The Southeastern Conference’s West Division has clearly been stronger than the East Division in recent seasons.
Not only have the past three SEC champions come from the West Division, so have the past three BCS champions. While LSU, Alabama and Auburn were showing that the best came from the West, traditional Eastern powers such as Florida and Tennessee were slipping, and Georgia and South Carolina were inconsistent.
But this year, the gap between the two divisions might be closing, and LSU gets a chance to make a first-hand evaluation the next two Saturdays.
The fourth-ranked Tigers play at No. 10 Florida on Saturday, then welcome No. 6 South Carolina to Tiger Stadium. Sure, No. 1 Alabama and LSU are the highest-ranked SEC teams, but the East has three top 10 teams compared to the West’s two.
“I think the East has a very, very strong group of teams,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I look at Florida and certainly South Carolina and Georgia, and those are very, very quality teams from the East. To me, I think it’s kind of year in and year out. Things change, but I think it’s always a very, very competitive part of the SEC.”
LSU’s back-to-back games against teams from the East are followed by three straight against West contenders Texas A&M, Alabama and Mississippi State. Overall, the Tigers’ next five opponents have a combined record of 21-1.
“The schedule is about to get real sticky,” wide receiver Russell Shepard said. “We’re going to play some great teams, and we’re going to play in some hostile environments. At the same time, this is going to make us a better team. Great teams handle it. We’ve played big in big games. This team can do it if we execute and play smart.”
The Tigers’ most immediate concern is Florida, which is 4-0 and already 3-0 in the league with road victories against Texas A&M, a newcomer to the West, and Tennessee, and a home victory against Kentucky.
“They’re doing the things we’re used to seeing from them,” Shepard said of the Gators. “It looks like they’re getting back to the way they used to be.”
The Gators used to be a perennial contender to win not only the East, but the overall SEC title and the BCS title. They are the last team from outside the SEC West to win a national championship (2008).
Last season, they were just 7-6 in their first season under former LSU defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. LSU beat them 41-11, the largest margin of victory for the Tigers in the series.
“They’re probably going to come in with a chip on their shoulder, which is the way it should be,” LSU linebacker Kevin Minter said. “I would be if I came in on the losing end of that game.”
The Tigers haven’t looked as dominant as they did last season, when they rolled to a 13-0 record in the regular season. They followed a nail-biting 12-10 victory at Auburn two weeks ago with an uninspired 38-22 victory against Towson last Saturday.
“With the season we had last year, we kind of spoiled the people who pull for us because we beat teams badly and we beat ranked teams badly,” Shepard said. “You can’t beat everybody by 40 points or 30 points whether ranked they’re ranked or not.”
Though No. 4 LSU remains undefeated after five games, it has dropped one spot in the AP poll after each of its past two victories.
“I feel the respect level has gone down for us,” LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry said, “and I think this game gives us a chance to prove ourselves and show the world why we’re such a dominant team.
“It definitely puts a bad taste in our mouth to show people up. It motivates us. You’re surrounded by such ambitious guys, and when we’re disrespected and talked down upon, we rise to the occasion.”
Muschamp warned against reading too much into the Tigers’ sloppiness of late.
“We won’t see the same LSU team,” he said.
The Tigers won’t see the same Gators team they saw a year ago.
“I think we’re much better than we were a year ago,” Muschamp said. “We’re much deeper, more mature, more experienced. I think we’re stronger. We handle adversity a lot better. When you play games like this, there is going to be adversity.
“Anybody that was a part of watching us and being a part of our organization last year and this year will notice a night-and-day difference between our football team. I think we’ve made tremendous improvement in a short period of time. Are we where we want to be? Absolutely not. I’m not saying we’ve arrived by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think we’ve improved.”
LSU hasn’t shied away from the fact that it will have to be improved if it’s going to beat Florida.
“I think this week will really show what type of character we have on this team,” quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. “This game will be a defining moment for us as a team and how we execute, a set point for the rest of our season.”
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