By Brett Martel/The Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. — The blazing starts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are raising doubts about preseason assumptions that the West is best in the Southeastern Conference.
Sure, the West Division remains home to the top nationally ranked teams in the league: No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 LSU. But the next few weeks — LSU travels to No. 11 Florida on Oct. 6 and hosts No. 6 South Carolina on Oct. 13 — will clarify the extent to which the SEC’s balance of power has begun shifting eastward.
“It looks like it has turned that way, with Florida undefeated, Georgia and us right there,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said, although he also noted that none of his team’s victories have come against an opponent that currently has a winning record. “We don’t know how good we are, just like a lot of teams don’t know.”
Florida (4-0), which has this week off, will be undefeated when it hosts LSU in a game Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease called “a defining moment to see where we’re at.”
The leaders in the East have been winning with dominant defenses and powerful running games, a formula familiar to the Crimson Tide and the Tigers.
That is a bit of a departure for Spurrier, who made his name as a coach at Florida with a wide open pass-oriented offense called the “Fun ‘N’ Gun.”
The 2012 Gamecocks (4-0) rank second in the SEC in points allowed (9.8 per game) and fourth in total defense (300.2 yards per game). The two best-known players on their roster are defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (third in the league in tackles for losses) and running back Marcus Lattimore (80 yards rushing per game).
Fifth-ranked Georgia (4-0) has the conference’s leading rusher in Todd Gurley (101.5 ypg) and a defensive star in linebacker Jarvis Jones, who ranks second in the league in tackles for losses. Florida’s Mike Gillislee is the SEC’s second-leading rusher (100.5 ypg), and the Gators lead the SEC in pass defense efficiency, allowing a completion rate of less than 52 percent while intercepting six passes.
“The SEC East is an outstanding part of our league,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, insinuating that the team that wins the division will deserve more credit for its strength of schedule than some might have thought before the season. “Preseason, everybody had an opinion on everybody’s schedules, and I felt like we just aren’t going to know how tough everybody’s schedule is until you play the season and you have a better idea of how tough it is. We felt like we had some very outstanding teams in the East, and so far they are proving it.”
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley won’t argue with that. His team is showing signs of improvement this season with 3-1 record, the lone loss coming against the Gators.
“There’s a lot of good football teams on this side,” Dooley said of the East. “We’ve only played one of them, so it’s hard for me to evaluate the rest. I know the one we played is a good football team.”
Of the six straight national titles won by the SEC, four of the last five, including the past three, have been won by either Alabama, Auburn or LSU, all teams from the West. Florida — during the Urban Myer era — was the lone team from the East to win national championships in that span, in 2006 and 2008.
During the past two seasons, the team representing the East in Atlanta struggled to mount much of a challenge to the West Division winner. LSU crushed Georgia, 42-10, last season, only to lose in the BCS title game to Alabama, which had finished second in the SEC West.
Certainly, when last season ended, the power in the SEC appeared heavily concentrated in the West, not only because of the Crimson Tide and Tigers, but because of Arkansas finishing fifth in the final AP Poll.
Arkansas has subsequently fallen on hard times with the scandalous departure of coach Bobby Petrino and a 1-3 start under interim coach John L. Smith. Alabama still looks all but invincible, but LSU less so after narrowly escaping with a 12-10 victory at Auburn last weekend.
“Right now, Alabama and LSU deserve to be the standard,” said Mississippi first-year coach Hugh Freeze, whose team meets Alabama this weekend. “But I don’t think those schools in the East are far off at all.”
Certainly, LSU has taken notice of how much tougher its schedule now looks with apparent improvement of the Gators and Gamecocks.
“The SEC is as strong as ever. The last few years it was in the West. This year, we have teams executing on both sides. That’s how it should be,” said LSU offensive lineman Josh Dworaczyk, whose six years (including two redshirt years) at LSU have spanned most of the SEC’s streak of national titles. “This year, it looks like the East is as strong as ever.”
LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo was a major part of the Tigers squad that blew out the Bulldogs in the second half of last season’s SEC title game. He said he would be surprised to see the winner of the West win that contest by more than four touchdowns this December.
“It definitely will be a real game in Atlanta,” Mingo said. “You have Florida, South Carolina, Georgia. Those teams are pretty good — really good, not pretty good.”
AP Sports Writers Charles Odum, Mark Long, David Brandt, Steve Megargee, and Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.