Welcome to the new SEC of 2013
October, 20, 2013
By David Ching | ESPN.com
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonLadies and gentlemen, your SEC East division leaders, the Missouri Tigers.
At the start of the season -- heck, even two weeks ago -- nobody outside of the state of Missouri gave Gary Pinkel's team much of a shot at representing the SEC East in the conference's championship game.
I, for one, welcome our new Tiger overlords. Because like it or not, Saturday's losses by all three of the division's preseason favorites -- No. 11 South Carolina, No. 15 Georgia and No. 22 Florida -- mean No. 14 Missouri has a two-game lead in the division and is suddenly an enormous favorite to carry the East's banner in Atlanta.
Credit Pinkel. Nobody in the league occupied a hotter seat when the season started, but he led his team to initial wins against a bunch of nobodies, then to progressively more impressive victories against Vanderbilt, Georgia and Florida over the last few weeks. Another home win against South Carolina next Saturday and Missouri fans can start booking flights to Atlanta for the weekend of Dec. 7.
And that might not even be the most bizarre development of this weekend from around the conference.
Not when Ole Miss, which had lost three in a row -- including stomach-churning losses to Auburn and Texas A&M in the last two weeks -- and nine of its last 11 games against LSU, took down the No. 6 Tigers 27-24 with a late field goal.
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY Sports South Carolina lost Connor Shaw to injury Saturday, and probably its chances of winning the East, too.
Not when Vanderbilt, a 51-28 home loser to Mizzou its last time out, scored 17 unanswered, fourth-quarter points behind backup quarterback Patton Robinette to beat Georgia in Nashville for the first time since 1991.
Not when Tennessee, which gave up 59 straight points in an embarrassing loss at Oregon on Sept. 14, hit a walk-off field goal to beat South Carolina 23-21 just when it looked like the Gamecocks might be the team with the best shot of unseating Mizzou in the East.
And certainly not when No. 24 Auburn, which surrendered 63 points and a program-record 671 yards to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M last fall, traveled to College Station and shocked the No. 7 Aggies 45-41 to continue one of the season's best comeback stories.
By that measure, unbeaten Missouri's convincing 36-17 win against Florida was completely predictable and not at all surprising. Aside from top-ranked Alabama's 52-0 win against Arkansas on Saturday night -- we all saw that one coming -- Mizzou's win probably was the least surprising victory in the entire league.
That's where we are in the SEC right now. The conference was bragging about its record eight ranked teams at the beginning of the week. Five of them lost on Saturday, three to unranked opponents whose results against ranked teams in recent years were abysmal.
Heck, since the start of last season, the conference's perceived heavyweights -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, LSU and Texas A&M -- were 40-0 against the league's other eight teams before Missouri beat Georgia last week. Then the league's lower class rose up and went 5-1 against the 1 percenters on Saturday and helped create a new SEC hierarchy in the process.
A rash of devastating injuries have left Georgia and Florida looking like shells of their former selves. South Carolina might have absorbed a similar blow on Saturday when quarterback Connor Shaw left with a sprained left knee in the fourth quarter of the Tennessee loss.
Regardless, they are all 3-2 in conference play and are looking up at 3-0 Mizzou in the standings. The division race that nearly everyone expected to be among the Bulldogs, Gators and Gamecocks, each of whom lost just twice in the entire 2012 season, seems close to settled two weeks before Halloween.
Any November drama apparently will come from the West, where the Iron Bowl suddenly might be interesting for the first time since 2010. Now 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the league, Auburn is alone in second place in the West. Not only is it bowl eligible after last season's pathetic 3-9 implosion, Auburn likely will carry a 7-1 mark into its November slate against Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.
If you predicted any of that in August, much less a week or two ago, may I suggest taking your talents to Las Vegas. This is upheaval the likes of which the SEC has not seen in some time.
It's kind of fun, though, isn't it? By and large, this has been a fairly predictable conference over the last few years. This season is different, and thanks to new blood in the coaching ranks, and the injury issues plaguing some preseason favorites, my bet is that Saturday wasn't the last time we'll see widespread mayhem in the SEC this fall.