The Southeastern Conference has a new look this season.
Top-ranked Alabama remains at the top of the standings, but beyond that, things are quite a bit different.
No. 6 Florida’s win over 12th-ranked Georgia last week could keep the Bulldogs from reaching the league title game for the first time in four seasons, and No. 5 Texas A&M is second in the West division with a shot at reaching the College Football Playoff for the first time.
Further down the standings, Arkansas has ended two winless years of conference play with three SEC victories with four games to go, and reigning national champion LSU has fallen to near the bottom of the West with Joe Burrow now playing in the NFL.
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher has led his team to a 5-1 start in his third year since signing a 10-year, $75 million contract. He was asked about the changes in the league this year.
“I hope it stays strange,” Fisher said with a laugh.
Texas A&M, which entered the SEC in 2012, lost 52-24 at Alabama before going on a four-game winning streak. It started on Oct. 10, when the Aggies handed the Gators their only loss.
The Aggies were scheduled to visit Tennessee on Saturday, but that game was postponed until Dec. 12 because of a COVID-19 outbreak at A&M. It was one of four SEC games called off this week because of the pandemic, with Alabama’s game at LSU, Georgia at Missouri and No. 24 Auburn at Mississippi State also being moved.
Fisher, who won a national title at Florida State, isn’t surprised to see changes in the league this season considering the investment schools throughout the SEC put into their programs.
“It’s so important,” he said. “There’s too many players across this country that come play in this league. And if you look at it over time, that thing has always rotated back and forth and there have been times for everybody to have their moment.”
Another program having its moment is Florida. The Gators are 4-1 and leading the East after Saturday’s 44-28 victory over Georgia. If they win out, they’ll reach the conference championship game for the first time since making back-to-back appearances in 2015-16.
Florida has five games remaining after a coronavirus outbreak caused schedule shuffle, but the team has already completed the difficult part of its slate. The Gators face the 3-3 Razorbacks on Saturday, but their final four opponents are all below .500.
Georgia isn’t in a terrible spot with just two losses this year, but the Bulldogs will need some help to keep their streak of title game appearances alive. Georgia beat Auburn in the 2017 game before losing to Alabama and LSU in the last two seasons.
Georgia junior cornerback Eric Stokes is working to make sure his teammates remain focused despite the loss to Florida.
“We still have a lot to play for and all this, so I’m just going to keep motivating my young guys to make sure their heads aren’t gone and make sure they are good,” he said.
Elsewhere, Arkansas and first-year coach Sam Pittman have become the feel-good story of the league. The Razorbacks entered the season having lost 19 straight SEC games, capped by two consecutive 0-8 conference campaigns.
The skid reached 20 games when they lost to Georgia 37-10 in their opener. But Arkansas knocked off then-No. 16 Mississippi State 21-14 in Week 2 for its first SEC victory since a 38-37 win over Ole Miss on Oct. 28, 2017, which was its only conference win that year.
The Razorbacks followed their win over the Bulldogs with victories over Ole Miss and Tennessee to leave them one SEC win shy of matching their total from the previous four seasons combined. They’ll have a difficult test this week when they’ll visit the surging Gators without Pittman, who tested positive for the virus.
At LSU, the Tigers have followed last year’s perfect 15-0 season with a 2-3 start. While the losses of Burrow and fellow first-round pick running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire certainly hurt the team, the bigger problems for LSU have been on defense.
The unit, which lost seven starters, has had trouble adjusting to new defensive coordinator Bo Pelini’s 4-3 scheme after playing a 3-4 last season. The Tigers rank 110th in the nation in total defense, giving up 478.6 yards a game.
While difficulties in conference play are nothing new at Vanderbilt, this season has been particularly tough for the Commodores. At 0-5, they are the league’s only winless team and could be heading toward the first zero-win season in school history with all nonconference games scrapped because of the pandemic. Vanderbilt has gone winless 17 times in conference play with the last such season coming in 2014.
AP Sports Writers Charles Odum, Brett Martel and Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.
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