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SEC East teams overlooked in LSU-Alabama hype

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Nearly every college football fan will tune in to watch the highly anticipated LSU-Alabama showdown.

The matchup between the top ranked teams in the country feels like the Southeastern Conference championship game. Only it's not.

It may not even decide who wins the SEC's Western Division.

That's one reason Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said Saturday night he will have one eye on the LSU-Alabama game and the other on No. 10 South Carolina and No. 8 Arkansas.

Either the Bulldogs or Gamecocks will represent the SEC East in the actual title game on Dec. 3 against either the Tigers, Crimson Tide or possibly even the Razorbacks from the West

"They're both on at the same time? Man!" Murray said of the two SEC games. "I'm going somewhere to eat so I can watch both of them. That's what I'm going to do, making sure both games are on so I can watch both. I definitely want to watch the Alabama-LSU game, but obviously I've got to watch the Arkansas-South Carolina game and hope Arkansas can pull it out."

The odds in the championship game will be against whoever wins the SEC East, which has been overlooked most of this season with all the hype and attention focused on the West.

Tennessee sophomore receiver Rajion Neal said it's tough to argue with the balance of power having shifted to the West.

"They do have the 1 and 2 team in the country, and I mean, our side needs to pick it up a little bit," Neal said. "We've been in a slump, but I feel we'll grow and hopefully come out of it. They do have the right to feel the way they feel. You do have the 1 and 2 team in the country, not just the SEC, the country."

Alabama and LSU have combined to take six of the eight SEC championship games for Western Division teams, and the West has won three of the past four SEC title games in Atlanta.

"The SEC West is doing real good right now," Vanderbilt safety Javon Marshall said. "I know it's going to be a big game. I'm just focused on this Florida game ..."

But it's the West that the country's focused on.

It's a big shift since the SEC first started playing the conference championship. Florida reeled off four straight title game wins, and Tennessee followed up winning the next two in sheer East domination. The East still has an 11-8 edge in the game, which has been won by only three teams from each division: Florida, Tennessee and Georgia in the East; Alabama, LSU and Auburn in the West.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, looking for his first SEC title with the Gamecocks to add to the five won with Florida, said he doesn't really have an answer for why the West is dominating the East.

"In the 1990s, it was Florida and Tennessee pretty much. And those teams are down from where they used to be," Spurrier said. "So, when some are down, it gives other people the chance to be up. And the Western side, those are strong programs. They all are."

Spurrier noted Florida and Tennessee are a combined 2-9 in SEC play right now, unimaginable 10 or 15 years ago when he and Phillip Fulmer were coaching against each other.

"But that's where it is right now," Spurrier said.

The biggest reason why South Carolina (7-1, 5-1) and Georgia (6-2, 5-1) are fighting for the Eastern Division title is because neither team had to play either Alabama or LSU this season. Spurrier, who has the edge thanks to a 45-42 win at Georgia on Sept. 10, said Alabama and LSU are the two best teams in the league right now.

"Fortunately, we don't play either one of them. Georgia doesn't play either one of them," Spurrier said. "And that's why us and Georgia were the preseason picks by almost everybody, and that is the reason, too, because of scheduling. They're the two best."

LSU and Alabama marks only the 13th time two SEC teams have played while ranked in The Associated Press' top five, and the Crimson Tide won the last one, beating top-ranked Florida 32-13 in the 2009 SEC title game. Both LSU and Alabama control its destiny by winning out. Arkansas, which visits LSU on Nov. 25, must win out with Alabama losing twice to go to Atlanta.

But there is hope for the underdogs from the East.

Upsets are definitely possible on the neutral field of the Georgia Dome. The West pulled off one of the biggest in 2001 when the division was considered inferior to the East.

Tennessee came in fresh off a big win over Spurrier's Gators in the Swamp needing a win in the SEC title game over LSU for a berth in the BCS championship game. LSU won the West that year with a 5-3 record with Nick Saban as head coach. The LSU Tigers beat Tennessee 31-20 for the SEC championship.

South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles said the Gamecocks are excited about their chance at winning the SEC East again and getting and earning another trip to the championship game. And it doesn't bother him that all the focus is on LSU and Alabama and that South Carolina, Georgia and the rest of the SEC East has largely been overlooked this season.

"When it's all said and done, we'll all know who's on top," Quarles said.


AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., and Charles Odum in Athens, Ga., contributed to this report.