- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Picking the best team in this conference isn’t the hard part.
It’s all those spots in the middle, and how do you slot the teams No. 8 through No. 12? That’s one jumbled mess.
We’ll give it the old college try with this week’s SEC power rankings:
1. Alabama: The scary part isn’t that Alabama defeated Florida 31-6. The scary part is that the Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0) made it look so easy. When the game was 31-3, Alabama shut it down to run some clock, or the Crimson Tide could have easily scored in the 40s. This is a physical team, a team that can beat you a number of different ways offensively and a team that’s only going to get better on defense.
2. Auburn: Well, here the Tigers (5-0, 2-0) are again. They also started the season 5-0 a year ago, but lost five of their last six SEC games. This team has more firepower, though, and it also has Cameron Newton at quarterback. The defense has improved. There’s more depth across the board, and the schedule is about as favorable as it gets. Until proven otherwise, Auburn is the biggest threat to Alabama in the Western Division race.
3. Arkansas: Don’t forget about the Hogs, who’ve played Alabama better than anybody to this point. They had a chance to regroup last week with the bye and take on Texas A&M this Saturday at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium in Arlington, Texas. Arkansas (3-1, 1-1) still needs to find a more consistent running game to help protect leads, but this is a team that has everything it takes to make a run and have a 10-win season. The Hogs are going to light up a few more scoreboards along the way. Their passing attack is that good.
4. Florida: On the surface, it’s just one loss. But the 31-6 beatdown by Alabama reinforced what we saw in the first three weeks from the Gators (4-1, 2-1). This offense has serious limitations, and junior quarterback John Brantley isn’t quite ready for All-SEC status like some in and around Gainesville pumped him up to be in the preseason. That’s not to say he won’t be a good quarterback, because you can see he has the skills. He’s just not there yet, and just as important, the guys around him have to play better and make more explosive plays down the field.
5. South Carolina: Following a bye week, the Gamecocks (3-1, 1-1) get their chance to do what nobody in this league has done since the end of the 2007 season -- and that’s beat Alabama in an SEC regular-season game. Not only would it be the biggest win in the Steve Spurrier era, but it would put be the Gamecocks back in great shape in the Eastern Division race. Steve Spurrier is going with Stephen Garcia as his quarterback. But if Garcia turns it over, the Head Ball Coach will have a quick hook.
6. LSU: This may be the first time in the history of the SEC power rankings that an unbeaten team has been ranked this far down five weeks into the season. No disrespect to the Tigers’ defense or their special teams, but there’s lucky and then there’s what happened Saturday in the 16-14 win over Tennessee. Maybe Les Miles just likes living on the edge. How else do you explain being so chaotic in late-game clock management situations? And, yet, the Tigers (5-0, 3-0) keep surviving. Reality, though, may be lurking around the corner.
7. Mississippi State: It’s dangerous to count your wins before they hatch, but the Bulldogs (3-2, 1-2) can see 4-2 from here. They travel to Houston Saturday after routing Alcorn State 49-16. One of the best things about this last game is that the Bulldogs got Chad Bumphis going on offense. He’s that dynamic playmaker they need to emerge in the passing game. The defense has given up more than 17 points only once in the first five games. A win over Houston would give Mississippi State a ton of momentum heading to Florida on Oct. 16.
8. Kentucky: Yes, I realize Kentucky just lost to Ole Miss and has given up 90 points in its last two games. Maybe we should just vacate all the spots after No. 7. However, the Wildcats (3-2, 0-2) get the slight nod here over some of the other teams because they have a winning record, but it’s the slimmest of edges. They get Auburn at home this weekend, a chance to prove they deserve this ranking. The defense has to get a lot better. They’ve been exposed on that side of the ball each of the past two weeks. The good news is that Auburn’s visit marks the first of three straight home games.
9. Tennessee: The Vols (2-3, 0-2) move up for two reasons. They’ve played tough for two straight weeks against top-10 foes, and they came up with a new, radical defensive concept -- the 7-3-3 defense. If not for having 13 men on the field at the end of the game at LSU, Tennessee would be celebrating a huge win right now. The Vols outplayed the Tigers for just about the entire game and probably deserved to win. But there’s no excuse for that kind of critical error on the sideline, especially when LSU was in total chaos and was already trying to give you the game.
10. Georgia: It’s as nasty right now in Athens as it’s ever been since the arrival of Mark Richt in 2001. The Bulldogs (1-4, 0-3) have now lost four in a row, including a 29-27 setback to Colorado on Saturday. They’re not getting blown out. Rather, they just haven’t been able to make the plays in the fourth quarter to win, and costly fumbles have killed them. At this point, it’s difficult to imagine the Bulldogs salvaging this season. Really, just scratching out a winning season might be a long shot.
11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores (1-3, 0-2) are showing signs of life offensively and led Connecticut 21-14 in the second quarter. But from there, the bottom fell out. The Huskies scored the last 26 points of the game and rode Jordan Todman’s 190 rushing yards to a 40-21 win. Tackling Todman was a problem for Vanderbilt, but an even bigger problem was three turnovers and a stream of costly penalties. This is a team that already doesn’t have a whole lot of room for error. But when it starts beating itself with turnovers and penalties, the result is going to be the same as last Saturday just about every time.
12. Ole Miss: The Rebels (3-2, 1-1) probably deserve to move out of the cellar after winning two straight, including beating Kentucky last week. But they have one more week to serve their automatic banishment to the cellar for losing to an FCS team and Vanderbilt in the same season at home. Give the offense credit, though. Jeremiah Masoli and crew have it rolling right now, but it’s still hard to figure out what’s happened to that defense. Ole Miss gets a week off before traveling to No. 1-ranked Alabama on Oct. 16.