All the hand-wringing over the SEC’s near-monopoly of the top 5 might well prove a moot point.
The Southeastern Conference will take care of the matter internally since nobody heaps more abuse on league teams than the SEC itself.
In the SEC West, No. 1 Mississippi State, No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 4 Alabama and No. 5 Auburn are jockeying to win the nation’s toughest division. But four more head-to-head matchups among them remain to shake things out.
No. 9 Georgia (4-1 in SEC games) sits in the East drivers seat but Missouri (2-1) and surprising Kentucky (2-2) also are in the mix going into the second half of the season.
Alabama safety Landon Collins doesn’t shy from peeking at the competition in a league that’s the first to have four teams in the Top 5 and has won seven of the last eight national titles.
“We look at it all the time,” Collins said. “We’ve got so many big teams in our conference. Every given Saturday, you don’t know who’s going to win. Because I mean, everybody’s coming with their ‘A’ game and everybody’s trying to get to those top four spots, you know?”
That would be the four-team College Football Playoff.
But first things first.
The West could come down to the Egg Bowl since the Bulldogs (3-0) and Rebels (4-0) are the only remaining unbeaten teams. They’ve each still got at least one huge challenge from their division brethren before they even get to that point. Mississippi State has beaten Auburn (2-1), but still must face the Crimson Tide (3-1) at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Nov. 15. Ole Miss topped ‘Bama but hosts Auburn next Saturday.
The Tigers also face Georgia, their traditional rival from the East. Not to mention the Iron Bowl, which featured two teams in national title contention last season and one of college football’s most fantastic finishes.
So all that speculation — or disgust, in some circles — that the West could have multiple teams in the first playoff is premature, though certainly not outlandish. After all, Alabama won the 2011 national title after losing to LSU and finishing second in the division before claiming the rematch with Les Miles’ Tigers.
“It’s the best conference in college football, probably by a long shot, so whoever wins the West will have a big advantage,” predicts Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.
Plenty of time to beat up on each other, though. The Saturday-to-Saturday grind of the SEC will continue to take its toll. It’s what Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen calls “the cumulative effect of this conference.”
It’s not just lip service. Arkansas hasn’t won a league game yet but pushed Alabama to the limit in a 14-13 game.
Maybe an East team can upset the Western Division hierarchy even before the SEC championship game.
“Everybody in our division has a really good team and we all have to play each other,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “I don’t remember it ever being like that. You know, when I first came into the league it was always Florida, Georgia and Tennessee on the other side. They always seemed to be a little bit better than everybody else, even better than some of the people on our side of it, the West side.”
In the less-publicized East, Georgia has already drubbed Missouri 34-0. Missouri then easily beat Florida 42-13.
Kentucky (5-2, 2-2) still plays both of them with a chance to make up ground.
“You just don’t know what to expect so you better prepare for a true battle and then try to follow through with everything,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
Mississippi State and Kentucky are trying to buck history and preseason expectations. Picked to finish last in the East, Kentucky hasn’t won an SEC title since sharing the championship with Georgia in 1976. Mississippi State hasn’t been SEC champion since 1941 and was picked fifth in the West.
“We aren’t the same teams anymore,” running back Mikel Horton said. “We’re fighting for a new stand and a new history for our schools.”