SEC West flexing its muscle against the East
There’s a new hierarchy in the Southeastern Conference. And the
royalty no longer lies in the SEC East.
While they’re panicking in Georgia, protesting in Tennessee and
preparing for basketball in Kentucky, the teams in the West just
keep on winning.
However, the power shift to that ”other” division has gone
largely unnoticed. The bulk of the national SEC attention the last
18 years has focused on the East.
Auburn senior guard Mike Berry, who grew up in central Tennessee
watching the Volunteers slug it out with Florida and Georgia every
fall for a ticket to the SEC title game, said the the tide has
”I’ve always felt like we’ve had some of the better teams since
I’ve been here,” Berry said. ”I just think that it’s a great
thing that the West is getting more attention. Not to knock the
East because they’re in the SEC for a reason. It’s just one of
those things where you’ve got to go in and prove yourselves each
week, and I think most of the West teams have done that.”
Have they ever.
Led by No. 1 Alabama and No. 8 Auburn, the six West schools are
24-5 overall and 7-1 against the East, with the lone loss an upset
win by Vanderbilt on the road at Ole Miss. The East, which has just
two ranked teams in No. 14 Florida and No. 19 South Carolina, is a
pedestrian 14-14 overall.
”No question the West appears better than the East right now,”
said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.
There’s an irony in Spurrier’s ceding power to the West. His
arrival at Florida in 1990 signaled a sea change in the conference.
His pass-happy attack led the Gators back to prominence and brought
some glitz to the SEC, which had been long symbolized by the
gritty, determined play of Bear Bryant’s teams at Alabama.
Spurrier’s gamesmanship, not to mention his results, raised the
conference’s profile nationally.
Throw in superstar quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning –
and most eyes looked East.
Yet the West holds a slim advantage all-time against the East,
168-156-3 since expansion and has won as many national titles
(four). It’s also proven to be the division of opportunity. While
the East has sent just three teams to the SEC title game, the only
program from the West not to make at least one trip to Atlanta is
”I’m a little partial, but to me the West is probably the
best,” said Mississippi coach Houston Nutt, who spent a decade at
Arkansas before joining the Rebels. ”From top to bottom, I think
it’s the toughest. But again, I’m partial.”
This year, he also appears to be right.
While the coaches say simply these things are cyclical, Kentucky
linebacker Danny Trevathan has a theory on why the West is
dominating this year: Offense.
Though Alabama’s prostyle offense simply runs overmatched
opponents over, the rest of the conference has turned into the Wild
West. Trevathan pointed to the dynamic Spread attacks used at
Mississippi, Mississippi State and Auburn and the offensive
wizardry of Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino as the power behind the West’s
”There’s just a lot of speed, they’ve got quarterbacks that can
do lots of things,” he said.
Trevathan and the Wildcats learned firsthand last weekend when
Mississippi’s Jeremiah Massoli led the Rebels to a 42-35 win.
Things won’t get any easier for the Wildcats this week against
Auburn’s Cam Newton, the SEC’s highest-rated passer.
Throw in Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell and Chris Relf and
Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett and the league’s top signal callers all play
West of Georgia.
Their play has led to some eye-popping numbers on the
scoreboard. Five of the league’s top six offenses play in the West,
as do four of the top six highest scoring teams.
The tide has shifted so suddenly some perennial SEC East powers
find themselves in an unfamiliar position. Tennessee (2-3) and
Georgia (1-4) typically meet in early October hoping to take a
significant step toward the title game.
Not this year. Thanks to a combined 0-3 record against West
teams, both clubs are looking to simply survive.
”There’s some weeks where we’ve come in, and we haven’t been
ready, and they haven’t been ready,” said Tennessee defensive end
Chris Walker. ”And it’s showed.”
That hasn’t been a problem in the West. Take out Mississippi’s
missteps against Vanderbilt and Jacksonville State, and the West’s
other three losses have all come to ranked divisional
LSU coach Les Miles, whose 12th-ranked team is a slightly
fortunate 5-0, doesn’t see a ”big difference” between the two
divisions, but added ”the West tier appears to get tougher and
tougher each year.”
Blame, or thank, Nick Saban. He built LSU into a national
champion and is doing the same at Alabama. His team’s play has
forced the other schools in the West to play catch up. They’re
doing it behind smart hires and out-of-the-box thinking previously
the domain of the Spurriers and Urban Meyers of the SEC.
Those hires have allowed the West to enjoy a period of coaching
stability while the East is trying to break in new coaches at
Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.
It’s led to a competitive imbalance on the field. And it’s not
the perennial also-rans that have struggled against the West.
Florida is 25-2 against the East under Meyer, but just 11-8 versus
the West after getting pummeled at Alabama last week.
While the nation may be slow to embrace the West’s dominance, it
isn’t lost on their brethren in the East.
”They’ve got respect from us,” said Kentucky coach Joker
Phillips. ”Of the last couple championships, how many have we won,
four? They had two (at Florida), LSU and Alabama have won in the
last couple years, so it has nothing to do with respect because
everybody respects this league, not just the East.”
AP Sports Writers John Zenor in Auburn, Ala., Theresa M. Walker
in Nashville, Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., David Brandt in
Oxford, Miss., Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., and Brett Martel in
Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.