10/09/2001 11:00PM

SEC East overshadows West, again


NEW YORK, N.Y. - Both the SEC East and SEC West have produced some of the best teams in college football in recent years. Since last year, however, all of the power in one of the NCAA's best conferences has been all in one division - the SEC East.

Last season's SEC championship game featured a mismatch between Florida and Auburn, and the result was a 28-6 blowout in favor of the Gators. Things are likely to get even uglier this year as all of the top three (perhaps four) best teams in the conference reside in the East.

Florida and South Carolina each have legitimate national championship hopes if they are able to run the table in the SEC. Meanwhile, Tennessee and Georgia also both look like solid bowl-bound teams. The thing that all four of these teams have in common is that they each seem superior to any team playing in the SEC West. All six teams in that division - Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, and Mississippi St. - are mediocre at best, and won't get anywhere near a BCS bowl game come the post season.

The SEC West teams won't do much damage against the upper-echelon of the East this season. Thank goodness for the pointspreads, which are the only things out there that can make these games interesting.


South Carolina at Arkansas (+9)

South Carolina has certainly worked its way to the upper echelon of the SEC the last year or so under Lou Holtz, but the Gamecocks are still a much better team at home than they are on the road. The 'Cocks lost three of five road games last year and squeaked by with 5- and 2-point wins at Georgia and Mississippi St. earlier this season. South Carolina is favored by nine points this week in what figures to be a close game against Arkansas in Little Rock. The Razorbacks have been very competitive when playing at War Memorial Stadium with nine straight wins and six covers in their last nine games in Little Rock. Arkansas has been banged-up of late, but this week will field, by far, its most healthy team of the season for this game. The Razorbacks have had plenty of extra prep time to get ready for this game following last week's bye, and will be seeking revenge for last year's 27-7 loss at S.C. Both of the Gamecocks' starting offensive tackles are injured, which should allow Arkansas to keep this game close. Play: Arkansas for 2 units.

Florida (-21) at Auburn

Last week's nationally televised game between Auburn and Mississippi State illustrated just how far the teams of the SEC West have fallen behind the teams of the SEC East. Just hours after Florida aired it out in a 44-15 win over LSU (from the SEC West, by the way), Auburn set the game of college football back about 30 years with their bumbling, sloppy, inefficient, and boring no-cover win against Mississippi State. The Gators might have their best team in recent years, with Heisman contender Rex Grossman running the offense, and a defense that allows just 9 points per game. Florida crushed Auburn twice last season by a combined score of 66-13, and things could get even uglier for the Tigers this year despite the fact this meeting is at Auburn. Dating back to mid-season last year, Florida has covered 10 of its last 13 games including many games with spreads as big or bigger than this one. Including last season, the Gators are 6-1 against the spread as road dogs. On the other side, Auburn has failed to cover since its opening week win over Ball St. The Tigers' best player is their field goal kicker, and he shouldn't get a chance to make much difference in this blowout. Play: Florida for 1 unit.

Alabama (-6 1/2) at Mississippi

It took a couple games, but the Alabama players finally seem to have gotten the new offense brought in by new head coach Dennis Franchione, who came to Tuscaloosa after coaching TCU to a near-perfect 10-1 regular-season last year. The Crimson Tide has covered its last three games while scoring 31, 36, and 56 points against Arkansas, South Carolina (road), and UTEP. This week they take on Ole' Miss, a team they beat 45-7 last season. Mississippi's offense is improved behind quarterback Eli Manning (Peyton's brother, Archie's son), but the defense can clearly use some work after giving up 27 and 31 points to Auburn and Kentucky. Mississippi is not one of the better home-field teams out there in college football. The Rebels have covered only four of 13 home games under current head coach David Cutcliffe. Play: Alabama for 1 unit.

Fresno St. (-7) at Colorado St.

Bottom line. This game is a match-up between a peaking team (Fresno St.) and a rebuilding team. Fresno St., this year's surprise team at 5-0 (4-1 against the spread), gets yet another chance to strut its stuff against a nationally respected opponent. The Bulldogs have been sitting around licking their chops for two weeks since their last game, and the extra prep time should give them a huge edge on Colorado St. and new starting quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt. Van Pelt's insertion gave the Rams a boost two weeks ago in their 42-14 victory over an unsuspecting Wyoming team. This week, however, Fresno St. should be prepared to shut down the Colorado St. defense, just as Louisville did last Thursday when they did not allow the Rams' offense to score a single point. Fresno has one of thee best home-field advantages in NCAA football, but they are proving that they are also quite capable on the road with a record of 3-0 both straight up and against the spread away from home. Meanwhile, Colorado St. has not been strong at home with an 0-2 pointspread record this season, and a home record of 1-5 against the spread since last year. Play: Fresno St. for 1 unit.

Ball St. (-8) at Eastern Michigan

Eastern Michigan may very well have the lead in the race for the title of "worst team in Div. I-A football" at the present time. The Eagles' winless record currently includes a 21-14 loss to Div I-AA Indiana St., and a 19-0 loss to lowly UConn last week. In its last four games - all losses - Eastern Michigan has been outscored 121-27, and now the Eagles are faced with turning the tables on a Ball St. team that beat them 33-14 last season. Ball St. has not fared much better this season, but on occasion, the Cardinals have been competitive against better teams such as Kentucky and Miami-Ohio, whom they lost to by only eight points each. Ball State's offense should prove to be the key difference in this game between two bad teams. The Cardinals have scored an average of 23 points in their last three games. Eastern Michigan is 2-8 in its last 10 conference games. Ball St., on the other hand, has won four of its last seven games within the MAC. Play: Ball St. for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-3 (minus 2 units)

Season record: 12-20 (minus 11 units)