MEMPHIS — There are numerous ways of describing the competitiveness of Southeastern Conference football.
And even though he was joking, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt stated it earlier this week in a way that the average fan can understand.
"I don't see how gamblers do it in this league, I don't know how they do it," Nutt said. "If you think somebody is going to beat someone else on Saturday, you better watch out."
The SEC received preseason billing as the nation's toughest conference. It has had at least three teams in the top 10 each week through the season's first half.
Some things have changed since last season, such as Auburn's dramatic offensive improvement, quarterback upgrades at Arkansas and Alabama, and Georgia's offensive deep freeze leading to the Bulldogs' worst start since 1996.
Other elements have remained the same from a year ago, like defending national champion and No. 1 Florida, and No. 2 Alabama, clearly emerging as the league's best teams.
But through it all so far, despite coaching changes and more schools using offenses with formations and plays that appear to be drawn up in dirt on a playground, there are three constants that usually determine winners and losers each Saturday:
Rushing: The team that runs and stops the run generally wins. So far in 19 SEC games this season, the team that has rushed for the most yards is 15-4. Considering this, it's no secret why Florida and Alabama are the league's last two unbeaten teams.
Florida is first in the SEC and second nationally in rushing (284.6 yards per game), and second in the SEC and 11th nationally in rushing defense (87.4 yards allowed) with just one rushing TD allowed.
The reason last weekend that the Gators escaped Baton Rouge with a 13-3 victory over then-No. 4 LSU was a 193-66 advantage in rushing that helped eat 36 minutes of game clock.
"We're one of the top rushing teams in America right now," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "We have had (rushing) issues in the past, but that's because we didn't have the three backs we have right now or the (Maurkice) Pouncey-(Mike) Pouncey-(Marcus) Gilbert combination up front. I do feel we have to open our playbook more, but I would rather win games and do it the right way."
Alabama is fourth in the SEC and 11th nationally rushing (223.5) with a league-high 16 rushing TDs, and first in the league and seventh nationally in rushing defense (63.2).
Turnovers: The winning team in 15 of 19 SEC games so far has fewer or the same amount of turnovers as the losing team.
One reason that Auburn might be the surprise team in the conference so far is a defense that has created a league-best 14 turnovers. The Tigers have gotten the ball back for their offense, which leads the SEC in total offense (489.8).
"If you look at the two teams (Florida, Ohio State) that played for the national championship last year, they were both top five in the country in takeaways," Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "It's no coincidence."
On the flip side, a reason Mississippi State has won just two games, though the Bulldogs are fourth in the SEC averaging 399.8 yards (almost 125 more yards than last year's 276.0), is turnovers. State has coughed up a SEC-worst 18 turnovers, including 10 fumbles. Last season for the entire year, State had 20 turnovers and eight fumbles.
"It's a different thing on every play," first-year State coach Dan Mullen said. "It can be a matter of a guy straining for extra yards, not having his elbow locked and having poor ball security. It could be a poor handoff by the quarterback or a poor decision by the quarterback on the option. If it was one thing, it would be easy to fix."
Road games: Yes, it's tough to win on the road in the SEC. But it's not as hard as perceived so far this season, since road teams are 10-9 in league games. The bottom line is the best teams with the best players win anywhere, whether it's home, road or a Wal-Mart parking lot.
"What makes the home teams good are the players in the jerseys," Meyer said. "LSU is that way. We're that way. Alabama is that way. All that other stuff is overrated."
At this point, it appears that Florida and Alabama have clear paths for a rematch of last year's SEC championship game, won by Florida, 31-20, on a Tim Tebow-fueled fourth-quarter rally.
Alabama, 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the Western Division, has one game left outside its state, at Mississippi State on Nov 14. Besides that, Alabama has four remaining home games, and a regular-season ending date at in-state rival Auburn. The Tide has been the steadiest, most complete team in the league.
"One of the great things about this team is when the offense is having a little bit of an off day, the defense will pick us right back up," Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said. "When the defense has a little bit of an off day, like against Kentucky, the offense goes and scores almost 40 points."
Florida, 5-0 and 3-0, has four remaining home games, its annual meeting in Jacksonville with Georgia and road games at Mississippi State (where Florida has lost its last two trips) on Oct. 24 and at South Carolina (where Meyer is 1-1) on Nov. 14.
"We can win every game that's left on our schedule and we're capable of getting beat by every team left on our schedule," Meyer said. "That's the way it is in this conference."
SEC's stars, so far
Top individual performances midway through the SEC season:
Passing: 408 yards by Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett vs. Georgia
Rushing: 184 yards by Auburn running back Ben Tate vs. Arkansas
Receiving: 153 yards by Georgia receiver A.J. Green vs. Arizona State
Field goals: Five by place-kickers Spencer Lanning of South Carolina vs. Georgia, and Leigh Tiffin of Alabama vs. Ole Miss
Longest field goal: 53 yards by Georgia place-kicker Blair Walsh vs. Oklahoma State
Punting average: 57.0 by Georgia punter Drew Butler (seven punts) vs. Oklahoma State
Longest punt: 75 yards by Butler vs. Oklahoma State
Tackles: 16 by linebackers Rico McCoy of Tennessee vs. Auburn, and Rennie Curran of Georgia vs. LSU
— Ron Higgins: 529-2525