The East's rise brings SEC more excitement

Slowly, we’re moving away from the Alabama-LSU storyline in the SEC. Sure, it was fun, but it’s time for something new around these parts.

Last season, the two best teams played twice -- the latter game being for the national championship -- and heading into the 2012 season, it seemed as though we were headed for another gargantuan showdown between the two.

That game in Baton Rouge, La., could still be huge, but now in Week 7, that storyline actually appears a little dull and outdated. There’s new excitement in the SEC, and it has nothing to do with the Crimson Tide or Tigers. Its setting is in the East, and it couldn’t be more interesting.

Now, Alabama is still king. You can’t take anything away from the Tide, but having more competitive blood in the SEC this season is more fun for the league, and it should make things much more interesting as the season goes on and BCS talk heats up.

“I think people would say there are more than two teams that could contend for a national title right now,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

Even for a conference that has had so much success winning national championships -- six in a row -- having more than two teams capable of bringing home the crystal ball is better for the league as a whole.

South Carolina and Florida rank third and fourth, respectively, in the Associated Press Top 25, while Georgia is sitting at 14th. The Bulldogs might have taken a tumble with that ugly loss to the Gamecocks, but you can’t count them out. With talent still aboard and a relatively soft second-half schedule, the Dawgs still could be in the SEC picture -- and maybe the national championship picture -- at season’s end.

South Carolina and Florida haven’t been flashy, but they have smothering defenses, and we’ve learned that having a killer defense sometimes can be far more important than a fun offense in the SEC. Just look at the Gators' win against LSU last weekend.

All three are good, and all three appear to be here to stay in 2012.

“People think that we are going to die off in a little bit, but I really don’t see that with this team,” South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders said of the Gamecocks. “This team is way different than some of the teams in the past. There’s a way different focus, a different level of intensity on and off the field. People are trying their best to make this season the best season possible.”

Nationally, South Carolina and Florida rank 11th and 12th, respectively, in total defense, and fourth and sixth, respectively, in scoring defense. Georgia’s defense has taken its lumps, but its offense is still one of the best in the SEC, and is 13th nationally in scoring.

All three end up playing one another in round-robin fashion, and they could end up looking like last season’s big three from the West when it comes to figuring out the divisional champ. But the road to Atlanta will be filled with more attention and more pressure for these teams looking to get out of the West’s shadow.

“We’re still hungry, and we still feel like we have something to prove,” Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. “None of that means anything, because at the beginning of the season they thought we were [ranked] 23, so it’s just motivation to keep going.”

In the past six years, it’s safe to say that outside of last season’s Western cluster of Alabama, Arkansas and LSU, there were never more than two teams really in line for a national championship out of the SEC.

This season, five teams are worthy contenders. Yes, even LSU and all its offensive problems.

It’s still early, but it just doesn’t feel like this multi-team success will die out. Even if South Carolina loses to LSU this weekend, the East is still there, and a strong second-half run could have the Gamecocks in line for more than just Atlanta.

It’s good to have the East roaring back with three teams all in position to finally take the West down, and it’s good for the conference to be spread throughout the Top 25.

The SEC will take its championships all day long, but to have even more teams battling for it or ranked among the best in the country is just icing on the cake.