It’s nitty gritty time for SEC championship contenders

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Coach Dan Mullen's Gators, the only team to beat LSU, have an earlier loss to Kentucky that could prove costly in the head-to-head competition depending on how the coming weeks play out. Florida (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Now, the Southeastern Conference is getting down to the nitty gritty.

Starting with the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party this weekend, the division title contenders will be meeting over the next two weeks to sort things out.

No. 7 Georgia and No. 9 Florida get the big stretch going Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida. Then, the Bulldogs and No. 12 Kentucky tangle to further settle what’s now a three-way logjam in the SEC East.

And the SEC West’s two top-5 teams, No. 4 LSU and No. 1 Alabama, face off in Baton Rouge to start off November after both have an open date this weekend.

At Alabama, the lone unbeaten team, coach Nick Saban knows how hard it is to stay that way down the stretch. He pointed out to his players that the Tide has now started 8-0 eight times since his arrival, and 2014 was the only undefeated team.

“We can be proud of what we’ve done so far, but it really doesn’t matter from here on out,” Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams said. “The way we define the season happens from here and January.”

No. 16 Texas A&M (5-2, 3-1) is still in the West running, too, despite an early loss to Alabama.

It’s a harder road for some division contenders than others.

Georgia (6-1, 4-1) faces back to back games against the two East teams who have matched the Bulldogs’ record.

The Bulldogs have had an extra week to regroup from a 36-16 loss to LSU that might have served as a wakeup call for the challenges ahead.

“I wouldn’t say we needed one, but it definitely woke us up for sure,” Georgia tailback Elijah Holyfield said. “We’re awake and we know what’s at stake now.”

Dan Mullen’s Gators, the only team to beat LSU, have an earlier loss to Kentucky that could prove costly in the head-to-head competition depending on how the coming weeks play out. Florida lost last year’s meeting with Georgia 42-7 .

“I mean, rivalry games, you love winning because it’s bragging rights for that year,” Mullen said. “That’s what makes rivalry games so much fun for the players and especially for all the fan bases. So, I understand that aspect of it being a big game, but is one game going to define our season or our program? Probably not, but it’s still a lot of fun to go play in it.”

While the Gators and Bulldogs are on the field, LSU (7-1, 4-1) and Alabama (8-0, 5-0) will sit and wait for their own big divisional showdown.

The Tide has won the last seven meetings, but the Tigers feel confident things could be different this time against the defending national champions.

“This is a team that believes it can win and we can be on the field with Alabama,” LSU defensive back Kristian Fulton said. “That’s the biggest difference this year.”

Here’s a look at the contenders and their remaining schedules:

—LSU is the only remaining Alabama opponent currently in the Top 25, though Mississippi State and Auburn both had been ranked for much of the season. Auburn knocked the Tide out of SEC contention last season though ‘Bama still made it into the playoffs and won a fifth national title under Saban.

“It’s all about how you finish,” Saban said.

For Florida, Georgia is definitely the biggest remaining challenge. Then it’s on to Missouri, South Carolina, Idaho and at Florida State. All five remaining games will be played in the state of Florida.

—Georgia is facing back-to-back-to-back big games. Survive Florida and Kentucky, and the Bulldogs appear in decent shape of winning out on their way back to Atlanta for a shot at repeating. They finish at home against Auburn and UMass before facing a 3-4 Georgia Tech team.

—Kentucky may have the easiest road, even with the home game against Georgia. The Wildcats face Missouri, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and Louisville — teams with a combined 13-15 record.

But Wildcats coach Mark Stoops emphatically insists his team can’t overlook Missouri.

“I think you’d have to be a moron to not realize the threat you’re going to go up against with Missouri,” Stoops said. The Tigers are 0-3 in SEC play, however.

—LSU’s toughest remaining test post-Alabama figures to be No. 16 Texas A&M on the road Nov. 24. The other games are at Arkansas and home against Rice.

If LSU beats Alabama, Texas A&M could be right in the Western Division mix, too.

—The Aggies have road games against Mississippi State and Auburn before closing at home against Mississippi and LSU.

LSU players feel things have changed for Ed Orgeron’s program.

“I’ve been here for a while and I can tell you the culture is completely different now,” LSU safety John Battle said. “Coach Orgeron brought it in and the guys have bought into it. The team morale is just extremely up right now versus the previous years. It’s going to be an exciting game.”

5 COMMENTS

  1. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band will be singing the National Anthem. Then the Gator Nation will be singing the praises of Boys from Old Florida for dumping the Dawgs. Then the East gets to see how UK football stands up to a gridiron championship game where 3’s can only be made with a foot. Sadly, though, that will mean having to root for Georgia. I can deal. Go Gators!

    • You can “deal”? I can too! Actually I always root for UF’s rivals when they dont play us, it makes our record & S.O.S. better if they win. Plus if they are SEC, I want them to win, to show the SEC is better when they play out of conference. If we beat Ga convincingly, which I dont expect, the voters are going to have a hard time with where to put LSU and UF in the polls, both AP and the playoffs. Fortunately we have a SEC championship to sort it out for the final poll. I suspect LSU will stay ahead until Bama-LSU is done. If LSU wins, they stay ahead of UF and if they lose we jump them.
      Almost had to miss the game tomorrow since someone really needed help to move. Fortunately or unfortunately, I had some critical things to do in the morning that I cant put off. Relieved and disappointed at the same time! Been waiting for this game all year! I would hated to have missed it but service , is, more important!

  2. Sometimes Auburn catches fire midseason….that would make this even more fun if they did. The tide looks great but they haven’t played anyone at all. Watch out for LSU. They could be this year’s Georgia…but who really cares? It’s all about the Gators at least to me.

  3. The content of this article is one of the biggest reasons I love college football. The only preseason prediction that has made it this far into the season is that Alabama is the team to beat. IMO these are preseason predictions that have been debunked:

    – Florida isn’t ready to compete in the east much less a playoff spot. Both of those are still a reality 7 games into the season.
    – South Carolina is the second best team in the east and might sneak up and beat UGA in an early matchup.
    – Auburn is the west’s biggest threat to Bama.
    – LSU is a train wreck, hired a horrible OC and Orgeron will get fired.
    – Texas A&M has a long rebuild in front of them and won’t be relevant in Dumbo’s first year.
    – Kentucky will still be Kentucky
    – Miss St. is the most talented they’ve ever been and will challenge for the west championship…and Fitzgerald is a heisman candidate.
    – Georgia is Alabama East and is better than any other east team and it’s not even close. They will run away with the east title.
    – Drew Lock could be the number one QB taken in the draft and could be the best QB in the country.
    – Tennessee is a mirror image of Florida and are at the same stage of rebuilding.
    – Ole Miss, Vandy, and Arkansas are pretty much what everyone thought they would be.

    You gotta LOVE college football and you gotta love being a Gator!