Monday, October 10, 2011
SEC midseason overview
By Chris Low
You can’t mention one without the other.
It’s Alabama and LSU. Then again, maybe it’s LSU and Alabama.
They’ve been the class of the SEC to this point, and for that matter, the class of college football.
Six weeks into the season, the Tigers are ranked No. 1 in both the Associated Press and Harris Interactive Top 25 polls. The Crimson Tide are right behind them at No. 2 in both polls.
Their dominance has made it a two-team race in the SEC, the only problem with that being they’re both in the Western Division. Only one can play in the SEC championship game, which means chances are that only one would have a shot to play for the national championship and potentially make it six crystal trophies in a row for this league.
Their Nov. 5 matchup in Tuscaloosa has been circled since the preseason, and the anticipation only swells each time one of the two goes out and smothers another opponent.
The Tigers (6-0, 3-0) have already beaten four Top 25 teams, and three of those wins have come away from home. They’ve won each of their first six games by double digits for the first time in school history. The closest anybody has come to LSU is 13 points.
“I like the position we’re in,” LSU coach Les Miles said following last Saturday’s 41-11 rout of Florida.
Alabama’s résumé is equally impressive. The Crimson Tide (6-0, 3-0) have also won every game by double digits. The closest anybody has come to them is 16 points, and nobody has scored more than 14 points against them.
The NFL talent on both defenses is jaw-dropping. Of the combined 22 starters on the two defenses, as many as 17 of those players have a legitimate chance to be drafted.
Alabama is ranked No. 3 nationally in total defense, and LSU is ranked No. 5.
Both teams are playing a different game than everybody else right now in the SEC.
Don’t completely count Arkansas out of the mix. The Hogs (5-1, 1-1) are the league’s third-best team and still get a shot at LSU the final weekend of the regular season.
In a lot of conferences around the country, they’d be the team to beat. But in the Western Division, they have two superpowers in front of them.
The Eastern Division race looks about like it did last season, meaning a two-loss team may end up in Atlanta. South Carolina won the East last season with three losses.
Sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw revived a South Carolina offense that had been running on fumes last Saturday with four touchdown passes in a 54-3 destruction of Kentucky.
It looks like it’s his show the rest of the way if he stays healthy after Stephen Garcia bumbled his way to nine interceptions and four touchdowns in his first five games.
Georgia has also come back from the dead after losing two in a row to start the season, and the Bulldogs have the easiest schedule from here on out. They’re coming off a huge win at Tennessee last Saturday and are playing lights out on defense.
Everybody else in the East already has at least two conference losses.
Of course, given the way Alabama and LSU are going right now, winning the East this season may be more of a punishment than a prize.
Stay tuned and be sure to block off the afternoon on Nov. 5.
Arkansas running back Trent Richardson is averaging more than 100 yards rushing this season.
He’d patiently waited his turn to be the Crimson Tide’s go-to running back, and now Richardson is putting on the kind of show everybody in and around that program thought he would. The 5-foot-11, 224-pound junior is working on a streak of five straight 100-yard rushing games and leads the SEC with 12 touchdowns. He’s rushed for 729 yards and is averaging 6.3 yards per carry. His 181-yard, two-touchdown performance against Florida and the way he punished defenders was as good as it gets.
Defensive MVP: LSU CB Tyrann Mathieu
Some around the league have joked that Mathieu must have a homing device implanted somewhere in his body that tracks the football. That’s because wherever the ball is, he is. Mathieu, the Tigers’ designated roamer in their nickel package, leads the team with 41 tackles, including five for loss. He’s also tied for the team lead in interceptions with two and leads the SEC with four forced fumbles and is tied for the lead with three fumble recoveries, two of which he’s turned into touchdowns.
Biggest surprise: Georgia
It’s not so much a surprise that Georgia is tied for the Eastern Division lead. But considering where the Bulldogs were to start the season, not a lot of people saw them battling back and getting right back into the race. They’ve won four in a row after those losses to Boise State and South Carolina and have a very manageable schedule the rest of the way. This team has continued to believe, even during the darkest moments back in September. Now the Bulldogs head into the second half of the season with a real chance to make their first SEC championship game appearance since 2005.
Biggest disappointment: Mississippi State
After the way last season ended with the blowout win over Michigan in the Gator Bowl, the expectations surrounding the Mississippi State program entering this season were sky-high. Even coach Dan Mullen said prior to the season that this could be the most important season in the history of the program. To this point, it’s been a huge disappointment. The Bulldogs (3-3, 0-3) are still looking for their first SEC win. They had to go to overtime to beat Louisiana Tech at home and trailed UAB 3-0 at the half last week before coming back and winning 21-3. Injuries on the offensive line have played a big role, but it’s an offense that hasn’t found any continuity.
Best game: South Carolina at Georgia, Sept. 10
How many times do you see a team go on the road and score three non-offensive touchdowns? And how many times do you see a 276-pound defensive lineman (Melvin Ingram) race 68 yards for a touchdown on a fake punt? In one of the wildest games you’re ever going to see, South Carolina found a way to outlast Georgia 45-42 the second week of the season and grab what could be the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bulldogs in the Eastern Division. When it was over, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said he’d never won a game like that, but he wasn’t about to give it back, either. “Sometimes it just happens like that,” he said.
Best coach: LSU’s Les Miles
Alabama’s Nick Saban, Auburn’s Gene Chizik and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin were also considerations here. But everything Miles has navigated this LSU team through gives him the nod. There was the bar brawl back in August. He lost quarterback Jordan Jefferson for four games, receiver Russell Shepard for three games and one of his best offensive linemen, Josh Dworaczyk, for the season. Steve Kragthorpe also had to hand over the offensive coordinator duties to Greg Studrawa after announcing in August that he had Parkinson’s disease. Through it all, the Tigers haven’t lost a step and have four wins over Top 25 teams, three of those away from home. The Mad Hatter catches a lot of grief, but the results speak for themselves.