COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Top heavy and offensively challenged. Aging and ripe to be toppled. That was how the Southeastern Conference looked earlier this season, and by its standards, probably still does to some.
Halfway through the season, the SEC has only two teams in the top 10 but still can lay claim to the unofficial title of the deepest league in college football.
No. 1 Alabama (7-0, 4-0 SEC), the defending national champions, leads an impressive eight SEC teams in this week's Top 25 . Three-loss Ole Miss sits No. 23 and LSU, which fired longtime leader Les Miles last month, has returned at No. 25.
''It's just the culture down there that makes football so important,'' SEC Network analyst Marcus Spears said. ''Boys grow up dreaming to play for their favorite (SEC) school instead of the NFL.''
And those dreams are coming true for much of the league this season.
Leading the way are the undefeated Crimson Tide and No. 6 Texas A&M (6-0, 4-0). But even a couple of Tigers, whose seasons seemed finished except for playing out the games – afore mentioned LSU (4-2, 2-1) and No. 21 Auburn (4-2, 2-1).
The rest of the ranked SEC teams are Eastern Division leader Florida (5-1, 3-1) at No. 15, Arkansas (5-2, 1-2) at No. 17 and Tennessee (5-2, 2-2) at No. 18 and Mississippi (3-3, 1-2) at No. 23.
''I'm not really surprised by it,'' LSU receiver Travin Dural said. ''It's not something I haven't seen before.''
It adds up to a schedule filled with losable contests where it's impossible to relax.
''Every game is going to be a hard game,'' Alabama linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said. ''You have to go out there and earn it. It's not going to be given to you.''
Spears, who won a national title at LSU in 2004 under coach Nick Saban, understands that well. Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the defensive end knew football was important. Even he didn't expect the fanaticism he saw in college.
As a sophomore, Spears could not believe the scene he saw leaving the 2002 Sugar Bowl after the Tigers beat Illinois 47-34.
''There were grown men crying,'' he said. ''It wasn't like we won a national championship and they were out there like that.''
It's that passion, Spears said, that attracts coaches all over the country to fly South seeking top players.
Spears alma mater, LSU, has rebounded with two straight wins under interim coach Ed Orgeron. The Tigers get a boost this week with the return of injured star running back Leonard Fournette for the Saturday's game against Ole Miss. That matchup kicks off a second half of games for LSU against ranked opponents with Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Texas A&M looming.
''It's just staying focused and keeping things in front that are in front,'' LSU safety Jamal Adams said.
Look on any SEC schedule and it's a gauntlet of games.
Alabama plays its third straight ranked opponent this week in Texas A&M. The Aggies are playing a third ranked SEC team in four weeks.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones expected the league to be the most competitive in some time. The teams and coaches who consistently succeed in the SEC are those who accept and embrace the intense challenge from week to week.
''The depth of your program will start to show itself and reveal itself, just from the grind of a long season, the physicality of this conference,'' Jones said.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze believes his team's staying power – the Rebels are the only Top 25 team with three losses – comes from its strong schedule. They've lost to Florida State, Alabama and Arkansas, all ranked opponents.
''I would think that the message is carrying some weight that strength of schedule does matter,'' he said.
Things don't get any easier as Mississippi faces two more ranked SEC teams next: LSU and then Auburn.
''We've got our work cut out for us,'' Freeze said.
Every SEC coach will say the same thing, knowing success can slip away in an eye blink.
South Carolina was among the league's top teams from 2010 to 2013, going 42-11 and finishing No. 4 in the country three years ago. But former Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier acknowledged letting recruiting slide and now replacement Will Muschamp is tasked with building back the FBS's last-place team in scoring.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin believes the league prepares teams for competing against anyone in the country – an attitude the Aggies plan to pack for Saturday's game vs. Alabama and the rest of the season.
''Comes time where maybe you go into situations and you just play,'' Sumlin said. ''That's where we are right now.''
AP Sports Writers John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; David Brant from Oxford, Mississippi; Mark Long from Gainesville, Florida; Brett Martel from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Steve Megargee from Knoxville, Tennessee contributed to this report.
AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org