What we learned in the SEC: Week 8

The eighth week of the college football season has come and gone, so let’s take a look at what we learned Saturday in the SEC:

1. Clarity in the East race: Florida just keeps finding ways to win after seemingly finding ways to lose a year ago. Now, the Gators are a win from clinching the Eastern Division title and earning a berth in the SEC championship game. They pounced on a mistake-prone South Carolina team Saturday for a 44-11 win and can lock up the East crown next weekend with a win over rival Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla. The Gators are doing it with superior defense and special teams, excellent adjustments at halftime and a belief that they’re going to wear you down in the second half. While Georgia has looked listless at times during its past two outings (a 29-24 win over Kentucky on Saturday and a 35-7 loss to South Carolina on Oct. 6), the Bulldogs can take a commanding position in the East race with a win over the Gators. From there, Georgia would have a home game with Ole Miss and a road game with Auburn remaining. Florida’s only remaining league game after this weekend is Missouri at home on Nov. 3. The Bulldogs have won just four of the past 22 meetings in this series, including a 24-20 victory last season. Georgia hasn’t won two in a row over Florida since winning three straight from 1987 to 1989. The Bulldogs were without star outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (ankle) in their win over Kentucky, and coach Mark Richt said Sunday that he’s not sure Jones will be able to play against Florida.

2. South Carolina quarterback controversy: Sometimes you’d swear that Steve Spurrier almost likes controversy at the quarterback position. Then again, maybe he’s just such a perfectionist that his patience with his signal-callers is razor-thin. Either way, Spurrier is clearly down on Connor Shaw after the Gamecocks struggled on offense for the second straight week Saturday in a 44-11 loss to Florida. Afterward, Spurrier said South Carolina “stunk from the get go” and called it a “pitiful performance.” He didn’t place all of the blame on Shaw but noted that the quarterback missed several open receivers and was “still running all over the place.” Shaw was benched at halftime in favor of backup Dylan Thompson, and Spurrier said he didn’t know which way he would go at quarterback this coming weekend against Tennessee. Shaw has committed three turnovers in the past two games and been sacked six times, but the Gamecocks’ problems on offense run a lot deeper than just Shaw. They haven’t been able to run the ball effectively the past two weeks. Marcus Lattimore got just three carries against Florida, and the receivers aren’t making any big plays down the field. Shaw certainly hasn’t played his best football the past two games, but he is the same guy the South Carolina coaches were lauding earlier this month for being such a winner and the same guy who’s been playing through a hairline fracture in his throwing shoulder.

3. Chizik watch: Auburn’s 17-13 loss to Vanderbilt will ratchet up the heat like never before on coach Gene Chizik, whose Tigers (1-6, 0-5 SEC) are off to their worst start in 60 years. It’s mind-boggling to think that this is a program that won a national championship just two short years ago. The Tigers have recruited well (according to the experts) and have talent. They also have an offense that has been abysmal for two straight seasons. Only once during that span have they scored more than two offensive touchdowns, and the defense continues to get mashed and give up big plays in key situations. Hard as it is to believe, Chizik is probably fighting a losing battle. The chances of surviving a season this disastrous, even when you lose such star players as tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen to injury, are remote for any coach, even one who brought you your first national championship in more than 50 years. The Tigers aren’t just losing to the big boys, either. Their past two losses have come to one team (Ole Miss) that had lost 16 in a row in the league and another team (Vanderbilt) that has perennially been the league’s doormat. What’s ultimately going to get Chizik, though, is that Alabama has sprinted off and left Auburn. The gap between the programs is not even close anymore. And in that state, that’s the surest way to be shown the door.

4. Dooley watch: Much like Chizik, the odds are against Tennessee coach Derek Dooley keeping his job. The Vols were hammered 44-13 by Alabama on Saturday night in Neyland Stadium, and there was a ton of crimson in that stadium. That’s never good for a coach at Tennessee. Just ask Phillip Fulmer. While Chizik has a national championship to his credit, Dooley has yet to win an SEC game of any significance. He’s now 1-11 in his past 12 league games. The only win came in overtime last season at home against Vanderbilt. There’s no question Dooley inherited a mess when he took over in 2010, and there have been signs of improvement from last season to this season. But at some point, there has to be some improvement where it counts (the win-loss department), and that just hasn’t been the case. The defense under first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri has been horrific. The Vols have given up 173 points in four SEC games. Not only that, but junior quarterback Tyler Bray has been a no-show against quality opponents. The walls are closing in fast, and Tennessee fans are clamoring for another change. They may get their wish.

5. LSU still has life: The way the game started Saturday at Kyle Field, it was only natural to wonder whether LSU was still asleep from the early kickoff. The Tigers looked the way they had in their past two road performances. But after taking Texas A&M’s best shot and falling behind 12-0, LSU came storming back to win 24-19, and in the process, set the stage for what should be another epic encounter with Alabama in two weeks. Obviously, LSU is far from a perfect football team. The Tigers are limited on offense, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger is still trying to find his way against the defenses in this league. But there’s no question LSU still has a championship-caliber defense, and the Tigers are as resilient as they ever were. They now get a bye and will have an extra week to prepare for Alabama’s trip to Tiger Stadium on Nov. 3. That should be a huge advantage for LSU, too, because Alabama has to play unbeaten Mississippi State next weekend.