This is the weekend everything starts to make sense (or becomes more confusing) in the Southeastern Conference.
Four of the league’s top teams, all ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll, square off in a pair of games that will begin to reveal who has the mettle to compete with Alabama for a possible trip to Miami for the BCS National Championship game. Meanwhile, Alabama’s players and coaches have the luxury of kicking up their feet and watching it all shake out. The No. 1 Crimson Tide, which received all 60 first-place votes in the AP poll this week, is off Saturday.
Before the season, the SEC West received most of the national attention, and rightfully so, but the focus has shifted east thanks to the earlier-than-expected resurgence of Florida, a pair of freshmen running backs in Athens, Ga., and a defense in South Carolina that is ranked seventh nationally against the run.
GAME 1: LSU AT FLORIDA
The SEC’s big day begins in Gainesville at 3:30 p.m. CBS’s feature game puts Florida coach Will Muschamp on the national stage for the most important game of his young career.
• The rankings: LSU (5-0, 1-0 SEC) is ranked fourth in the AP poll. UF (4-0, 3-0) is ranked 10th.
• Last season: LSU routed Florida 41-11 in Baton Rouge.
• The background: Since defeating No. 3 Cincinnati in the 2010 Sugar Bowl, Florida is 1-9 against ranked teams. LSU is on an 18-game, regular-season winning streak.
• The quarterbacks: LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger might be older than UF’s Jeff Driskel. But a case can be made that Driskel is the more experienced player entering the game. Both are first-year starters in the SEC, but Driskel is 3-0 in conference play and that record includes back-to-back road wins against Texas A&M and Tennessee.
• Breakout watch: UF running back Mike Gillislee might not be a household name yet, but his statistics demand attention. He is ranked second in the SEC and 29th nationally in rushing with 402 yards in four games.
GAME 2: GEORGIA AT SOUTH CAROLINA
The SEC’s ESPN nightcap begins at 7 p.m. in Columbia, S.C., where South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has been throwing his considerable clout (and possibly his visor) around town in recent weeks in an attempt to have a local columnist fired for being too critical.
• The rankings: Georgia (5-0, 3-0) is ranked fifth in the AP poll. South Carolina (5-0, 3-0) is ranked sixth.
• Last season: South Carolina edged Georgia 45-42 in Athens, Ga.
• The background: The Gamecocks are gunning for history in the 65th meeting between the rivals, as South Carolina has never won three in a row against Georgia.
• The quarterbacks: Spurrier has refashioned his offense around running back Marcus Lattimore, but quarterback Connor Shaw is capable of winning a close game with his arm and grit. Shaw is ranked 10th nationally in passing efficiency (172.6). Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is ranked third nationally in that category (183.5).
• Breakout watch: When former starting Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell was dismissed from the team in the preseason, the concern in Athens was that the offense would suffer from being too one-dimensional. Turns out coach Mark Richt knew what he was doing. Freshman running back Todd Gurley (536 yards, 68 carries, nine touchdowns) is drawing comparisons to Herschel Walker and backfield mate Keith Marshall, another frosh, is averaging 8.2 yards per carry.
(Not a representation of my ballot if the season ended today.)
1. Geno Smith, senior quarterback, West Virginia. 2. Barrett Jones, senior center, Alabama. 3. Manti Te’o, senior linebacker, Notre Dame.