Senior College Football Columnist

The Big Picture: SEC East, led by South Carolina, may be taking over


We learned a lot in Week 6 about who is for real and who isn't in the Deep South. We also got the sense the SEC East may be ready to overtake the SEC West for the title of Best Division in College Football. (Sorry, Nick. We know you're doing your part.)

Steve Spurrier's South Carolina team blew No. 5 Georgia off the field in Columbia, providing more evidence the Gamecocks are a legit national title contender. In Gainesville, Will Muschamp's Gators took everything LSU's talented defense had, and then pounded the Tigers in the second half to give the second-year head coach his first win over a top-20 opponent. Better news for Gator fans, archrival Florida State officially put an end to all of those "The Noles are back" statements by flopping at North Carolina State, losing to an unranked Pack squad. It has become cliché, but these were truly statement games by the SEC East teams.

If not for a garbage-time touchdown late in the game, Georgia, which entered the weekend averaging 48 points per game and 536 yards of offense, would have been shut out for the first time in 17 years. Aaron Murray's Heisman hopes went down with a big thud. The three-year starting QB went 11-for-31 for just 109 yards. That's how dominant this South Carolina defense has been.

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The humiliating loss for the Dawgs has to sting, especially when you consider how bad Georgia has been since 2009 against good competition. They are now 3-11 in the past three-plus years against ranked teams (specifically teams that were ranked at the time the teams played) and two of those wins came against Georgia Tech. Seven of these losses have been by double-digits.

Steve Spurrier, at 67, has his best team in a very long time. South Carolina has now won 12 in a row against SEC East opponents. That's stunning when you consider this program's history before Spurrier arrived in Columbia. Even more stunning is the way the Head Ball Coach is doing it these days. The old Mr. Fun 'n Gun who threw it all over the yard in his Gator glory days, ran it 51 times Saturday night while throwing the ball just 10 times. As former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah noted on Twitter, "Steve Spurrier is a winner b/c he isn't stubborn." No doubt, this has been an interesting second act since Spurrier returned from his failed NFL attempt with the Redskins. The SEC is much tougher now than it was when he was at UF, but he certainly has adapted.

In previous years with the Gamecocks, Spurrier had a shaky QB situation. This season, he has an efficient guy in Connor Shaw, a coach's son, who he can trust to lead his team. Spurrier's got a gifted workhorse running back in Marcus Lattimore and a nasty, nasty defense led sophomore Jadeveon Clowney. A few weeks ago an SEC O-line coach told me he thinks the 6-6, 270-pounder is the most improved player in the conference and on his way to being the first pick in the NFL Draft sometime soon, like probably in April, 2014.

"The [Bulldogs] offensive line gave away when they were going to hike the ball, so I got a good jump on it and our crowd got into it," Clowney said after the game, as if he and his teammates needed any extra help in firing out of their stances.

Georgia came into the game averaging 48 points and had scored over 40 every time out this season prior to meeting up with the Gamecocks.

"They've got great speed," said Mark Richt of the Carolina D. "They are very long human beings. They are 6-8, 6-6 and have long arms. I think a couple times we were blocking them halfway decent trying to run them by the quarterback, but they are just so long and they are so athletic that [Aaron] Murray was getting grabbed right at the last moment as he was trying to move up into the pocket."

The Gamecocks also did a great job of bottling up Georgia's two young stud tailbacks, Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, who came into the game averaging close to 10 yards a carry, managed just 75 yards on 25 attempts.

"I think it was the same pressure we used all season, but we made a conscious effort to not let them get on the outside," said Gamecock DC Lorenzo Ward. "If you go back and watch them in every ball game they played, they make their plays by getting on the perimeter. We had a conscious effort to keep them on the inside."

It won't get any easier for the Gamecocks, though. They head to Baton Rouge later this week and then it's on to the Swamp to visit the upstart Gators.

Spurrier's old team is one of the most pleasant surprises in college football. It was crazy to think that there was some pressure mounting on Muschamp entering just his second season, but that was the case a month ago. Then again, that's how high expectations around in Florida after Urban Meyer had won two BCS titles and the rookie coach went 7-6 and 0-5 against ranked teams.

In the summer when I chatted with Muschamp, he made a point of talking about how his team must get tougher and more physical. He noted how the Gators had been dominated in the fourth quarter of SEC games last season, getting outscored 72-22. No doubt, he had brought that stat up a lot to his team in the off-season. He challenged them, and man, have they responded. UF has outscored its league rivals 31-0 in fourth quarters this season. More impressively, the team that was 0-5 in games it trailed at halftime last season is now 3-0 in such games. Two of those wins came on the road in very hostile environments. The third came Saturday against mighty LSU, the No. 4 team in the country.

It's a cheesy pun, but these guys have essentially Will-ed their way back into the top 10.

"Everything we did is just paying off right now," Florida center Jon Harrison told reporters after the game. "It shows we have some dedicated players and we really are a bonded team this year -- from coaches, players, training staff, everybody included. It just goes to show we can do great things if we put our minds to it."

It would be a mistake to say Meyer left the cupboard bare when he walked away from this program. The Gators had a bunch of studs on campus, but no question, the team had lost its way. Muschamp was bringing in a new scheme and a very different personality and system. He made strong statements about discipline within the program and the effects of that are now showing up on the field.

"The things we struggled with last year have been pounded into their heads and as a competitor you take that personal and we have a competitive bunch," he said. "When you take something personal you get pretty good results, and so far we have."

A first-time head coach learning on the job is never an easy situation, particularly when he's doing it on this big of a stage. Remember the guy he followed broke in at Bowling Green and then went to Utah before hitting Gainesville.

Muschamp has also unearthed a guy few outside of Gainesville had heard of in senior running back Mike Gillislee, who this fall has blossomed into a star. The 209-pounder hammered the Tigers for 146 yards on 34 carries and two TDs.

In a league where you've heard plenty about Lattimore, Knile Davis and the young backs at Bama and Georgia, it's time to give Gillislee his due. After what he did to LSU, he's actually the conference's leading rusher at 110 yards per game. I'm not sure anyone -- with the possible exception of Muschamp -- saw that coming.

Leading up to our 11 a.m. Inside College Football show on CBS Sports Network on Saturday, our producer asked us to give our best guess for the top 15 team most likely to get knocked off by an unranked opponent. I went with TCU, which seemed like a relatively obvious choice given the late-week distraction caused by QB Casey Pachall's arrest, and because the Horned Frogs were also facing a Paul Rhoads team, and we know that guy knows plenty about pulling off upsets.

One of the first listed on the half-dozen or so options we had was No. 3 FSU at N.C. State. I dismissed that one in a hurry. The Noles D, with its ferocious pass rush, against a Pack team coping with three starting O-linemen out with injuries? I don't think so.

Guess again. As I said a few weeks ago, no one should have been talking about the Noles being back until they actually hoist a crystal football into the air. This program had too much of a history of impressive showings clouded by toe-stubbing performances against opponents that would leave you shaking your head -- and Saturday night, it happened again.

The Wolfpack has now knocked off a ranked Florida State team in five of their last seven meetings. FSU, despite how banged up the Pack line was, managed just one sack.

N.C. State QB Mike Glennon will play in the NFL for a long time. He is the real deal. He'll probably be a first-round draft choice, but still how can the Noles keep losing like this? Don't forget this was a Pack team that just surrendered an ACC record 566 passing yards to Miami's Stephen Morris a week ago. You know the same Hurricanes team that couldn't even score a touchdown Saturday against Notre Dame. FSU, meanwhile, produced a season-low 343 yards of offense and saw its BCS title hopes slip away.

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 Props to Bill O'Brien and his guys at Penn State. Battling back from 11 down against an undefeated team to rally like they did against Northwestern is impressive. This team, after all these players have had to deal with, could've folded after opening the season 0-2, but didn't. They're 4-2 and O'Brien and these players can't get enough praise for their grit.

The Nittany Lions went 5-for-6 on fourth downs vs. Northwestern, making them 13-for-20 this season on fourth-down tries, as PSU sports information director Jeff Nelson points out. No one else in the nation has attempted or converted more this season. (Louisiana-Monroe (12-16) is the only other school to make it more than nine times.) It's no stretch to think O'Brien's willingness to show his belief in his team in clutch situations is paying off in many more ways than just simply hoping to move the chains.

 It was pick your poison in Austin Saturday night for Texas against the explosive West Virginia offense and UT went down in an unlikely manner. The Longhorns played the Mountaineers in two-high coverage almost the whole night and Andrew Buie ran wild, going for over 200 yards in the Mountaineers' 48-45 win.

Know this: Dana Holgorsen isn't afraid to run the football. More specifically, he doesn't mind running the ball. (That's where he's a little different from his Air-Raid mentors.) After all, if his team proves it can run when the defense leaves only five in the box, it's only going to make his passing attack -- and his offense -- just that much more lethal, and he's not going to be stubborn about it.

Almost as impressive as WVU's ground game was seeing the team go 5-5 on fourth down tries.

And, yes, I know WVU's defense is shaky, but with this offense, they would be a problem for anyone.

 The Arkansas defense, which had been miserable for the first month of the season, found a nice remedy when it visited an even more struggling unit -- the Auburn Tigers. The Hogs had been allowing over 500 yards per game and were No. 116 in scoring defense. They also only had managed seven sacks in their first five games. But they got more aggressive and despite losing standout DE Tenarius Wright, the Hogs really got after the Auburn QBs, notching eight sacks.

The Hogs star for the day was sophomore DE Trey Flowers, a Huntsville, Ala., native who had 3½ sacks against a Tiger program that had opted not to recruit him.

"I guess you could say I had a chip on my shoulder. Coming back here knowing Auburn didn't give me a scholarship, I just had a chip on shoulder," Flowers told the Arkansas News. "That's what I've been thinking about all season. I said before the season: 'You don't offer me, you better not play me.' I made sure they knew they missed an opportunity."

Even faced with a postseason ban, Urban Meyer leads the Bucks back to the top 10. (Getty Images)  
Even faced with a postseason ban, Urban Meyer leads the Bucks back to the top 10. (Getty Images)  
Auburn has now produced just two offensive touchdowns in its first three SEC games, and if you go back to last year, it's only two TDs over its past 19 quarters in league play. Two seasons ago, when the Tigers won the national title, they led the nation in passing efficiency with Cam Newton. This fall, they are No. 110 in the country and dead last in turnover margin. If they lose next week at Ole Miss, and the pressure is really going to ramp up on Gene Chizik.

 How much of a mess is the Big Ten Leaders Division? Its two unbeatens, Ohio State and Penn State, are ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, while the other four in the division -- Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue -- are a combined 1-6 in league play, with those losses coming by an average margin of 16 ppg. But don't blame the Buckeyes for holding up their end this season.

You were kidding yourself if you thought Urban Meyer wouldn't lead Ohio State back into the top 10. The guy's track record for winning is too big, and the school's pedigree too strong. And the dynamic QB he inherited, Braxton Miller, was such a good fit for all of it now. But winning like this, this soon? I didn't see that coming. In fact, when the NCAA handed down its postseason ban in the offseason, after Meyer took the OSU job, I didn't think it would make that big of a difference. The Buckeyes are 6-0 after hanging 63 on Nebraska and have pulled off an impressive double, knocking off two teams that were in the preseason top 16. They've gone from No. 81 in the nation in scoring last season to No. 22 this fall.

 Notre Dame fans should be feeling good. Their young QB played well Saturday night. They piled up yards on the ground and the Irish blew out Miami.

UM came in with a hot QB in Stephen Morris, but the Canes receivers had a horrible night, which was low-lighted when UM's best WR, Phillip Dorsett dropped a sure TD after he beat the ND secondary deep. Then, the speedy young wideout dropped another would-be TD pass four plays later.

No question, the Irish have an excellent front seven, but it's hard to tell just how good this defense is because the teams they've handled have all been pretty suspect in the passing game. The Irish have Stanford coming in next. David Shaw has a couple of superb tight ends, but overall, his passing game with first-year starting QB Josh Nunes has been lackluster. In reality, we might not get a clearer picture on whether this is a top-5 kind of defense till ND visits Landry Jones and OU in late October. So far, though, you have to give the Irish an A+.

Miami is still a ways from competing as a top 10 kind of team. UM has faced two ranked teams and is averaging eight points per game. In its games against subpar competition, the Canes are averaging over 41.

Al Golden does have some firepower on offense, but his defense is horrible. He has maybe two players who were made for the two-deep coverage of an elite old-style Canes defense, and those guys are sophomores.

 Ugly day in Florida for everyone but the Gators. The Noles saw their perfect season go down the toilet, Miami got blasted and USF lost to Temple.

 For years, Duke's staff has been practically awed by how big and imposing the Virginia teams were. The Blue Devils, though, have recruited well of late and just how much different this team is was reflected by how David Cutcliffe's team dominated UVA in the second half of its 42-17 win to go to 5-1. Not bad for a team having to go with its backup QB as the starter.

I know Duke hasn't beaten a good team yet, but there's still a lot of reasons for people around Durham to be smiling. The Blue Devils are second in the nation in red-zone defense (behind BYU and ahead of Alabama).

 Congrats, Sonny Dykes. Louisiana Tech keeps piling up points and has cracked the AP Top 25, coming in at No. 23. It's La Tech's first time in the AP Top 25 since 1999. Tech blasted UNLV, 58-31 and has now eclipsed the 50-point barrier in four of five games as the Bulldogs have opened 5-0 for the first time in 37 years.

 Kentucky is now 0-10 on fourth-down tries. In 2009, UAB went 0 for 10 on fourth downs for the season.

 Stat of the Day: There are three QBs in the nation's top 100 in passing efficiency who have yet to throw an interception: Geno Smith; A.J. McCarron and Colby Cameron. The combined record of their three teams? 15-0.

 Way to go, Bob Davie. New Mexico, which drilled Texas State 35-14, despite only completing one pass. The Lobos are 3-3.

 The only thing more inevitable in Boston this year than Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine getting canned is Boston College coach Frank Spaziani getting canned. The Eagles remain winless against FBS opponents. They gave up over 500 rushing yards at Army and lost to a previously winless team that had been thumped by an FCS program, Stony Brook, by 20.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.

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