CHARLES ODUM, AP Sports Writer
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — An important Southeastern Conference Eastern Division showdown is being overshadowed this week by another deluge of compelling SEC West games.
The only ranked teams from the SEC East will meet on Saturday when No. 13 Georgia visits No. 23 Missouri in a game which could provide some clarity in the muddled East race. The game has been set for an early 11 a.m. CDT kickoff as if to serve as a warm-up for offerings from the West — the nation’s most powerful division.
Georgia receiver Michael Bennett insists he’s not insulted by the powerful West overshadowing the East in the regular season. He said the East will have its chance to shine in the SEC championship game.
Bennett said he hopes the heavyweights in the West bludgeon each other before the Dec. 6 title game in Atlanta.
“They can have all their fun right now, but all that matters is once we get to Atlanta, whoever wins that game is going to get the attention,” Bennett said.
“I’m glad they’re all really good over there and beating each other up. Someone is going to come kind of bruised and battered into the SEC championship game. Hopefully we’ll be there and be able to get the win and go on to the playoffs.”
The West boasts four of the nation’s top seven teams in the Top 25. Having those four teams come from only two states, Mississippi and Alabama, only makes the drama more difficult to ignore.
The must-see SEC West showdowns this week include No. 2 Auburn at No. 3 Mississippi State and No. 3 Mississippi at No. 14 Texas A&M. Also, No. 7 Alabama plays at Arkansas.
Meanwhile, the SEC East race is up for grabs. Missouri (4-1, 1-0) is the division’s only team without a SEC loss. Florida, Georgia and Kentucky are 2-1 in the SEC.
Tennessee is 0-2 in the conference, but the Vols believe they’re still in the East race. That’s an advantage to playing in the SEC’s weaker division.
“I just know that we still have a good chance of winning the East,” said Tennessee safety Brian Randolph. “I think almost every team on our side has a loss, so it’s not out of the question for us to make a comeback toward the end of the season.
“It definitely gives us a little bit more motivation each day coming in.”
Asked to explain the power shift to the SEC West, Tennessee coach Butch Jones said “I think some of it is cyclical.”
Jones said that doesn’t mean the East is packed with pushovers.
“Really, I believe the East is extremely competitive as well,” Jones said. “It’s just the nature of the SEC. … Every team is good. Every team is physical. Every team is well-coached, and every program has very good fan support, so when you go on the road, every away game is a hostile environment.”
Kentucky (4-1) is trying to take advantage of the wide-open race in the East. It has back-to-back conference wins over Vanderbilt and South Carolina and is moving closer to becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2010.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said the Wildcats are part of a movement toward “great parity” in the league.
“It’s a tough conference and there’s not a heck of a lot of teams going backward,” Stoops said. “Everybody is trying to move forward like we are. We are trying to do everything we can to improve our program, and I think you see that from a lot of the teams in this league.”
South Carolina (3-3, 2-3) was a popular preseason pick to win the East but has fallen to fifth after last week’s loss at surprising Kentucky.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said “I don’t think anybody could disagree” the East is down.
“Maybe they’ve recruited a little better than everybody else,” Spurrier said last week of the West teams.
The West’s breakthrough teams are drawing national attention.
ESPN’s College GameDay is spending its second straight week in the state of Mississippi, shifting from Oxford, where it was based for last week’s Ole Miss win over Alabama, to Starkville.
Bennett said he understands if those games generate a bigger buzz than Georgia’s important test at Missouri.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” Bennett said. “It’s actually kind of exciting to see. I love the attention on Ole Miss and Mississippi State. I think it’s good for college football.”
AP Sports Writers Gary Graves in Lexington, Kentucky; Peter Iacobelli in Columbia, South Carolina and Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee contributed to this report.
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