GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Surely some people are still snickering at the Southeastern Conference.
The big, bad SEC — the powerhouse league that has won seven consecutive national titles — had a stunning number of upsets Saturday. Florida, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M all lost in league play.
All five had been considered national title contenders before the season. Now, they’re looking for significant help in the division race while trying to make the most of a disappointing season.
Few outsiders are feeling sorry for them, either. They’re rooting for top-ranked Alabama to go down next and pulling for an end to the league’s college football reign.
Not surprisingly, SEC coaches, players and officials view the situation differently. They say the upsets prove the league has improved from top to bottom — more parity and fewer patsies.
“It’s no surprise to me that there’s a little bit of a changing of the guard this year,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “When people talk about scheduling and imbalances in scheduling, they make the assumptions that certain teams are always good. We played Tennessee for years and years around here where they were one of the best teams in the SEC. …
“History says we have a lot of teams in the SEC that are capable of being very, very good, and I think you’re seeing some of that emerge this year.”
Just days after the SEC set a record by becoming the first conference with eight teams ranked in the Top 25, five of them dropped games.
Vanderbilt upset No. 15 Georgia 31-27; Tennessee knocked off No. 11 South Carolina 23-21; No. 14 Missouri thumped 22nd-ranked Florida, which was a 3-point favorite, 36-17; No. 24 Auburn edged seventh-ranked Texas A&M 45-41 and Mississippi capped the chaotic day with a last-second field goal that defeated No. 6 LSU 27-24.
“I think a lot of the ranked teams either sleep on the unranked teams or I just think a lot of the unranked teams have that edge,” Tennessee receiver Alton “Pig” Howard said. “They want to beat a ranked opponent, so I’d say they probably out-effort them. A lot of teams have talent, but I think when you play with effort, that beats talent.”
Injuries have played a role, too.
Georgia lost tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley to season-ending knee injuries. Another top receiver, Michael Bennett, has missed two games with a knee injury. And running back Todd Gurley sat out the last three games with a sprained left ankle.
Florida lost quarterback Jeff Driskel (broken leg), right tackle Chaz Green (labrum), running back Matt Jones (knee) and defensive tackle Dominique Easley (knee) to season-ending injuries.
South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw left Saturday’s loss with a sprained left knee. The Gamecocks managed only 15 yards the last 15 minutes without him. Shaw likely won’t play this week at Missouri.
“There’s a lot of parity in our league right now,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “I think there’s not a lot of difference between a lot of teams. … Obviously you’ve seen through the year, whether it’s attrition by injuries or for whatever reason, there’s been some highs and lows for each team in the SEC.”
Watching all the upsets unfold was encouraging for first-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, whose team had the weekend off.
“You look at it and say, ‘Anything can happen in this league,’” Stoops said. “I think it’s such a tough, physical league, and if you don’t come ready to play, anything can happen. I think with the injuries that happen throughout this league because of the physicality, I think that changes things week to week, as well.”
Playing at home also has been a huge factor.
SEC teams are a combined 45-13 at home and 16-20 on the road this season. If you take out Alabama, Texas A&M and Missouri, the rest of the league is 8-20 on the road.
“One of the things I’ve come to find very early on is everyone has a home-field advantage,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “We have to go on the road and play in some great hostile environments.”
Throw in key injuries and a few big plays, and the SEC has become a place where anything can and will happen. And anyone tired of seeing the SEC win national titles is surely celebrating — at least for now.
“Really the SEC’s biggest enemy is its depth overall,” Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch said. “The quality of the league is pretty impressive. It’s the SEC. It’s the best league out there and will continue to be the best league.
“It’s hard to go undefeated.”