The gap separating the two SEC divisions shows no signs of narrowing.
In fact, it might be wider than ever.
The Southeastern Conference’s Western Division has five members in the top 10: No. 3 Alabama, No. 5 Auburn, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 8 LSU and No. 10 Ole Miss. All of those schools are ahead of No. 13 Georgia, the top-ranked East team.
“It’s the best division in college football, and I don’t think it’s even close,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of the Western Division.
The West teams have recruited better and have seamlessly replaced departed stars from last year’s teams, even though eight of the SEC’s 11 first-round picks from the 2014 draft came from that division. The results have been most evident on offense, as six of the SEC’s top seven teams in both points and yards per games are from the West.
Even the two unranked West teams are off to strong starts. Mississippi State is 3-0 for only the second time since 2000. Arkansas (2-1) ranks third in the nation in rushing.
“All seven teams should be ranked in the Top 25,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “The SEC West is that strong.”
The lone loss by a West team all season came from within the division, as Arkansas fell 45-21 to Auburn. In the only two interdivisional matchups so far, Texas A&M won 52-28 at South Carolina and Ole Miss hammered Vanderbilt 41-3 in Nashville.
While Georgia coach Mark Richt says “it’s early” and that “they definitely have some great teams over there but we’ve got some good teams on our side, too,” South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier concedes the West is tougher.
“I think it’s unquestionable, the West teams are stronger than the East teams, no question about it, although Missouri’s still undefeated and up there doing very well,” Spurrier said. “Florida’s undefeated, as far as that goes. They play Alabama this weekend. That’ll be a good, interesting matchup East vs. West. Yeah, but there’s no doubt, Alabama, LSU, (Texas) A&M and the Mississippi teams are playing well now, that side’s stronger.”
This seemed like a year when the West might take a step back following the departures of 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, 2013 SEC rushing leader Tre Mason and two-time national champion quarterback A.J. McCarron. LSU lost nine draft picks, the most of any school.
Yet the West teams haven’t missed a beat. Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Arkansas are all averaging over 500 yards and 40 points per game.
A look at recent recruiting trends helps explain the West’s dominance. According to the Rivals recruiting rankings, West schools had three of the conference’s top four signing classes in 2014, five of the top six in 2013 and four of the top seven in 2012.
Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director for Rivals, says the recruiting prowess of Alabama’s Nick Saban, who has signed the nation’s top-ranked class each of the last four years, “just raised the bar for everybody.” Farrell said the West also got a boost from the addition of Texas A&M, which made the SEC more appealing for Texas’ bounty of recruits.
LSU and Alabama combined to sign three of the top eight 2014 Texas prospects, according to Rivals. The state’s No. 1 recruit — defensive end Myles Garrett — signed with Texas A&M and ranks second in the nation with 5½ sacks. In 2011, the year before the Aggies joined the league, neither Texas A&M nor any of the SEC’s 13 other current members signed any of Texas’ top 23 recruits as rated by Rivals.
The West powers also have done a better job than the East of keeping their states’ top players.
Rivals’ top three 2013 recruits from the state of Georgia signed with West schools: Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson and Auburn defensive tackle Montravius Adams. Mississippi State’s Preston Smith, the SEC defensive lineman of the week each of the last three weeks, also is from Georgia.
Alabama got starting quarterback Blake Sims from Georgia and landed superstar receiver Amari Cooper and running back Derrick Henry from Florida. Arkansas’ Alex Collins, the SEC’s third-leading rusher, also is from Florida.
“The West is coming east, but the East doesn’t seem to have a lot of success going west,” Farrell said.
But the East might not be playing catch-up for long. Barton Simmons, the national scouting director for 247Sports, notes that Tennessee seems on the way back to contention thanks to Butch Jones’ recruiting prowess. Simmons also expects Florida to bounce back from last year’s 4-8 disaster.
“With Florida and Tennessee being down, that’s been the biggest issue that’s weighed the East down,” Simmons said. “When — and it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when — when those programs are back, the landscape’s going to look extremely different.”
AP sportswriters David Brandt, Pete Iacobelli, Charles Odum and John Zenor and AP freelance writer Bryan Lazare contributed to this report.