November is when statements for the league championship and beyond are made, and several Southeastern Conference teams are part of the discussion.
Fittingly, the season’s final month commences this weekend with a pair of consequential matchups that could determine participants in next month’s SEC title game in Atlanta and how many represent the league in the four-team College Football Playoff.
Most of the attention Saturday will be on Athens, Georgia, where the top-ranked Bulldogs (8-0, 5-0 SEC) host No. 2 Tennessee (8-0, 4-0) in a marquee showdown likely to determine the East Division winner. For additional intrigue, the visiting Volunteers sit atop the initial CFP rankings, two spots ahead of Georgia.
The defending national champion Bulldogs have been in this situation many times, and coach Kirby Smart sees being at home as the only difference.
”Every game is a big game, to be honest with you, in the SEC,” Smart said this week. ”So, it’s not like some guys go into it thinking of it differently. But I do think playing at home is important and certainly an advantage in our conference.”
Resurgent No. 15 LSU (No. 10 CFP) welcomes Alabama (No. 6 AP and CFP) in a matchup between two of three teams tied atop the West Division at 4-1 in league play. It’s the first of consecutive challenges for the Crimson Tide (7-1), who also visit Mississippi (No. 11 AP and CFP) next week.
While navigating the SEC and CFP landscape are fall rituals for Alabama, the Tigers’ presence this season is a bit of a surprise on both fronts. Certainly, improvement was expected under first-year coach Brian Kelly after a tumultuous 6-7 season. But LSU has transformed into a serious division contender looking to add another signature win after routing Ole Miss last month.
”By and large, we know our strengths and weaknesses,” Kelly said, ”and now it’s about putting your kids in a good position where they can play fast and free and physical and be the best version of themselves going into November.”
The Rebels (8-1, 4-1) have a bye week before facing Alabama in search of their first series win since 2015. On the outside of the CFP looking in following the LSU loss, their focus is on keeping perspective against the Tide to maintain divisional hopes.
”Treat it like any other game,” Ole Miss wide receiver Jonathan Mingo said of playing Alabama. ”Just try to go 1-0. Just trying to put ourselves in the best position to win. That’s enough motivation in itself.”
While winning is the only thing that matters to coaches, they’re mindful that level of competition and margin of victory are taken into consideration. Tennessee’s high-scoring offense led by quarterback Hendon Hooker has helped check off both boxes with wins over then-No. 25 LSU (40-13) and third-ranked Alabama (52-49). Last week’s 44-6 thumping of then-No. 19 Kentucky likely boosted the Vols to the top of the CFP rankings.
As Tennessee prepares to take on Georgia, Vols coach Josh Heupel draws satisfaction in being able to vanquish the challenge at hand.
”To be honest, I don’t think about that at all,” the second-year coach said of the victory-margin aspect. ”Certainly in this league, every single week you’re facing someone that’s extremely talented, well coached and puts the best team on the field each Saturday.”
It is possible that multiple SEC teams will still be on the playoff radar at month’s end. Georgia and Alabama made it last year.
Alabama faces the toughest path initially before closing against Austin Peay and rival Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Georgia – which this week lost outside linebacker Nolan Smith for the season with a torn pectoral muscle – must clear unranked Mississippi State and struggling Kentucky before closing against in-state rival Georgia Tech.
Tennessee closes with two of its final three on the road at South Carolina and Vanderbilt after hosting Missouri next week. All three will no doubt look to spoil the Vols’ title quest, but players believe sticking to the plan that has thrived so far will ultimately help them,
”I think we finally know our identity as far as who we are,” junior receiver Jalin Hyatt said, ”and that’s one of the biggest things that I felt this year that we changed from last year, just knowing who we are.
”You can see the confidence in all the guys. I think we know where we want to go and where we’re headed.”
AP Sports Writers John Zenor, Brett Martel and Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.