- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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This has been an interesting season of SEC football so far, and we're set up for what should be a magnificent finish.
The SEC East got turned upside down, with an unexpected team (Missouri) rising to the top, while the SEC West has seen Alabama do what Alabama does. There have been some epic games (like Georgia-LSU in September and Missouri-South Carolina last week), some terrific individual performances (Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans going for 279 and 287 receiving yards against Alabama and Auburn, respectively), lots of injuries, and compelling storylines to follow (the rise of LSU's offense, the Jadeveon Clowney saga, and anything involving Johnny Manziel).
Some new coaches (Gus Malzahn at Auburn, Butch Jones at Tennessee) have reason to smile so far, while others (Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Mark Stoops at Kentucky) have endured some mighty struggles. What's left in the coming weeks? Plenty. With six ranked teams in the conference, four of which are in the SEC West, there's still some great theater ahead in the final month of SEC football.
Teams with the most to prove: Florida and Georgia. Those two teams meet this weekend and, at the start of the year, it appeared to be a game that would have major implications on the SEC East championship. Instead, it's a battle between two teams simply trying to stay alive in that chase. Both have been beat up by injuries quite a bit this season. Because of that and various other reasons, both teams have performed below preseason expectations. But depending on how Missouri and South Carolina finish, the Bulldogs or Gators could still find themselves in the division race if they can get on track in November.
Teams with the most to lose: Alabama and Missouri. The Crimson Tide have kept a stranglehold on the No. 1 spot since the preseason. The final month of the season, however, won't be quite the cakewalk that October was as a battle against LSU looms, as does the Iron Bowl against a much-improved Auburn squad. With undefeated teams like Oregon and Florida State behind them in the BCS standings, there's a lot on the line for the Tide. Missouri still leads the SEC East, but last week's loss to South Carolina makes things interesting with the Tigers having four SEC games left and just a one-game lead in the loss column over South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Three players to keep an eye on: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is still in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race. Even though he's running third in some straw polls behind Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, a strong November will help his chances, and let's be honest, there might not be anyone as exciting or compelling to watch as Johnny Football. South Carolina running back Mike Davis leads the SEC in rushing yards (930) and has averaged a solid 6.2 yards per carry with 10 touchdowns; he has been a linchpin for the Gamecocks this season. But right behind him in the league rushing title chase is LSU's Jeremy Hill, who trails by only 8 yards (922) and has averaged a whopping 7.2 yard per carry to go with 12 touchdowns. It should be fun to see which of these two has the stronger finish.
Biggest trap game: Missouri at Ole Miss. It's not as if the Tigers will be overlooking the Rebels when they meet in Oxford, Miss., but assuming Missouri takes care of business the next two weeks against Tennessee and Kentucky and maintains its lead in the SEC East, the final two games will be a doozy as the Tigers to try to close out the year and clinch a berth to Atlanta. Texas A&M will travel to Columbia, Mo., for the regular-season finale on Nov. 30, but traveling to Oxford and getting a win over Ole Miss isn't easy, as LSU learned last month. Missouri will be asked to do so with a lot on the line. A key question: Will James Franklin be healthy enough to take the snaps by then, or will it still be freshman Maty Mauk?
Fearless November prediction: Auburn goes 4-0 in November, including an upset of No. 1 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, wins the SEC West title and heads to Atlanta for the SEC championship. Led by Gus Malzahn, the Tigers complete one of the best turnaround seasons in recent memory. How's that for fearless?