SEC football 2021: Best and worst of season's first half includes some surprises

AP photo by Michael Chubb / Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops, center, slaps hands with rapper Waka Flocka Flame, left, after the Wildcats beat Florida on Oct. 2 in Lexington, Ky.

Alabama and Georgia could be heading for another showdown in Atlanta.

Eight of the past nine Southeastern Conference football title games have included either the Crimson Tide, the Bulldogs or both. Halfway through this season, Alabama and Georgia are on course to battle one another for the championship for the third time since 2012.

Coach Kirby Smart's unbeaten Bulldogs (7-0, 5-0 SEC) sit atop the AP Top 25 and are in control of the league's East Division despite not having their top quarterback for several games this season, while Alabama (6-1, 3-1) is ranked fourth and - as so often has been the case in the Nick Saban era - holds pole position in the West Division.

There also have been some compelling developments for No. 12 Ole Miss and No. 15 Kentucky, programs where success hasn't come as often.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops had fans in the Bluegrass State enjoying the best start to a season in more than 60 years before the Wildcats' 30-13 loss last Saturday at Georgia dropped them to 6-1, 4-1.

"Our team knows we have a good football team. They know that we can compete and play better than we did," said Stoops, whose team is off this week before returning to competition Oct. 30 at Mississippi State (3-3, 1-2). "They know they belong, and we have to regroup."

Meanwhile, Ole Miss (5-1, 2-1) is a contender in the West thanks in large part to dual-threat quarterback Matt Corral, whose prolific production has made him a Heisman Trophy candidate - if he's healthy down the stretch. His status is in doubt as the Rebels prepare to host LSU this weekend, but second-year coach Lane Kiffin is effusive in his praise for how Corral has elevated his team.

"I've said it before: I hope our fans appreciate this guy," Kiffin said. "I hope every home game is a sellout, because you ain't got many times left to see this guy, and he is a special, special player."

Two teams struggling to meet their usual expectations are Florida (4-3, 2-3) and LSU (4-3 2-2), which rolled to a 15-0 record and SEC and national championships just two years ago.

Despite LSU beating Florida last Saturday, the next day the Tigers learned that coach Ed Orgeron had agreed to a buyout and will step down after this season. Florida coach Dan Mullen has work to do to avoid a similar fate with the Gators.

The Associated Press writers who cover the SEC voted on the best and worst of the conference so far this fall. Here are some of the standout teams and players of the first half.

BEST COACH

Stoops: The Wildcats opened 6-0 for the first time since 1950 and remain on track for one of the best seasons in program history despite the setback against the top-ranked Bulldogs. Also receiving votes: Kiffin, Smart.

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER

Corral: The Ole Miss sensation has accounted for 22 touchdowns (14 passing, eight rushing), averaged 288 passing yards per game - with just one interception this season - and totaled 450 rushing yards. Also receiving votes: Bryce Young, QB, Alabama.

photo AP photo by Wade Payne / Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral throws during last Saturday's game at Tennessee. Corral has the look of a Heisman Trophy contender after a prolific first half of the season that has helped the Rebels to a 5-1 record and a No. 12 national ranking.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER

Jordan Davis, Georgia: While three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks aren't eye-popping statistics, the 6-foot-6, 340-pound nose tackle's main job is to stuff the run and make opposing quarterbacks uneasy by collapsing the front of the pocket. Georgia is second nationally in rushing yards allowed (63.6 per game) and first in passing yards allowed (144.9 per game), and Davis has had a considerable role in those superb defensive rankings. Also receiving votes: Will Anderson, LB, Alabama; Nakobe Dean, LB, Georgia; Henry To'o To'o, LB, Alabama.

BEST FRESHMAN

Brock Bowers, Georgia: A foot injury to projected starter Darnell Washington early this season created an opportunity for Bowers' emergence at tight end. He leads the Bulldogs with 20 catches for 315 yards and four touchdowns, and he has also rushed for a score. Also receiving votes: Young.

MOST SURPRISING TEAM

Kentucky: In most seasons, the Wildcats struggle against programs such as Florida and LSU, but they beat both in back-to-back weeks and their victory over the Tigers came by three touchdowns. Also receiving votes: Ole Miss, Tennessee.

MOST SURPRISING PLAYER

Stetson Bennett, Georgia: Filling in for injured starting quarterback JT Daniels, Bennett has passed for 10 touchdowns with no interceptions in four starts. Also receiving votes: Tyler Badie, RB, Missouri; Hendon Hooker, QB, Tennessee; Max Johnson, QB, LSU; Bo Nix, QB, Auburn; Chris Rodriguez Jr., RB. Kentucky.

MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM

Florida: The Gators, 13th in the final AP poll of last season, are unranked after last week's 49-42 loss at LSU. At 2-3 in SEC play, Florida is also virtually eliminated from the race for the East title, which they won last season for a record-extending 13th time. Also receiving votes: LSU

photo AP photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack / Florida football coach Dan Mullen calls out instructions in front of quarterback Emory Jones during the Gators' home game against Vanderbilt on Oct. 9.

HOTTEST SEAT

Mullen: The fourth-year Florida coach's struggles against LSU both this season and last might be the biggest reason for the heat. Florida was heavily favored in both games, making the losses to a historical rival that much less palatable to the Gators' faithful. Despite last year's progress, the Gators don't appear close to contending for their first College Football Playoff bid since the four-team format's inception in the 2014 season.

BIGGEST INJURIES

Christopher Allen, Alabama; Kayshon Boutte, LSU: Allen was a preseason Butkus Award candidate for the top linebacker in college football. He had a sack and forced fumble in Alabama's victory against Miami in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game before leaving with a season-ending foot injury. Boutte was on track to contend for the Biletnikoff Award as the top receiver. He was tied for the nation's lead in touchdown catches with nine when he was lost for the season with an ankle injury two weeks ago. Also receiving votes: Andre Anthony, DE, LSU; Daniels, Georgia; Ventrell Miller, LB, Florida; George Pickens, WR, Georgia.