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

turned.

”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

Mississippi.

”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

rise.

”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

opponents.

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.