a blocked punt for a touchdown late in the third to tie the game.

    The two teams traded touchdowns in the fourth, before Tennessee embarked on a 13-play, 80-yard drive that chewed up 6:42 of the clock. The drive culminated with a seven-yard Rajion Neal touchdown to give the Vols a 31-24 lead.

    Too much time.

    With three expected offensive weapons out with injury (and four if you count running back Todd Gurley, who missed the game entirely), Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray led his team 75 yards on 10 plays and hit fifth-year senior Rantavious Wooten for a two-yard touchdown with five ticks on the clock to send the game to overtime.

    In Tennessee's first possession, Alton "Pig" Howard dove for the pylon on an end-around, but the ball slipped out of his hands on the half-yard line and trickled out of the end zone for a touchback. Marshall Morgan drilled a 42-yard field goal in the bottom half of the first overtime to give the Bulldogs the 34-31 win.

1. LSU at Georgia: Week 5

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    The shootout between Georgia and LSU has been the game of the year so far in the SEC. 

    The Bulldogs came in with a No. 9 ranking and in need of keeping its one-game lead over South Carolina in the SEC East, while then-No. 6 LSU was out to prove that it's for real in its first road trip within the SEC.

    The teams combined for 85 points, but neither built a lead of more than seven at any point in the game. Back and forth they went, but LSU issued one of the final blows, as quarterback Zach Mettenberger—a former Georgia Bulldog and native of nearby Watkinsville—led his team on an eight-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with an eight-yard Jeremy Hill touchdown to give the Tigers a 41-37 lead with 4:15 to play.

    But they left too much time for senior Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray, who led his team right down the field on LSU's defense and hit a wide open Justin Scott-Wesley for a 25-yard touchdown with 1:47 to play to give the Bulldogs the win.

    The two LSU powerhouses went toe-to-toe, and it was Murray who nailed the knockout blow.