- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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The sun sets in the West, but it’s the rise of the East that has been the big story during the first part of the SEC season.
Not since Florida in 2008 has a team from the East won the SEC championship, and it was only two years ago that a three-loss team in the East (South Carolina) made it to the SEC championship game.
In fact, South Carolina was the only team in the East with a winning conference record that season, and four of the six teams in the East finished with losing overall records.
It was a similar story a year ago. Four of the six teams in the East finished with losing conference records.
The “Least of the East” jokes were well deserved.
But as we look ahead to the second half of this season, the landscape has changed.
The first BCS standings were released Sunday night, and three of the top 11 teams were from the Eastern Division. Right there behind Alabama at No. 1 was Florida at No. 2, while South Carolina was No. 7 and Georgia No. 11.
“I think people would say there are more than two teams [from the SEC] that could contend for a national title right now,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
And, yes, those same two teams from a year ago are still right there in the hunt, the same two teams that played for the national championship last season: Alabama and LSU.
Alabama has yet to have a close game this season. The only thing that remotely qualifies was the Crimson Tide’s 33-14 win over Ole Miss the last weekend of September. Alabama actually trailed in the second quarter of that game (for 15 seconds), which was the first time the Crimson Tide had trailed after the first quarter in regulation since the end of the 2010 season.
Alabama, which hasn’t allowed more than 14 points in its first six games, will find out a lot more about itself over the next month. The Crimson Tide travel to Tennessee on Saturday, and then it’s three straight games against nationally ranked foes -- No. 12 Mississippi State at home, No. 6 LSU on the road and No. 18 Texas A&M at home.
The Alabama players have become accustomed to being the team everybody is gunning for, but they’re more worried about themselves than they are anybody else.
“There are a lot of great teams all over college football,” Alabama senior safety Robert Lester said. “Any team is capable of beating you if they execute and do what they need to do.
“We’re not worried about being No. 1 and looking at any other teams in our conference and wondering about what they’re doing or how they’re playing, because as long as we do what we’re capable of doing, we feel like we’re going to beat them.”
So far, that formula has worked just fine for the Crimson Tide, who have won two of the past three national championships.
But with six SEC teams in the top 12 of the first BCS standings, Alabama is far from the only team in this league with its eyes on the top prize in 2012.
Offensive MVP: Florida RB Mike Gillislee
He’s not the leading rusher in the league, and his numbers aren’t nearly as gaudy as what Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has put up to this point. Nonetheless, Gillislee has meant everything to that Florida offense. He’s rushed for 615 yards in his first six games and has allowed the Gators to play their physical brand of football that’s been so successful. He was sensational in the second half of the 14-6 win over LSU and has come through every time the Gators have needed him. Without him, there’s no way this team would be where it is right now.
Defensive MVP: South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney
Although LSU was able to keep Clowney at bay in the second half Saturday, he’s been the SEC’s premier game-changer defensively through the first half of the season. He’s freakishly athletic and, at 6-foot-6 and 256 pounds, has the size to give anybody he goes against fits. Good luck in trying to block him one-on-one. Clowney has 12 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, both second in the SEC. That’s not counting all of the other big plays he’s created for the South Carolina defense with his relentless pressure. Honorable mention goes to Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore and Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley.
Newcomer of the Year: Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel
Manziel’s numbers as a senior in high school were straight out of a video game. He passed for 45 touchdowns and rushed for 30 touchdowns. Obviously, he’s not going to put up those kind of numbers in the SEC, but he’s still making life miserable for opposing defensive coordinators. He’s second nationally in total offense with 2,356 yards and is becoming much more than just an athlete playing quarterback. Already, he has two games this season in which he’s surpassed the 500-yard mark in total offense, making him the first player in SEC history to do that. Not bad for a redshirt freshman who’s played just six college games.
Biggest surprise: Florida
There was hope in Gator Land that Florida would be better in Will Muschamp’s second season, and for that matter, the Gators needed to be better. No team in the league, though, has made the kind of improvement from last season to this season as Florida, which has already won five league games and debuted at No. 2 in the first BCS standings on Sunday night. The Gators are doing all the things it takes to win a title and can take another big step toward winning the East this Saturday with a win over South Carolina in the Swamp.
Biggest disappointment: Arkansas
Even though the Hogs (3-4, 2-2) have won their past two games, their September collapse was stunning. You’re talking about a team that started the season ranked No. 10 nationally and harbored national championship hopes. Those hopes were gone by the second week of the season when Louisiana-Monroe came into Little Rock and upset Arkansas 34-31 in overtime. It was the start of a four-game losing streak for the Hogs, who gave up 179 points along the way. The good news is that it looks like they could be getting well physically and emotionally for the stretch run.
Best game: LSU 23, South Carolina 21, Oct. 13
Tiger Stadium came alive as only it can on a Saturday night, and LSU’s offense also came alive, at least on the ground, to send the previously unbeaten Gamecocks packing. It was an unbelievably physical game with some big-time plays from Marcus Lattimore’s never-give-up touchdown run to Clowney’s tipped passes to Jeremy Hill’s 50-yard touchdown run that seemingly put the game away for the Tigers. South Carolina, though, fought back to pull within two and had the ball with 35 seconds remaining. Craig Loston’s interception finally sealed it.
Best coach: Florida’s Will Muschamp
It’s amazing what Muschamp has done with the Florida program in a year and the way he’s transformed it into exactly what he had envisioned when he took the job. The Gators are physical. They’re committed to running the ball, and they play championship-caliber defense. What’s more, they’ve allowed just 23 second-half points in six games. That’s after melting in the fourth quarter for most of their SEC games a year ago. Muschamp also gets props for hiring offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who’s given this offense new life. Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen also deserve mention for the jobs they’ve done to this point, but Muschamp takes home the midseason award.