Dramatic shifts in fortune make SEC look wide open
Pick a favorite to win the Southeastern Conference at your own risk.
It’s not just recent upsets, but margins of victory as wide as four touchdowns that have cast uncertainty over how the rest of the league schedule will play out.
As much as players and coaches in the SEC routinely tout how tough it is to win in their league each week, even they’ve been surprised by recent results.
No. 11 Florida’s 38-10 victory last weekend over Mississippi, which only two weeks earlier had won in Alabama, certainly wasn’t what LSU receiver Malachi Dupre expected to see when he looked over Saturday’s finals.
”If you had my prediction before the game, I wouldn’t have told you (the Rebels) would get beat that badly,” Dupre said. ”I feel like they would have competed better.”
Mississippi was ranked as high as third in the Top 25 Poll before they sank in the Swamp.
”We are not elite right now,” said Rebels coach Hugh Freeze, whose team is now ranked 14th. ”We still have a lot of work to do.”
On the flip side is Alabama. Instead of confirming the vulnerabilities that seemed to be exposed by its sloppy, five-turnover home loss to the Rebels, the eighth-ranked Crimson Tide rolled into Georgia and stunned the Bulldogs, also by a score of 38-10.
”It kind of did shock me a little bit to see how `Bama did pull away from Georgia like that. I was expecting and closer game,” LSU defensive back Dwayne Thomas said. ”It’s fun to see other teams lose because it’s helping our advantage. … You never know who’s going to win, so that’s why everybody tunes in.”
That’s true, but the upheaval and back-and-forth also could leave the SEC on the outside looking in when the playoffs roll around. The highest ranked SEC team in this week’s poll is Thomas’ Tigers at No. 7.
But there is always something to talk about when there is dramatic upswing in an Alabama performance. This one gave coach Nick Saban fodder he could use to deliver another well-chronicled rant against anyone who wrote his team off earlier this season.
At the same time, Saban was measured in assessing how good his team can still be.
”We are what we are as an identity only if it happens on a continuum,” Saban said. ”You can look at teams all over the country who have big wins and then two weeks later they’re not so happy again.”
The happiest teams in the SEC right now are the three remaining unbeaten ones: Florida, LSU and Texas A&M. Yet even they have shown their share of vulnerabilities.
Florida struggled in close wins against East Carolina and at Kentucky, then had to overcome a 13-point deficit at home in the final five minutes of its victory over Tennessee. Those three victories barely got the Gators enough respect to get back into the Top 25 – at 25th – before they routed Ole Miss. Now the Gators are No. 11 and shouldering much higher expectations.
”The interesting thing there will be how they handle this,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said of his players. ”Let’s look at it from a historical standpoint. This is where the University of Florida should be. So don’t be surprised, but let’s take advantage of it. I don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Texas A&M has this week off after an impressive 5-0 start, but only two weeks ago needed overtime to beat struggling Arkansas, which opened the season ranked 18th, only to plummet out of the poll with a 2-3 start.
Meanwhile, Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, whose team beat Tennessee last weekend, couldn’t help but mention that the Razorbacks would be playing for a share of the SEC West lead at Alabama this weekend if they had only held on to a late fourth-quarter lead against the Aggies, or prevailed in OT.
”It’s crazy to think about,” Bielema said. ”That’s why every week in this league, it’s survival of the fittest.”
And who knows where LSU would be without Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette, whose averages of 216 yards rushing and 16.5 points per game both lead the SEC. The No. 7 Tigers haven’t had to rely on their passing game yet, and if they do it’s not clear how that would turn out. So far, they’re averaging an SEC-worst 95.5 yards passing per game.
But the Tigers’ defense has been good, too, so as long as Fournette is healthy, they’re confident.
”I would say believe in us,” LSU’s Thomas said. ”The way we are playing right now, I like our chances.”
AP Sports Writers David Brandt in Oxford, Mississippi; John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Mark Long in Gainesville, Florida; and Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Arkansas, contributed to this report.