It isn't the wild, wild west anymore; it's the wild, wild east.
Here we are in mid-October, and Missouri—yes, Missouri—is the unquestioned front-runner in the SEC East. The 6-0 Tigers have two conference wins under their belts—both road wins at Vanderbilt and Georgia.
But will the Tigers ride the current wave of momentum all the way to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 7, or will one of the big three behind them break Cinderella's glass slipper?
Let's blaze a trail for each of them.
Missouri Tigers (6-0, 2-0 SEC)
Are you a believer in Missouri yet?
The Tigers went between the hedges on Saturday and put an end to Georgia's BCS National Championship dreams with a 41-26 win over the Bulldogs. But it came at a price. Quarterback James Franklin sustained a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter and could be lost for 3-5 weeks, according to the Kansas City Star.
That puts the weight of the SEC East on the shoulders of redshirt freshman Maty Mauk.
"I've got faith in Maty Mauk," wide receiver L'Damian Washington said according to the Kansas City Star. "He's going to step up. He has to lead this team right now. He doesn't have a choice."
Mauk has big shoes to fill, especially considering he has no time to learn on the job. The Tigers face Florida and South Carolina over the next two weeks, and the outcomes of those games will directly impact the division race.
If Missouri can win just one of those two games, it'll put an enormous amount of pressure on the rest of the field. At the very worst, it'll keep the Tigers tied with whichever team that loss comes to and, at worst, tied with the Bulldogs, who they hold the tiebreaker over.
At that point, it would be a race to the finish. Tennessee and Kentucky should be wins, and the key game would turn into the Nov. 23 meeting with Ole Miss in Oxford. The Rebels have been hit-or-miss this season, and have struggled at times against physical front sevens—which Missouri has.
Depending on what happens elsewhere, a 1-1 record vs. Ole Miss and Texas A&M to close the season might be enough to get the job done. Luckily for head coach Gary Pinkel's crew, South Carolina and Florida both wrap up SEC play on Nov. 16, so they'll know exactly what needs to be done to win the East.
South Carolina Gamecocks (5-1, 3-1 SEC)
South Carolina certainly looked the part of a title favorite in its 52-7 win at Arkansas on Saturday where quarterback Connor Shaw out-gained the entire Arkansas team 256-248. But that loss to Georgia still hurts and could prevent the Gamecocks from making their first title game appearance since 2010.
The path for head coach Steve Spurrier is simple—win out and root for your alma mater.
If South Carolina wins out, it would finish the season with one conference loss and a head-to-head tiebreaker over Missouri. All it would need at that point would be one Georgia loss—perhaps to Florida in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party on Nov. 2—and the Gamecocks will represent the division.
How realistic is winning out? Missouri will have a lot of pressure—and perhaps an inexperienced quarterback—later this month when Clowney comes calling. Tennessee and Mississippi State are likely wins and the Gamecocks will have two weeks to prepare for Florida on Nov. 16.
South Carolina is fighting an uphill battle, but the path isn't littered with many obstacles.
Florida Gators (4-2, 3-1 SEC)
Like Georgia, Florida is fighting the injury bug as well. Running back Matt Jones is the latest Gator to have his season cut short after tearing his meniscus against LSU. He joins quarterback Jeff Driskel, defensive tackle Dominique Easley, offensive tackle Chaz Green and wide receiver Andre Debose as starters who have had season-ending injuries since Aug. 1.
Florida's combined five starters lost since August had a total of 74 career starts. #Gators— David Jones (@DaveJonesUFbeat) October 14, 2013
Despite the injuries, Florida still has title hopes. The Gators have to beat Missouri and really need to beat South Carolina as well, but both of those games are on the road. If we've learned anything since Driskel's injury we know that the offense is still going to be conservative with Tyler Murphy at the helm—particularly on the road.
That may have to change by necessity, because Missouri and South Carolina both have offenses that can put Florida into a hole if that stout Gator defense comes out sluggish—as was the case against Miami earlier this season. Georgia will be a battle of attrition, and at this point, it's almost impossible to predict what that game will look like despite being a mere three weeks away.
The good news for head coach Will Muschamp is, if the Gators win out, they're in. Even if Missouri's only conference loss comes to Florida, they'd be the only two East teams with one loss, and Florida would have the tiebreaker.
Florida could also benefit if there's a three- or four-team tie. The Gators' are the only team of the four that currently have a loss outside of the division. Section B.2 of the SEC's three-team tie-breaker rules state that, to reduce a tie-breaker to two teams, a three- (or more) team tie will be broken by the combined head-to-head-record of the tied teams. If Florida finds itself in a multi-team tie, its combined head-to-head record against the tied teams won't include one of its conference losses—last week's loss to LSU. If it falls to B.3—record within the division—Florida would also likely be sitting pretty.
Georgia Bulldogs (4-2, 3-1 SEC)
The path of least resistance for the Bulldogs would be to win out, have Missouri drop games to Florida and South Carolina and win out. If that happens, head coach Mark Richt and Co. will represent the division for the third consecutive year.
But it isn't the only way.
If Missouri falls to South Carolina and both the Gamecocks and Georgia win out, there could be a three-way tie in which Missouri, Georgia and either Florida or South Carolina have one loss. Georgia would be sitting pretty in that scenario.
According to the SEC's tie-breaker rules (keep the link handy, because this division may need it), a three-way tie in which all three teams have the same head-to-head record against each other would fall all the way down to B.8 and the BCS standings.
South Carolina would likely be the highest-ranked since its only loss came on Sept. 7. But if Georgia can get within five spots, that tie would be broken by head-to-head result. Georgia beat the Gamecocks 41-30 on Sept. 7.
You're probably not the only one.
The SEC East is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing division title battles the SEC has seen in quite a few years. With so many critical injuries and head-to-head matchups remaining on the schedule, the stretch run is going to be fascinating to watch.
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