COLUMBIA, S.C. - The Southeastern Conference has an Eastern Division, too, although largely overshadowed with the season-long focus on Western powers LSU and Alabama.
But the East takes center stage in the SEC this weekend with the country’s top two teams off — the No. 1 Tigers will play the No. 2 Crimson Tide on Nov. 5.
The division’s top contenders, No. 14 South Carolina and No. 22 Georgia, take their championship hopes on the road.
The Gamecocks (6-1, 4-1 SEC) play their first game without star tailback Marcus Lattimore at Tennessee (3-4, 0-4). The Bulldogs (5-2, 4-1) head to Jacksonville, Fla., for their annual showdown with Florida (4-3), which despite a 2-3 SEC mark still can make it to the Georgia Dome for a shot at another championship.
Players on the Eastern contenders pay just as close attention to their division race as LSU and Alabama players might on the BCS standings.
“Oh, there’s attention on our side,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “Ask those Georgia Bulldogs what kind of attention they’re giving us every week.”
And with good reason. Georgia looked down and out after an 0-2 start that included a 45-42 loss to the Gamecocks in Athens on Sept. 10. But the Bulldogs have rallied with five consecutive wins since and know any stumble by South Carolina wipes out its head-to-head advantage.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said his team needs to continue its week-to-week focus and hope for a Gamecock slip-up.
“We just want to win the game,” Murray said. “Especially with South Carolina having the tiebreaker over us, we don’t want to give them any more room or any more comfort. So we just want to continue winning and it least give us a shot to make it back to Atlanta.”
South Carolina entered the season as defending Eastern champ and a likely choice to return to the Georgia Dome for the title game. The Gamecocks featured three of the league’s top playmakers in Lattimore, receiver Alshon Jeffery and quarterback Stephen Garcia — all named to preseason all-SEC teams.
But Lattimore suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago at Mississippi State only days after Garcia, previously benched for sophomore Connor Shaw, was kicked off the team for failing a substance abuse test. Freshman Brandon Wilds will start for Lattimore in a critical game at Tennessee, where South Carolina is 1-14 all-time.
Spurrier spoke briefly about the team’s goals to his players this week. “That’s mainly all we talk about after ‘Hey, we know where we are, we can’t afford to lose this one if we want to win the East, which we do, and we’d better bring our best game to beat Tennessee.”
Still, should South Carolina win out — games at No. 8 Arkansas and at home vs. Florida follow the trip to Knoxville — it would be back in Atlanta for a second straight season.
Georgia has had few of South Carolina’s personnel issues during its recent run and is getting stronger with the return of sophomore linebacker Alec Ogletree from a broken foot in the Bulldogs loss to Boise State.
The Bulldogs have Auburn and Kentucky left after the Gators and need at least one Gamecock loss to win the East.
“We’re tied for first in the East and we feel like we really have a chance to win the East as long as we do our part. This game is more about that than just the fact that we are playing Florida,” Georgia defensive back Sanders Commings said.
Don’t overlook Florida, which despite losing badly to LSU and Alabama — neither Georgia nor South Carolina has to face those Western powers this year — has the advantage of facing both of its rivals down the stretch and could rise to the top by winning out and getting some help.
Florida also returns starting quarterback John Brantley for the Georgia game, something coach Will Muschamp believes will give his team a psychological boost for the final month.
“Certainly, winning the SEC East, yeah, that’s great,” Muschamp said. “That’s what we want to do. We want to beat Georgia. In order to do that, we’ve got to take care of business this weekend.”
The East’s three bottom teams — the Vols, Vanderbilt and Kentucky — are a combined 1-10 in the league and hoping to put a late run together.
Commodores coach James Franklin said he has no time to assess those ahead of him in the division.
“All those things outside of our world, who’s ranked and all those things, and where we’re at in the conference, we’ve really spent very little time talking or thinking about that,” the first-year coach said.
And no matter who comes out of the East, the question is whether the team would have a shot in the SEC title game against whoever’s waiting from the West.
Spurrier said there’s are too many games left to know. The West has an 8-4 mark against the East this season, but funny things can happen when a title’s on the line.
“We don’t want to be uptight about it,” Spurrier said.