Don't sleep on SEC East in national title talk

Had somebody predicted in August that the SEC would go into the month of October with three legitimate national championship contenders -- all from the same division -- nobody would have raised an eyebrow.

After all, Alabama, LSU and Arkansas all started the season ranked in the top 10 nationally, and the last three national champions have come from the Western Division.

For that matter, it was an all-Western Division title game last season in New Orleans.

So it stood to reason that the road to the 2012 national championship would again go through the Western Division, and that may still be the case.

But as we flip the calendar to October, there’s only one division in college football that houses three teams ranked in the top 10 nationally ... and it’s not the SEC West.

Nope, it’s the SEC East, and Florida, Georgia and South Carolina have all positioned themselves to be in that national championship conversation come December.

The path the rest of the way will be a rugged one, but all three teams have a lot of the ingredients needed to make a run.

This appears to be the most explosive offense Georgia has had since Mark Richt arrived in 2001. The Bulldogs have scored 40 or more points in all five of their games.

South Carolina has scored 30 or more points in each of its last four games, while Florida has scored 37 or more in its last two contests.

Of course, in this league, it usually comes down to defense, and the Gators and Gamecocks have been suffocating in the second half. Florida hasn’t allowed any fourth-quarter points in any of its four games. The only second-half points South Carolina has allowed in its last three games was a meaningless touchdown in the final seconds two weeks ago in a 31-10 rout of Missouri.

Of the three, Georgia returned the most high-profile starters on defense, and on paper, was supposed to be the most talented. But thanks to a glut of suspensions, the Bulldogs didn’t get everybody back until last week against Tennessee and promptly gave up 44 points.

They’re still plenty talented on defense, and once Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo get their feet all the way back under them, this is a defense that will certainly be heard from this season.

As South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier noted Sunday, Georgia’s offense is scoring so quickly this season that the Bulldogs’ defense is on the field for a lot more plays.

Another common denominator among the three is that their quarterbacks are all playing at an extremely high level and and playing with a lot of confidence.

Plus, Florida’s Jeff Driskel, South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and Georgia’s Aaron Murray are capable of extending the play and making things happen with their legs, which only puts more pressure on the opposing defense.

Georgia probably has the clearest path to the East title because the Bulldogs don’t have to play LSU.

But the entire landscape could change this weekend with No. 4 LSU taking on No. 10 Florida in the Swamp and No. 5 Georgia traveling to face No. 6 South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium.

If Florida can take down LSU, the Gators also get the Gamecocks at home in two weeks.

Meanwhile, if Georgia wins this Saturday in Columbia, the Bulldogs get a week off before traveling to Kentucky and then facing the Gators in Jacksonville on Oct. 27.

The Gamecocks have the most difficult road. If they can protect their home turf and beat Georgia for a third straight season, they then have to play at LSU the next week and at Florida the following week. That’s followed by a visit from Tennessee on Oct. 27.

Moreover, South Carolina has No. 15 Clemson on the road to conclude the regular season.

The reality is that all three teams will probably beat up on each other, meaning a national championship would be a stretch.

But just to be talking about it in October -- with three teams from the East -- is yet another reminder of how quickly things can change in this league.