COLUMBIA, Mo. — A surprise no more, No. 9 Missouri leads the SEC East with three games to go.
Win out and the Tigers (8-1, 4-1 SEC) will have come back all the way from last year's 5-7 dud that prompted doubts about whether they or their coach belonged in their new league. Beat Kentucky, Ole Miss and No. 11 Texas A&M, and they earn a berth in the conference championship game.
"We've probably exceeded everybody else's expectations, but with our expectations, we still haven't accomplished what we want to accomplish yet," cornerback Randy Ponder said. "We've still got to take each game like day one."
Coach Gary Pinkel's crew is a double-digit favorite this week at Kentucky and then there's a week off, perhaps bonus time allowing quarterback James Franklin to return from a shoulder strain at full strength.
Pinkel warned players there's little drop-off in the SEC, and they know better than to treat Kentucky (2-6) lightly. They were there a year ago.
"It doesn't matter where they are in the conference," said quarterback Maty Mauk, who'll likely be making his fourth consecutive start. "They're playing in the SEC. We know they're going to be good. Maybe they don't come out on top a lot of the time, but they're a great team."
No. 13 South Carolina (7-2, 5-2) and Georgia (5-3, 4-2) are lurking, each with two losses and hoping for another Missouri stumble that could set up a tiebreaker mess. The survivor of various scenarios likely earns the underdog role — make that a heavy underdog — in the SEC championship game, perhaps against No. 1 Alabama.
Based on head-to-head results and two teams tied for first at 6-2, South Carolina trumps Missouri and Missouri trumps Georgia.
Head-to-head competition would not decide a three-way tie, since South Carolina beat Missouri but lost to Georgia, and Missouri beat Georgia but lost to South Carolina. With a 2-1 finish, Missouri would prevail in the next tiebreaker based on division record — one loss vs. two each for Georgia and South Carolina.
Tennessee has lost to all of the SEC East contenders. The Volunteers lost 34-31 to Georgia in overtime at home, beat South Carolina 23-21 at home and lost 31-3 last week to the Tigers. So who's best?
"I'd have to say Missouri, just them being the last ones we played," Vols offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "They had a great defensive line, a pretty good offense. I see Missouri doing good things in the East."
The Crimson Tide are the two-time defending national champions and they've been No. 1 all year, on track for a fourth BCS championship game in five years. They're the class of the conference that's won seven consecutive BCS titles.
First things first. The teams chasing Missouri can't fixate on what's out of their control.
Georgia stayed alive by beating Florida last week and quarterback Aaron Murray said he's taken just a peek at the various scenarios. The Bulldogs play Appalachian State this week, followed by Auburn and Kentucky.
"You can't stress about, 'We need them to lose, we need them to lose,'" Murray said. "That's the crummy part of not being in control of our own destiny. But right now we've just got to take care of our own business and win the rest of our games and just hope and pray they lose, but don't freak out and stress out about it because that's going to affect us."
South Carolina handed Missouri its lone loss in double-overtime at Columbia, Mo., rallying from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter. The cleanest route to the title game: Beat Florida at home in its league finale on Nov. 16 combined with losses by Missouri and Georgia. The Gamecocks are off this week and play at home next week against Florida.
"If we take care of business and it works out for us, then it does," defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "If it doesn't, we did what we set out to do other than win all the SEC games."
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli, Steve Megargee and Charles Odum contributed to this report.