Alabama, Georgia prove to be class of SEC

The Bear would be proud.

They're talking about Alabama football again from coast to coast, and the conversation has nothing to do with NCAA probation, disassociated boosters or preliminary letters of inquiry.
After wallowing in its own self-induced football purgatory for much of the last few years, Alabama has reasserted itself as the class of the Southeastern Conference. The Crimson Tide (5-0, 3-0 SEC) has done it the old-fashioned way, too.

The Tide's defense, a staple during the glory years, is one of the best in the country, allowing just 11.6 points per game.
But whereas Alabama had to lean exclusively on its defense a year ago and scratch out points any way it could on offense, the scales have been evened this season. As a result, defensive coordinator Joe Kines has only turned up the heat on opposing quarterbacks.

Just ask Florida's Chris Leak.

The catch phrase heard all summer around Tuscaloosa was, "If Brodie Croyle can only stay healthy."

Well, he has, and the Alabama offense has combined a bruising running game with Croyle's quick-strike ability down the field to generate the kind of balanced attack often seen in championship runs.

"There were a lot of questions about how we could match up against a talented team. Hopefully, we answered some of those," Alabama head coach Mike Shula said following the 31-3 demolition of Florida two weeks ago.

A few more questions remain, notably how the Tide offense will fare without do-it-all receiver Tyrone Prothro. The 5-foot-8, 178-pound dynamo broke his leg against Florida and will miss the remainder of the season. The Mississippi game this weekend will be Alabama's first without him.

Alabama's perch atop the SEC at the midway point is actually a shared one.

Over in the Eastern Division, Georgia has flown under the radar and emerged from the preseason shadows of Florida and Tennessee to climb to No. 5 in the polls.
The Bulldogs (5-0, 3-0) are coming off a 27-14 battering of the Vols in Knoxville and now have the clearest path to the East crown.

Quarterback D.J. Shockley has been a defensive coordinator's nightmare with his ability to run and pass. He's made some mistakes, but has made far more plays and is a perfect fit in Mark Richt's offensive system.

Still, the consensus coming into the season was that Shockley had to prove it after playing a specialist's role behind David Greene the last three years.

"I told D.J. that a lot of people in the nation really don't think that you can get done what needs to be done for this team," Georgia tight end Leonard Pope said. "But I told him all along that I knew he could do it. You could see it in practice, in our meetings, all the time. He's got what it takes to be a great leader."

Don't write LSU out of the championship mix just yet, either. The Tigers collapsed in the second half against Tennessee in a 30-27 overtime loss, but still have as much talent as anybody in the league.

The next two weeks will determine whether LSU (3-1, 2-1) is a contender or pretender. The Tigers get Florida at home Saturday and then Auburn at home Oct. 22.

Biggest surprise
This was going hands-down to Vanderbilt until the Commodores blew what appeared to be clear sailing to a 5-0 start with a bumbling 17-15 home loss to Middle Tennessee State. It's still been a nice run for Bobby Johnson's bunch, but the midseason prize goes to Alabama. The Crimson Tide started the season unranked in one poll and near the bottom in the other. The 31-3 destruction of Florida was eye-opening for everybody.

Biggest disappointment
Easy winner here. Tennessee's offensive roster is dotted with high school All-Americans. Yet the Vols have been embarrassingly bad on offense. How bad? They're ranked 100th nationally in rushing offense (just ahead of Temple) and tied for 96th in scoring offense (just ahead of Ball State). And believe it or not, the Vols are even worse on special teams. Keep in mind, too, that this is the same team that started the season ranked No. 3 nationally. But outside of the dramatic comeback at LSU, they've been just plain rank.

Midseason MVP
There's something to be said for veteran, seasoned quarterbacks that command respect from their teammates. The top two candidates here fit that bill -- Alabama's Croyle and Georgia's Shockley. But after watching where Alabama was without Croyle a year ago and where the Crimson Tide is with him this year, it's a no-brainer. He's changed the way defenses are playing the Tide, which resembled a high school offense after Croyle was injured last season. He makes everybody else around him better.

Midseason Coach of the Year
Auburn lost the most talent to the NFL, but Georgia was a solid second in the SEC. The Bulldogs had five players go on the first day of the draft, including two in the first round. Mark Richt never as much as blinked, though. He has his team right back where it ended the season a year ago -- in the top 10 of the polls. The Bulldogs are ranked fifth nationally and in great shape to be the Eastern Division representative in the SEC championship game after taking down Tennessee last week. Props also go to Richt's first-year defensive coordinator, Willie Martinez, who was promoted from his job as defensive backs coach after Brian VanGorder went to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Bulldogs lost three difference makers on defense to the NFL -- David Pollack, Odell Thurman and Thomas Davis -- but there's been no drop-off under Martinez.

Bowl bound
Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Auburn, Florida and Tennessee.

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.