LEXINGTON, Ky. — There’s a new hierarchy in the Southeastern Conference. And the royalty no longer lies in the SEC East.
While they’re panicking in Georgia, protesting in Tennessee and preparing for basketball in Kentucky, the teams in the West just keep on winning.
However, the power shift to that “other” division has gone largely unnoticed. The bulk of the national SEC attention the last 18 years has focused on the East.
Auburn senior guard Mike Berry, who grew up in central Tennessee watching the Volunteers slug it out with Florida and Georgia every fall for a ticket to the SEC title game, said the the tide has turned.
“I’ve always felt like we’ve had some of the better teams since I’ve been here,” Berry said. “I just think that it’s a great thing that the West is getting more attention. Not to knock the East because they’re in the SEC for a reason. It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to go in and prove yourselves each week, and I think most of the West teams have done that.”
Have they ever.
Led by No. 1 Alabama and No. 8 Auburn, the six West schools are 24-5 overall and 7-1 against the East, with the lone loss an upset win by Vanderbilt on the road at Ole Miss. The East, which has just two ranked teams in No. 14 Florida and No. 19 South Carolina, is a pedestrian 14-14 overall.
“No question the West appears better than the East right now,” said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.
There’s an irony in Spurrier’s ceding power to the West. His arrival at Florida in 1990 signaled a sea change in the conference. His pass-happy attack led the Gators back to prominence and brought some glitz to the SEC, which had been long symbolized by the gritty, determined play of Bear Bryant’s teams at Alabama.
Spurrier’s gamesmanship, not to mention his results, raised the conference’s profile nationally.
Throw in superstar quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning — and most eyes looked East.
Yet the West holds a slim advantage all-time against the East, 168-156-3 since expansion and has won as many national titles (four). It’s also proven to be the division of opportunity. While the East has sent just three teams to the SEC title game, the only program from the West not to make at least one trip to Atlanta is Mississippi.
“I’m a little partial, but to me the West is probably the best,” said Mississippi coach Houston Nutt, who spent a decade at Arkansas before joining the Rebels. “From top to bottom, I think it’s the toughest. But again, I’m partial.”
This year, he also appears to be right.
While the coaches say simply these things are cyclical, Kentucky linebacker Danny Trevathan has a theory on why the West is dominating this year: Offense.
Though Alabama’s prostyle offense simply runs overmatched opponents over, the rest of the conference has turned into the Wild West. Trevathan pointed to the dynamic Spread attacks used at Mississippi, Mississippi State and Auburn and the offensive wizardry of Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino as the power behind the West’s rise.
“There’s just a lot of speed, they’ve got quarterbacks that can do lots of things,” he said.
Trevathan and the Wildcats learned firsthand last weekend when Mississippi’s Jeremiah Massoli led the Rebels to a 42-35 win.
Things won’t get any easier for the Wildcats this week against Auburn’s Cam Newton, the SEC’s highest-rated passer.
Throw in Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell and Chris Relf and Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett and the league’s top signal callers all play West of Georgia.
Their play has led to some eye-popping numbers on the scoreboard. Five of the league’s top six offenses play in the West, as do four of the top six highest scoring teams.
The tide has shifted so suddenly some perennial SEC East powers find themselves in an unfamiliar position. Tennessee (2-3) and Georgia (1-4) typically meet in early October hoping to take a significant step toward the title game.
Not this year. Thanks to a combined 0-3 record against West teams, both clubs are looking to simply survive.
“There’s some weeks where we’ve come in, and we haven’t been ready, and they haven’t been ready,” said Tennessee defensive end Chris Walker. “And it’s showed.”
That hasn’t been a problem in the West. Take out Mississippi’s missteps against Vanderbilt and Jacksonville State, and the West’s other three losses have all come to ranked divisional opponents.
LSU coach Les Miles, whose 12th-ranked team is a slightly fortunate 5-0, doesn’t see a “big difference” between the two divisions, but added “the West tier appears to get tougher and tougher each year.”
Blame, or thank, Nick Saban. He built LSU into a national champion and is doing the same at Alabama. His team’s play has forced the other schools in the West to play catch up. They’re doing it behind smart hires and out-of-the-box thinking previously the domain of the Spurriers and Urban Meyers of the SEC.
Those hires have allowed the West to enjoy a period of coaching stability while the East is trying to break in new coaches at Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.
It’s led to a competitive imbalance on the field. And it’s not the perennial also-rans that have struggled against the West. Florida is 25-2 against the East under Meyer, but just 11-8 versus the West after getting pummeled at Alabama last week.
While the nation may be slow to embrace the West’s dominance, it isn’t lost on their brethren in the East.
“They’ve got respect from us,” said Kentucky coach Joker Phillips. “Of the last couple championships, how many have we won, four? They had two (at Florida), LSU and Alabama have won in the last couple years, so it has nothing to do with respect because everybody respects this league, not just the East.”
AP Sports Writers John Zenor in Auburn, Ala., Theresa M. Walker in Nashville, Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., David Brandt in Oxford, Miss., Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., and Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.
Will Graves/The Associated Press