- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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The SEC set a record on Sunday with eight teams cracking the Associated Press Top 25 poll, further underscoring the balance in this league.
But will that balance work against the SEC in the national championship race?
The midway point of the season is upon us, and only two teams in the league are still unbeaten. Two-time defending national champion Alabama would have been a runaway choice to be one of those teams back in the preseason, but not a lot of people would have targeted Missouri to be the other one.
The Tigers are coming off back-to-back SEC road wins and now return home for three straight games. Their 41-26 win at Georgia on Saturday was a costly one. Senior quarterback James Franklin separated his throwing shoulder and is out indefinitely.
Injuries, period, have been a common theme during the first half of the SEC season. Florida’s Dominique Easley, who was playing better than any defensive lineman in the league, suffered a season-ending ACL tear a week after the Gators lost their starting quarterback, Jeff Driskel, for the season.
Georgia has been depleted on offense, leaving senior quarterback Aaron Murray without his top playmakers. The Bulldogs hope to get star running back Todd Gurley back from a high ankle sprain in the next week or two, but have already lost receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and running back Keith Marshall for the season. Receiver Michael Bennett is also out for a few more weeks with a knee injury.
Meanwhile, everybody is still chasing Alabama, which survived a 49-42 scare at Texas A&M the third week of the season and a few other shaky outings to play its best football the past two weeks.
The Crimson Tide have steadily improved defensively since giving up 628 yards of total offense (the most ever by an Alabama defense) to Johnny Manziel and the Aggies back in September. The Tide are ranked second nationally in scoring defense (11.3 points per game) and are starting to look like Alabama defenses of old.
If anybody’s going to unseat Alabama, it’s probably LSU. The Tigers have a brutal schedule, but it’s easily the most explosive offense they’ve fielded under Les Miles. First-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been the acquisition of the year in the league, and senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger has been the most improved player in the league.
During the SEC’s seven-year national championship streak, only twice have the teams hoisting the crystal football at season’s end been unbeaten.
This season has a similar feel to it, especially given the way the teams in the league have beaten up on each other to this point. In other words, the odds are against anybody going unbeaten, although Alabama has the most favorable schedule.
There’s no getting around the metamorphosis that has taken place in this league in the first half of the season. In fact, the norm has suddenly become the 38-35 shootout, filled with explosive plays on offense and some of the finest quarterback play this league has seen in a long time.
Defense has long been the SEC’s trademark, but only two teams at the midway point are ranked in the top 20 nationally in total defense -- Florida (No. 3) and Alabama (No. 8).
And then there’s Texas A&M. The Aggies can score with anybody and lead the league in total offense (586.5 yards per game) and scoring offense (47.8 points per game). Unfortunately for them, they can’t stop anybody and rank last in the league in total defense (474.3 yards per game) and next to last in scoring defense (32 points per game).
We’ll see what the second half of the season holds, but times would seem to be changing in the SEC.
Here’s a look at some midseason accolades:
Offensive MVP: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. Having to defend Johnny Football really isn’t fair. He’s impossible to get on the ground. He’s throwing the ball better than ever, and his instincts are off the charts. Manziel leads the league in total offense with an average of 377 yards per game and has accounted for 19 touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. He’s the Crimson Tide’s quarterback on defense, and as valuable as Mosley is when it comes to making game-turning and game-saving plays, he’s just as valuable with his ability to make everybody else around him better. Mosley leads the Tide with 48 total tackles, including 3.5 for loss.
Biggest surprise: Missouri. The Tigers are off to a 6-0 start after limping to a 5-7 finish a year ago in their first season in the SEC. They were picked sixth in the East this season at the SEC media days. One of the keys to their success has been a string of good fortune on the injury front, but that changed Saturday when Franklin separated his shoulder in the 41-26 win at Georgia. Even so, this is a team playing with a lot of confidence and right in the thick of the East race.
Biggest disappointment: SEC defenses. Maybe it’s a back-handed compliment to how good the offenses have been this season, but what has happened to the defense in this league? Seven of the 14 teams are allowing more than 26 points per game, and some of the scores during the first half of the season have been better suited for the game room at the arcade.
Newcomer of the year: Arkansas running back Alex Collins. This was a tough one. Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Alabama defensive end A’Shawn Robinson have both made tremendous impacts, but Collins has been Mr. Steady for the Hogs. He’s third in the SEC in rushing with an average of 102.9 yards per game (720 yards) and is also averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
Best coach: Missouri’s Gary Pinkel. In his 13th season at Missouri, Pinkel has gone from the hot seat to being the SEC’s Coach of the Year at the midway point. Without Franklin, he’s really going to have his work cut out, but Pinkel has done an excellent job in rallying the Tigers in their second year in the SEC. They’ve scored 38 or more points in all six of their games and lead the league in turnover margin.
Best game: Georgia 44, LSU 41, Sept. 28. To be honest, there were several thrilling games to choose from during the first half of the season. The Alabama-Texas A&M and Ole Miss-Texas A&M contests both deserve honorable mention, but the Dawgs and Tigers played one for the ages at Sanford Stadium a few weeks ago. Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger were both terrific in a back-and-forth game that nobody wanted to end.