ST. LOUIS — Here comes SEC rivalry week, with an exclamation point.
A conference that’s again arguably the best in the nation, with six ranked teams, has saved plenty of drama for the final weekend of the regular season.
Fandom has no trouble reaching fever pitch for Auburn-Alabama, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Arkansas-Missouri and Ole Miss-Mississippi State. Geography and tradition says it all.
“Everybody says hate, but I think there’s another level,” Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley said. “Everything about this game is you’re trying to demean and dominate your opponent.”
In most cases, more than bragging rights is at stake. Every coach has the same message: Seize the moment and don’t lose your head.
A win by No. 2 Alabama (10-1, 6-1 SEC) in the Iron Bowl keeps the Crimson Tide in the national title picture. That’s what Nick Saban is stressing.
“It’ll be a great atmosphere,” Saban said. “But I also think this is a game where you have to stay focused on the game, and not on all the things that go on around it.”
Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson held the same job at Alabama under Mike DuBose. He recalls telling DuBose that it seemed like fans were more excited about playing Tennessee than Auburn.
“And he looked at me and said, ‘You ain’t lost to Auburn yet,’” Johnson said with a laugh. “So, I got the message real quick there. It’s obviously huge on both sides.”
No. 15 Auburn (8-3, 4-3) was national runner-up after shocking previously unbeaten and top-ranked Alabama last year.
“It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” Auburn linebacker Kris Frost said. “People that don’t know anything about Alabama or Auburn, they know the Iron Bowl and they know how important this game is to football.”
No. 8 Georgia (9-2, 6-2) needs a win over 16th-ranked Georgia Tech combined with a third straight upset by Arkansas (6-5, 2-5) , which has knocked off Ole Miss and LSU, to take the Eastern Division. Missouri needs to hold serve at home Friday to take the East for the second straight year, both years after being lightly regarded in the preseason.
No. 17 Missouri (9-2, 6-1) will be shooting for its fifth conference division title in eight seasons, and a 10th win for the fifth time in Gary Pinkel’s 14 seasons. The schools have met just five times and not in the regular season since 1963.
The Tigers had lacked a border conflict since leaving Kansas and the Big 12.
“I grew up watching the KU-MU game. And that was awesome, just the hatred toward KU on that one day, being a Missouri kid,” center Evan Boehm said. “It’s two great teams going at it. It’s going to be an exciting rivalry.”
Arkansas has two St. Louis recruits on the roster.
“I think it’s a neat thing,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “I know our guys are very excited to see a team that last year played in the SEC Championship Game and now this year will get a chance to go back to it, or we can stop it.”
No. 18 Ole Miss (8-3, 4-3) will be trying to snap a three-game losing streak, facing No. 4 Mississippi State (10-1, 6-1) in the Egg Bowl. It’s the first time both teams have been ranked for the game since 1999, and just the third time since 1957.
Mississippi State can win the Western Division with a win and an Alabama loss, and reach 11 wins for the first time in school history.
“It doesn’t matter who has the better record,” Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott said. “It wouldn’t matter if we were ranked one and two.”
LSU at Texas A&M kicks off this week’s schedule Thursday, a matchup of 7-4 teams.
On the lower end of the spectrum, Kentucky (5-6, 2-6) and Tennessee (5-6, 2-5) will be playing to become bowl eligible. A win over downtrodden Vanderbilt (3-8, 0-7) would put the Volunteers in line for a bowl for the first time since 2010, while a Vanderbilt has already won two straight in the series for the first time since 1925-26.
Vandy first-year coach Derek Mason has added spice to the matchup by referring to Tennessee as the “team out East,” prompting the Vols’ Butch Jones to repeatedly downplay the slight.
“We should have enough motivation to win the game, to get win No. 6,” Jones said. “That doesn’t even need to be discussed.”
And Florida (6-4, 4-4) has a chance to give coach Will Muschamp a big send-off, playing spoiler as 10-point underdogs at top-ranked Florida State. The Gators pulled off a similar upset a decade ago, carrying Ron Zook off the field after knocking off the 10th-ranked Seminoles 20-13.
“All that stuff goes out the window when it’s an in-state rivalry, you know what I’m saying?” tackle D.J. Humphries said.