Is the SEC down? League depth a question at midway point

Halfway through the regular season, a dirty little secret is becoming more obvious to college football fans.

The proud Southeastern Conference doesn't look quite as formidable this fall.

There are still some good teams and talented players: No. 5 LSU and its Heisman Trophy candidate - running back Leonard Fournette, top the list. No. 8 Alabama has its own big back in Derrick Henry and has bounced back after a surprising loss to Mississippi in September.

But the depth around the conference appears to be lacking. The SEC has just five nationally ranked teams after a peak of 10 earlier in the season.

Preseason darling Auburn has been disappointing and Arkansas lost to Toledo. Missouri - the two-time defending Eastern Division champion - is 1-3 in conference play and struggling to score points. Georgia and Ole Miss looked like early contenders, but the Bulldogs have lost two of their past three games and the Rebels were thumped by Memphis on Saturday.

South Carolina has struggled so much that coach Steve Spurrier resigned, Tennessee and Kentucky are inconsistent, Mississippi State is uninspiring and Vanderbilt continues to bumble along in the Eastern Division basement.

Not that anyone in the league is panicking.

''We've got a long way to go, especially with the playoff system,'' Alabama quarterback Jake Coker said. ''Everybody's still alive.''

Maybe not everybody, but Alabama and LSU certainly look like teams that could make some postseason noise. Which one could be decided after they meet on Nov. 7.

It remains to be seen if any other late challengers emerge.

The only team that's legitimately been a pleasant surprise is No. 13 Florida, which lost for the first time on Saturday against LSU but still has a great shot at winning the East. No. 15 Texas A&M is also coming off its first loss - against Alabama - but has big games against Ole Miss and LSU remaining.

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Here are some of the highlights and lowlights from the first half of the season:

BEST PLAYER: Fournette. This one really isn't close. Fournette has been unstoppable, featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and is probably the Heisman Trophy front-runner. He has rushed for 1,202 yards when nobody else in FBS has reached 1,000. He's also second nationally in scoring with 14 touchdowns - two more than Vanderbilt and Missouri have scored, respectively. Runner up: Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett, one of the nation's best pass rushers.

BEST TEAM: LSU. The Tigers haven't played the most imposing schedule but are coming off a 35-28 win over Florida and are the only remaining unbeaten team in the SEC. The matter should be settled more definitively on Nov. 7 when LSU and the Tide clash at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Runner up: Alabama, which has romped through the past four games since losing to Mississippi.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Auburn. The Tigers opened the season ranked No. 6 and a popular pick to win the SEC. They've looked like anything but contenders this season. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson came in widely mentioned in the Heisman conversation but was benched after dreadful early performances. Runner up: Georgia, which has blown a big lead against Tennessee and been throttled by Alabama after being ranked in the top 10.

BIGGEST MYSTERY: Ole Miss. The Rebels were once ranked as high as No. 3 after beating the Tide. Since then the Rebels have been routed by Florida and lost to Memphis. Runner up: Arkansas. Once a Top 25 team, the Razorbacks appeared poised for a breakthrough season under coach Bret Bielema. Instead, they have lost four of their last five games.

BIGGEST BLOW: Georgia losing RB Nick Chubb to a season-ending knee injury. Chubb had been almost a surefire 100-yard runner every Saturday and was averaging 8.1 yards per carry. Runners up: D'haquille Williams/Laremy Tunsil. Auburn booted its talented receiver from the team after multiple suspensions. Tunsil is returning against Texas A&M after serving a seven-game NCAA suspension for receiving illegal benefits.

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

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