Commentary

Plenty of players left in 2007 SEC race

Originally Published: October 10, 2007
By Ron Higgins | Special to ESPN.com

The Southeastern Conference's big marketing push this season is centered on celebrating its 75th year of operation.

Maybe the league's theme for football should be "Ya Never Know," because the parity in the league is at an all-time high.

Les Miles
AP Photo/Alex BrandonLes Miles and the No. 1 Tigers are 3-0 in the SEC.

So far, LSU beat Mississippi State, Mississippi State beat Auburn, Auburn beat Florida, Florida beat Tennessee, Tennessee beat Georgia, Georgia beat Alabama, Alabama beat Arkansas which lost to Kentucky which lost to South Carolina which lost to LSU, which beat Florida.

Makes you want to take some Dramamine, doesn't it?

Then there's the supposed homefield advantage. After 18 games between SEC teams, the home team has won nine times and the road team has won nine times, and that was after the home team won all four games last weekend.

Even if you already have two losses like Florida does in the Eastern Division, you don't feel out of the race.

"I don't make guarantees. I don't know if I've ever done this, but I guarantee we'll be back," Gators coach Urban Meyer said after his team lost 28-24 at No. 1 LSU on Saturday in the closing minutes. "The Florida Gators will be back smokin'. I don't know when … I've got to see how everybody responds but we'll come back."

There's no reason to doubt him. Tennessee looked dead in the water after getting bombed 59-20 at Florida in its conference opener on Sept. 15 in Gainesville. The 39-point loss was the largest margin of defeat in an SEC opener for the Vols since losing 44-0 to Georgia in 1981.

And history indicates the loser of the Florida-Tennessee game rarely gets off the mat to win the Eastern Division.

Except two weeks after drilling the Vols, the Gators suffered their first home loss in Meyer's three years as coach, falling to Auburn 20-17 two weeks ago. Then the Gators lost at LSU on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Tennessee hammered Georgia, 35-14, on Saturday. Now, the Vols feel all tingly again.

"See that? See 35-14? We're Tennessee again," Vols defensive tackle Demonte Bolden screamed while trotting off the Neyland Stadium turf and pointing at the scoreboard after the win.

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who admitted the week before that he actually said "War Damn Eagle" when Auburn's Wes Byrum kicked the game-winning field goal at Florida, was just as happy when he saw LSU come back to beat Florida.

"I was hopeful," Fulmer said. "I hadn't seen a whole lot of LSU, just reading everything that was said, and having seen them a little bit earlier in the year. I knew they had a chance to beat Florida, and also knew Florida had a chance to beat them. LSU had the wherewithal to get it done in the end."

Even South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, whose team on Sunday entered the top 10 of the Associated Press poll for the first time since 2001, is a voice of reason about the SEC race. There's no brag in the Ol' Ball Coach.

"We realize it's almost exactly halfway through the season, six games," Spurrier said. "A lot can happen in the next six. When we beat Georgia, we had a chance to be in the race as long as we beat everybody we're supposed to. That's all we've done right now. We've won the ones that we were supposed to win."

And the two teams that haven't won a conference game -- Arkansas, last year's Western Division champion, and Ole Miss -- probably won't win the West but may decide which team will.

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt isn't conceding anything. After four top-10 teams got beat two Saturdays ago, Nutt immediately pounced on it.

"In our team meeting [that] Sunday, the first thing I told our team was, 'Did anybody watch TV and see the scores [all the upsets]?'" Nutt said. "This is a crazy, crazy game of football. Anybody can beat anybody on any given night. You can't give up. Our season is way, way too long. We've gone to Atlanta [in the SEC championship game] before with two losses, so take 'em one game at a time and keep playing."

Sounds like a textbook line from the Bull Durham Book of Sports Clichés, doesn't it?

But in the SEC, it's the gospel. Because right when you think you have it figured out, you don't.

Midseason Mayhem
Six weeks into the season, we've learned a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of college football's top teams. But major questions still loom. ESPN.com reviews the first half of the season.

ACC
Milian: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

Big 12
Griffin: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

Big East
Starkey: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

Big Ten
Hooley: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

ND, non-BCS
Rittenberg: Midseason report

Pac-10
Miller: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

SEC
Higgins: Midseason report
Team-by-team breakdown Insider

Biggest Surprise

It's probably Kentucky, but it shouldn't be with the way the Wildcats finished last season. Kentucky won five of six games in 2006 to record an 8-5 season, which was its most wins in a season since Jerry Claiborne's 9-3 1984 team.

But the feeling about Kentucky was that even with three of the league's most potent offensive weapons returning -- quarterback Andre' Woodson, running back Rafael Little and wide receiver Keenan Burton -- the Cats still didn't have any sort of defense at all.

The defense still isn't dynamic, but it's no longer the worst in the SEC. For the most part, it hasn't allowed game-changing plays and even has made a few. Because of that, Kentucky's 5-1 start and No. 17 ranking have opened a lot of eyes.

Biggest Disappointment

Arkansas, last year's Western Division champ, is off to an 0-2 start in SEC play. The team doesn't appear to have the same spark and magic it had a year ago when it won 10 straight games and got to the SEC championship game, where it led Florida in the third quarter before losing.

All the off-the-field public backstabbing in the offseason about Arkansas coach Houston Nutt over his alleged role in the transfer of hotshot quarterback Mitch Mustain to Southern California put a cloud over the program.

What's even worse is that the vultures that have been waiting on the cliff to nibble away at Nutt now have the bait. Arkansas this season, like most of last year, has a junior high passing game. Part of the problem is that the team's three best receivers, including game-breaker Marcus Monk, are hurt. Monk hasn't played a down this year and the other two primo pass catchers are done for the year.

Even with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones ranked among the nation's top 10 rushers, Arkansas' one-dimensional offense is going to get Nutt, who has been a good coach, fired. Either that, or he'll resign. Win or lose, he just doesn't want himself or his family to be subjected the daily abuse.

Midseason MVP

Everyone has gone gaga over Kentucky quarterback Andre' Woodson and rightfully so, because he's thrown for 200 yards in 12 consecutive games. His 18 touchdowns to two interceptions is plain stupid.

And Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, last year's Heisman Trophy runner-up, certainly hasn't disappointed. He's off to the best start of his career, ranked third nationally in rushing, averaging 155.8 yards per game.

But the midseason MVP is the person who runs in McFadden's shadow, teammate Felix Jones, who's eighth in the nation in rushing (126.2 yards per game) and fourth in kickoff returns (34.4). He already has scored seven touchdowns this season, including two on kickoff returns. He has seven runs of 30 yards or more. Three have been for touchdowns, two set up touchdowns and two set the table for field goals. However, his most impressive stat is his 10.5 yards per rushing attempt.

"I really do expect to break runs," Jones said. "I'm feeling pretty good. The line has created some great holes."

Midseason Coach of the Year

Often, the hardest thing is to live up to the hype, and certainly LSU has done that. The Tigers were ranked No. 2 in the preseason polls, despite losing five players in the NFL draft, including four in the first round. Now ranked No. 1, the unbeaten Tigers haven't missed a beat and much of it is due to the even-keeled, week-to-week preparation of third-year coach Les Miles. He has taken a team full of talent, kept the egos in check, put players in the best possible positions to succeed and done it while incorporating a new offensive coordinator (Gary Crowton). The fact Miles had the faith to successfully gamble five times on fourth down in Saturday's 28-24 win over Florida showed the confidence he has in his team.

Bowl Bound

Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Ron Higgins covers the Southeastern Conference for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.