Commentary

SEC West is best yet again

Originally Published: October 1, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Mike Slive's most pressing need is not recruiting a 14th school to his Southeastern Conference.

Far more urgent is the need to dispatch grief counselors to the league's Eastern Division. Because the West is beating the East like a bunch of Conference USA teams again this season.

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
Kim Klement/US PresswireDont'a Hightower and Alabama laid the lumber on Florida on Saturday night.

With the exception of Mississippi State, Saturday was Flex Day for the West. Five victories, four of them away from home, three of them against ranked opponents. If there was even a tiny doubt about the toughest neighborhood in college football, it has been expunged.

Auburn went into Columbia and removed No. 10 South Carolina from the ranks of the unbeaten. Top-ranked LSU suffocated Kentucky, 35-7. Mississippi won a road game for the first time in more than a year, at Fresno State. Arkansas beat the 2012 rush, roaring from 18 points down to stun 14th-ranked future league member Texas A&M.

And in front of 90,888 fans here, Alabama drained The Swamp of second-half electricity in a 38-10 mauling of No. 12 Florida. It was the Gators' worst home loss in nine years, since The Zooker's crew was trampled 36-7 by LSU.

Nick Saban was the winning coach then, too.

"This was a great team win," Saban said after watching his Alabama team respond to an early 10-3 hole by reeling off 35 unanswered points.

It was a great divisional win as well, as the league's power base continues to go West, young men.

The West was 16-3 against the East last season, including Auburn's crushing of South Carolina in the SEC championship game. It might not be quite as lopsided overall this season, but don't for a minute think the league champ is coming from the Eastern time zone.

Specifically, it will be coming from either Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge. Alabama and LSU are the two best teams in the country to date.

Oklahoma and Wisconsin have done nothing wrong this season, but neither have they done as much right as the studs of the SEC. The Tigers have beaten three ranked opponents away from Baton Rouge by a combined margin of 52 points. The Crimson Tide has beaten three ranked opponents (just one at home) by a combined margin of 68 points.

They're a matched pair of devastating defenses -- violent, swift ballhawks who can intimidate and demoralize even the most confident and productive offenses. If LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu isn't the best defensive player in the league, then Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw is.

What we came out as a defense to do is to punish them and hit them. I was just doing my job.

-- Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw

Upshaw was at his disruptive best Saturday, producing a sack, three tackles for loss and a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown that gave the Tide the lead for good. He was the ringleader of a borderline abusive beating administered to the Gators.

Gator Nation spent the past week agitating for big-play threat Chris Rainey to become a more prominent part of the Heisman Trophy discussion. After Rainey was held to 36 yards from scrimmage on 14 touches, that's a dead topic.

Explosive running mate Jeff Demps did even less. He had four touches from scrimmage for 6 yards, with a long gain of 2.

Both backs are deadly in space. But Alabama's defense is a black hole -- it inhales space and light. And quarterbacks, too.

Florida starter John Brantley didn't last a half before leaving with a right leg injury. He and backup Jeff Driskel were buried for 38 yards in losses. With the help of some fresh-look alignments from coordinator Charlie Weis, Brantley did manage to hit passes of 65, 30 and 25 yards on the Gators' first three possessions, but after that, they got nothing of substance through the air -- or on the ground, for that matter.

"What we came out as a defense to do is to punish them and hit them," Upshaw said. "I was just doing my job."

Seems that hitting is everyone's job at Alabama. Running back Trent Richardson relishes contact, rarely going down before he's good and ready. He won plenty of collisions on his way to a career-high 181 rushing yards on a career-high 29 carries. Running behind what he called a "legendary" offensive line, Richardson repeatedly punched holes in what had been the nation's No. 5 defense against the run.

"I knew they'd break down," Richardson said.

Even the unlikely suspects are tough guys for the Tide. Kicker Cade Foster, a solid 216-pounder, made a couple of emphatic tackles on kickoffs -- one of them physical enough to put Demps on the sideline for a while. And even AJ McCarron got into the grill of Florida defensive lineman Dominique Easley after Easley was called for a personal foul hit on the quarterback.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Rick WilsonAlabama QB AJ McCarron threw for 140 yards and had a touchdown on the ground.

"That's between me and him," McCarron said of the exchange with Easley. "We'll leave that on the field."

Amused offensive tackle Barrett Jones provided a little more insight.

"I think [Easley] hit him late, drove him into the ground, and I think he was still kind of saying some stuff," Jones said. "I love it when AJ gets fired up, but I had to tell him, 'You're the quarterback. You probably can't take on a 300-pound defensive lineman.'"

Saban told McCarron something similar when the quarterback was rather exuberant after scoring on a sneak a few plays later. McCarron kept his emotions in check after that, but admitted enjoying watching the second-largest crowd in the history of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium fleeing early in the fourth quarter.

"Best feeling in the world," he said.

With Vanderbilt, Mississippi and Tennessee in the next three weeks, Alabama should take its unbeaten record into November. So should LSU, which has Florida and Auburn and home and Tennessee on the road in the coming weeks.

That would produce a showdown in T-Town of epic proportion.

"I can't make any comparisons of our team to anybody else," Saban said. "I've seen LSU a couple times because they're in our league. I think they're a fantastic team, and one day we'll play."

That day is Nov. 5. Feel free to commence counting the minutes until then, and to commence debating who will win.

The one thing that cannot be debated is that both the Tigers and Tide play in the premier division in college football. Flex Day only confirmed that the SEC West is the best.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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