Humbled SEC teams look to keep division title hopes alive
By GARY B. GRAVES
Teams throughout the Southeastern Conference that have been pummeled can take some solace in knowing that one humbling loss does not end hopes of winning the division.
It’s also a cautionary fact for the division front-runners looking to keep momentum going.
Whatever side of the ledger a team is on this week, several games present gut-check moments that could determine what direction the remainder of the season takes.
Saturday’s Eastern Division matchup between No. 11 Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) and No. 25 Georgia (3-1, 1-1) in Athens is one of those games. The host Bulldogs are looking to bounce back after their 31-point thumping at No. 16 Mississippi , remain in the Top 25 and most importantly tighten the divisional race.
“Humility is a week away when you talk about the SEC. You never get a chance to rest,” first-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We’ve got to show improvement at pretty much every position, especially from the last game.”
The Bulldogs could get leading rusher Nick Chubb back after he left the game early against Ole Miss with a sprained ankle.
The East-leading Volunteers want to build off their 38-28 win over No. 23 Florida that ended an 11-game losing streak to the Gators. Rallying from 21 points was exciting for the Vols, but the challenge is avoiding a letdown and proving their mettle again. A win gives them control over the division and momentum heading into a challenging stretch that continues with big games the next two weeks at No. 9 Texas A&M and top-ranked Alabama.
“It’s a week-to-week season,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “The more you win, the more that’s at stake.”
The Gators hope to redeem themselves in Nashville when they visit Vanderbilt. They’ve lost just once to the Commodores since 1989 but have been pushed in recent years and escaped with a 9-7 home win last fall in Gainesville.
Making last week’s collapse against Tennessee a distant memory is crucial to the Gators’ quest to repeat as division champions.
“It’s not like our season is over with or anything like that,” Florida safety Marcus Maye said. “Everybody still has their heads up. … We’re still the defense we know we are, so we’re going to continue to get better every day.”
Vanderbilt is looking for its first SEC win and Commodores linebacker/safety Oren Burks said getting the jump on Florida will be critical.
“We have to come out fast and come out physical,” Burks said. “That’s going to set the tone for the rest of the game.”
LSU probably has the most to atone for this week.
Ed Orgeron makes his debut as LSU’s interim coach when the Tigers host Missouri. Orgeron took over following Sunday’s firing of longtime coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, moves that came a day after LSU lost 18-13 to Auburn.
Officials ruled that LSU’s last-gasp touchdown pass came after the time expired, leaving the Tigers with a loss that knocked them out of the Top 25 and led to the coaching change.
After starting the season ranked fifth in the country and picked by SEC media to finish second in the West behind defending national champion Alabama, LSU is now among four 1-1 teams in a division led by unbeaten Texas A&M (4-0, 2-0 SEC) and the Crimson Tide. LSU (2-2, 1-1) must regroup with a new leader for the first time in 11-plus years.
“Guys are not ready to put the season to rest,” LSU junior quarterback Danny Etling said. “I just expect us to keep trying to improve every game, try and improve from last week, correct mistakes, move on and try and get our feet underneath us with new leadership.”
Texas A&M and Alabama look to keep rolling along. Neither school is taking anything for granted despite being heavy favorites against South Carolina (2-2, 1-2 SEC) and Kentucky (2-2, 1-1), respectively.
Alabama is 9-0 at home against Kentucky and hasn’t lost to the Wildcats since 1997. The Aggies have won both series meetings against South Carolina but are prepared for a challenge in Columbia from the Gamecocks, who are coming off a loss at Kentucky.
Coaches have been stressing around the conference that looking ahead can lead to a loss this week. Players seem to be listening, regurgitating coach speak when talking about the challenges.
“This week’s all about South Carolina,” Texas A&M receiver Christian Kirk said. “You’ve got to go into each game being 0-0 and unranked. … That’s the main thing that we get, to keep going.”
AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker in Nashville; Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee; and Mark Long in Gainesville, Florida, contributed to this report.
AP College Football: collegefootball.ap.org