All you need to know about the SEC is this: There are two huge inter-division games this weekend, and if the East Division teams lose, it really won't hurt their title hopes because of the division's overall mediocrity.
Alabama plays South Carolina and LSU meets Florida in the showdown games, with the East Division teams hosting both contests. Alabama and LSU are two of the league's three unbeatens in conference play; the other is Auburn, and all three reside in the SEC West.
Conversely, Florida and South Carolina each have one league loss, which leaves them tied with usual cellar-dweller Vanderbilt atop the East. The other division teams are 0-7 in conference play: Kentucky and Tennessee are 0-2 and Georgia is 0-3. The combined overall record for the six teams in the division is 14-14, and Florida and South Carolina have half the wins.
Florida's league loss was at Alabama and South Carolina's was at Auburn. Even if both East members lose Saturday - the Gators are favored by seven, while the Gamecocks are seven-point underdogs - they still will be the teams to beat in the East.
It's likely the East will come down to the Nov. 13 Florida-South Carolina game in Gainesville. The focus for Gators coach Urban Meyer and Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier is squarely on this week's opponent, though.
"I know that year in and year out, we're facing probably the team with the most talent in the conference," Meyer said in a teleconference about LSU. "I know we see them every year, and every year they look the same to me. ...I don't want to shortchange anyone else ... but just when you see that team jog out of the tunnel, that's as good looking a team as there is."
Saturday's game begins an important four-week stretch for that good-looking team. After this week's game in Gainesville - where the Tigers have won just twice since 1986 - LSU gets a breather against FCS member McNeese State. But then come back-to-back games against Auburn and Alabama, though there is a week between those contests.
As for Alabama, the Tide will become only the second top-ranked team to ever play at South Carolina; coincidentally, the other visit came last season, when Florida played at Williams-Brice Stadium. In all, the Gamecocks are 0-4 in their previous meetings against top-ranked teams.
Alabama has won 19 consecutive games overall and 29 in a row in the regular season, including a 20-6 victory over the Gamecocks last season in which Mark Ingram ran for a career-high 246 yards.
During a news conference Tuesday, Spurrier was asked about coaching against Tide coach Nick Saban ; Spurrier beat Saban twice while Saban was at LSU and Spurrier at Florida.
"Those were two of the real good offenses we had down there at Florida," said Spurrier, who has 106 league victories and is one shy of moving into second place by himself in conference history. "We looked like we were a lot smarter than he was the first two games, but he was a lot smarter than I was last year. Let's put it that way. Who knows who's going to be the smartest this year?
"I read something interesting in the paper the other day about the Ryder Cup golf matches. One writer said, 'Whoever wins the Ryder Cup, that captain will be considered somewhere between John Wooden and Vince Lombardi,' and he said, 'The loser will be considered like an SEC football coach after a loss.' He'll be the dummy, and that's just the way it is and we all know that. As coaches we all know that. Of course, sometimes you can win and still be a dummy. We've learned that recently, too."
Saturday's game is the first of five in a row for the Tide where the opponent will be coming off a bye week. Saban professes not to be concerned.
"I know somebody is going to ask about bye weeks, so I just want to clear this up for the year," he told reporters early this week. "Everybody out there assumes that having a bye week is an advantage. I've always answered that question by saying, 'I don't know if it's an advantage or disadvantage.' Just so everybody knows, we did research on the last five years of [the] other 11 teams in the SEC and how they did when they had a bye week, and their record is 29-29.
"I'm not saying I'm right and you're wrong, but the statistics kind of prove that it's not an advantage or disadvantage to have a bye week; it probably depends a lot on the circumstances."
This season, perhaps the most important circumstance would be whether a bye week came before a game against an East Division opponent or a West Division foe.
Best matchup: Florida offensive line vs. LSU defensive line. These were supposed to be the best units on each team; LSU's line has lived up to its billing, but Florida's has not. The Gators have struggled to maintain any consistency with their rushing attack, and senior C Mike Pouncey has had numerous problems with bad shotgun snaps. The Gators have to run the ball well Saturday because their passing attack isn't that good; if the Gators are forced to win it with QB John Brantley's arm, they're in trouble. LSU leads the SEC in rush defense and is second in the league in sacks. Tigers T Drake Nevis is playing as well as any lineman in the league, and the announcement Wednesday that E Sam Montgomery will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury increases Nevis' importance.
Player on the spot: South Carolina QB Stephen Garcia. Alabama has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 39 games, which means life will be tough for South Carolina true freshman RB Marcus Lattimore, who has become the focal point of the Gamecocks' offense. That means the onus will be on Garcia to make some plays, with his arm and with his feet. Statistically, Garcia looks good, ranking 16th nationally in passing efficiency; he's completing 69.4 percent of his passes, with five TDs and two picks, and also has rushed for two scores. But in crunch time against Auburn, he fumbled twice, and it's obvious Spurrier still doesn't have complete trust in Garcia, who is a junior. Can South Carolina really count on Garcia to come through against the nation's No. 1 team?
Numbers game: Auburn already has had 13 plays that have covered at least 35 yards. Last season, the Tigers had 22 such plays; in 2008, there were just nine. Nine of the 35-yard-plus plays have resulted in touchdowns. The Tigers' 24 touchdown plays this season have averaged 25.7 yards per play.
What they're saying
"When the other team has the ball for 13 and a half minutes in the third quarter, it is kind of hard to get him in the game. We could put him in at linebacker, safety; I'd be open to how you would like us to use him." - Saban, on why RB Mark Ingram was used so sparingly in the third quarter last week
"Some leadership really stepped up in there. It's easy to stand up and say something. You've got to be a grown man to back everything up, and so I'm anxious to watch." - Meyer, on the locker-room scene after last week's loss at Alabama
"Well, they were playing really good at this time last year, also, when we went down there and beat them." - Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, on Auburn, this week's opponent
"I think it's a completely different scenario. It's a clock management issue without question, but it's not the same. This specifically was trying to use a down, not give up a down, and that was a mistake. That was not the mistake that was made at Ole Miss. The mistake that was made here also dealt with clock management, but it was a completely different scenario." - Miles, comparing the clock management issue at the end of last week's game with Tennessee and last season's loss at Ole Miss
"We have to get our priorities straight. It should be academics and football, and I'm not sure we have them in that order. The young ones are enjoying them foot-long hot dogs and knee-high belly washers and are socializing a little too much. They have to get a little more serious about football, and that starts with me." - Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell, on developing consistency
Etc.: Tennessee is playing conference road games in consecutive weeks for the first time since 2007. ... Alabama's Ingram has 38 career touchdowns and is four away from tying former LSU RB Charles Alexander for 10th place on the SEC's career TD list. ... Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett leads the SEC with 42 completions of at least 15 yards and 15 completions of at least 25 yards. ... Alabama leads the nation in scoring defense, surrendering just 9.0 points per game. LSU leads the SEC in total defense (246.6 yards per game), rushing defense (79.0 yards per game) and sacks (16). ... Vanderbilt plays host to Eastern Michigan on Saturday; EMU athletic director Derrick Gragg was a four-year letterman at wide receiver for Vandy (1988-91). ... Mississippi State has won three in a row in non-conference play, and the Bulldogs have not won four consecutive non-conference games since 2000-01. ... Tennessee allowed touchdowns on the first and last plays of last week's loss to LSU, but held the Tigers to only a field goal otherwise. ... Georgia has lost four in a row for the first time since 1990. In addition, the Bulldogs have started 0-3 in the SEC for the first time since 1993 and are hoping to avoid their first 0-4 start in the SEC since that same season. ... Alabama QB Greg McElroy submitted his application to be a Rhodes Scholar on Sunday night. His interview will be the weekend before the Crimson Tide meets Auburn. ... If South Carolina defeats Alabama, the Gamecocks will have beaten the nation's top-ranked team in all three major men's sports in the 2010 calendar year. On Jan. 26, South Carolina beat Kentucky in men's basketball 68-62. On June 22, in Omaha, Neb., the Gamecocks' baseball team eliminated Arizona State 11-4 en route to the College World Series championship. ... ESPN.com reported that Alabama DE Marcell Dareus told NCAA investigators that then-North Carolina assistant John Blake talked to him and told him to consider hiring agent Gary Wichard. When asked about the report, Saban answered, "It's water that's been under the bridge for several months now. It's somewhere down in the Gulf of Mexico now. I really don't have much care about talking about that." After he was asked again about the report, Saban responded, "I guess I must stutter. Did I stutter? I'm not very clear on how I articulate. Maybe I need to go back to West Virginia and get some more hillbilly slang and maybe everybody can understand me a little better." ... Tennessee coach Derek Dooley returns to his hometown Saturday when the Vols play at Georgia. His dad, Vince, coached the Bulldogs for 25 seasons and won six SEC titles and the 1980 national championship. Derek was born in Athens in 1968 and graduated from Clarke Central High. While he received his undergrad degree from Virginia, Dooley is a 1994 graduate of the Georgia law school and spent the 1996 season as a graduate assistant on Jim Donnan's Bulldogs staff. ... Tennessee starting C Cody Pope, who has missed the past three games after suffering a concussion, may miss the Georgia game as well. The Vols also could again be without starting G JerQuari Schofield, who has missed the past two games with a foot injury. ... Florida P Chas Henry - one of the best in the nation at his position - will continue to handle the kicking duties in the absence of K Caleb Sturgis, who could miss up to two months with a back injury. Henry, a senior, made two field goals last week against Alabama, the first he had attempted since his senior season in high school.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.