By David Brandt/The Associated Press
If someone survives the Southeastern Conference gauntlet unscathed there’s little doubt they’ll get a spot in the national championship — and a shot at winning the league’s sixth consecutive title.
That’s a big if, especially without a clear-cut favorite in the SEC.
There are plenty of contenders, including LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas and Florida. All are ranked in the top 15. Others like Auburn, Georgia and Mississippi State have been previously ranked and hope to be a factor in November.
But there will be many potential season-breaking showdowns before then.
This weekend the third-ranked Crimson Tide hosts No. 14 Arkansas on Saturday while second-ranked LSU plays in yet another contest with championship implications when the Tigers travel to No. 16 West Virginia.
Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower prefers starting conference play with such a pivotal game.
“It’s cool to open that way because you know you have two teams that will fight to the end,” Hightower said. “Ain’t nobody gonna give up. So whoever comes out the best man in this situation here you have a good chance of going to the SEC championship.”
Just as it was last season, the Western Division is loaded.
“If you win the SEC West, you’re the best in the country,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.
LSU and Alabama are the front-runners. They have the vintage formula for winning the SEC — terrific defense coupled with a sound running game. But both teams have questions at quarterback.
LSU’s Jarrett Lee and Alabama’s A.J. McCarron have shown the ability to do good things, though at some point they might have to prove they can put their team on their backs and lead them to a win if needed.
That test could come during their showdown on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa.
And while Arkansas has arguably the league’s best offense, the Razorbacks haven’t been able to get that big win. The Tide has won four straight in the series, including a 24-20 victory last season.
Arkansas safety Tramain Thomas said this is their chance. The Razorbacks, led by first-year starting quarterback Tyler Wilson, are scoring 47 points per game.
“Pretty much since last year’s game we’ve been wanting to get back at these guys,” Thomas said. “We have the opportunity, and we have to seize the opportunity.”
South Carolina, Florida and Georgia are the early favorites in the Eastern Division.
The 12th-ranked Gamecocks have star running back Marcus Lattimore, who already has 534 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. But coach Steve Spurrier hasn’t been impressed with the Gamecocks.
“We keep reading about all these NFL guys we’ve got on defense and we’re not stopping people,” Spurrier said. “Statistically, we’re near the bottom in about everything. We need to go do it on the field.
“If we’re going to be a good team, it’s about time we started looking like one,” he said.
Florida can relate to that.
The No. 15 Gators are winning, but still getting their bearings under first-year coach Will Muschamp. Their biggest test will come in October with back-to-back games against Alabama and LSU. But Florida is in much better shape than Georgia, which is in survival mode.
After losses to Boise State and South Carolina, coach Mark Richt’s job security is in question as the Bulldogs prepare to play at Mississippi. Already 0-1 in the SEC, Georgia can’t afford any more mistakes.
“There’s a sense of urgency in that if we want to stay in this Eastern Division race, we’ve got to win, that’s just the way it is,” Richt said.
Auburn — the defending national champion — is a longshot to repeat.
Nonetheless, the Tigers still have their eyes on the title game. Their 17-game winning streak was snapped last week at Clemson, but the explosive Tigers are averaging nearly 36 points per game.
“If everybody flies around like I think we should, than I think we’ll be alright,” Auburn receiver Travante Stallworth said. “We just fight and try to get back to the (Georgia) Dome.”
AP Sports Writers John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Ark., and Charles Odum in Athens, Ga., contributed to this story.
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