Cranking up SEC play chance for league to erase ugly weekend

Trying to keep his Razorbacks focused after a stunning defeat, Arkansas coach Brett Bielema points to reigning national champion Ohio State's turnaround from an early season loss last year for encouragement.

Bielema just as easily could mention Alabama.

The Southeastern Conference, so mighty and strong just a week ago with a record 10 teams in the Top 25, suddenly looks a lot less powerful after an ugly weekend.

Arkansas lost 16-12 to Toledo at home, Auburn needed overtime at home to beat Football Championship Subdivision program Jacksonville State and Tennessee blew a 17-point lead and lost in overtime to Oklahoma. Falling out of the Top 25 were Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi State, which lost to LSU.

Ah, but that was last week.

Divisional play cranks up this week with No. 18 Auburn at No. 13 LSU and No. 15 Ole Miss at No. 2 Alabama, starting the SEC's annual war of attrition in earnest. Now the league that put a team in the national championship game every year from 2006-13 has to work a bit harder to ensure someone stands among the nation's final four at season's end.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones said nothing has changed, though it's a little easier for him to say that since his Vols at least lost in double overtime to a Top 20 team. Tennessee's SEC debut comes Sept. 26 at Florida.

''The teams that can manage the natural adversities that a long football season brings about are the ones that go to bowl games and win championships,'' Jones said. ''Everyone wants to push that red panic button across the country when something happens with their team.''

Auburn and Arkansas might not have panicked last weekend, but neither game was pretty. Ranked sixth nationally, Auburn had fans scrambling to figure out where Jacksonville State is before the Tigers finally escaped 27-20 in overtime. Auburn, which had been ranked sixth, fell 12 spots in the Top 25.

Wide receiver Melvin Ray said Auburn isn't worried about suddenly facing diminished expectations or criticism.

''You have to tune it out because at the end of the day we're 2-0,'' Ray said. ''If we just keep winning, what we did no matter how we won, it will still be a win. That's all that's going to matter.''

That approach worked for Alabama after the Crimson Tide lost 23-17 to Mississippi last season. Alabama simply won every other SEC game along with the league championship to earn the No. 1 seed in the national playoffs. Winning three of the last six national championships has helped prep the Tide to be ready every week.

''That's the nature of the beast when you play at Alabama,'' Tide center Ryan Kelly said. ''Now we're starting SEC play. So every week is going to be a test. ... Every time you get into SEC play, it feels like it gets ramped up a little bit.''

Especially Saturday night when Alabama gets its rematch with Ole Miss. Nobody in the Football Bowl Subdivision has scored more than Ole Miss this season, and coach Hugh Freeze says he really doesn't know if his Rebels are ready for SEC play.

''I believe we can win,'' Freeze said. ''I also know that you can lose these games because you are playing really good teams. That's why I don't make too much of one game, win or lose.''

The SEC East also features a pair of conference games this week with Florida at Kentucky and No. 7 Georgia hosting South Carolina, though that matchup lost some of its luster when the Gamecocks lost quarterback Connor Mitch and fell to Kentucky last week.

Arkansas, which faces Texas Tech on Saturday, must wait another week before looking for some redemption on the SEC road. Arkansas was considered a fringe SEC hopeful after shutting out LSU and Mississippi to finish last season, but losing to a Mid-American Conference team damaged that perception. Bielema not only is pointing to Ohio State's rebound in 2014 but also is noting the Razorbacks themselves finished 7-6 with a late surge last year.

''We lost some games last year that could have taken your heart and soul and came back,'' Bielema said. ''And hopefully we finish a lot better than that. But it's all around us. You've just got to grab it.''

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AP Sports Writers Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee; John Zenor in Alabama; David Brandt in Mississippi; and Kurt Voigt in Arkansas contributed to this report.

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Online:

AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

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