It would rate as a surprise this season if Florida and Georgia fail to win the SEC East. Tennessee’s chance to climb to the top — and potentially stay there — was last year. It’s very hard to see how Butch Jones, without Josh Dobbs and Derek Barnett, can come particularly close to winning the division. The Vols must go to Gainesville and confront a loaded Georgia offense. They have to deal with Alabama and LSU as well. Good luck with that.
By Matt Zemek
The intrigue in the SEC East this season exists on two levels. First, can Florida or Georgia perform with a level of quality befitting a true conference championship contender, or will the SEC Championship Game feature another SEC West beatdown of a highly inferior opponent which fails to make a New Year’s Six bowl game?
Florida set a very high standard during the Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer years. Those glory days are fresh enough in the public memory that a blowout loss to Alabama in Atlanta — followed by a modest January 1 bowl outside the NY6 candy store — is not acceptable on a regular basis.
Georgia sent Mark Richt packing because it wanted more from a season than 9-3, second place in the East, and a Gator Bowl bid. Georgia’s target this season is not merely to win the East, but to do so with a 10-2 record at a minimum. If the Dawgs go to Atlanta only because Florida faltered, UGA fans won’t exactly be miserable, but they won’t enter 2018 thinking their program is headed in the right direction. There’s too much talent in Athens this season for a 9-3 record — even with a ticket to Atlanta — to feel like a success.
Florida and Georgia aren’t playing for the East — not as their foremost priority. They’re playing for national relevance, and a division title is just one small part of that larger aspiration.
The rest of the division is playing for the East title, but Tennessee exists on its own island, a proud program in the midst of a difficult situation following a massive disappointment and internal dislocations (a new athletic director and school chancellor).
This leads to the second main source of SEC East intrigue… and our primary point of focus today: The underclass is not ready to overthrow Florida and Georgia, but 2017 could be the year in which the ground shifts under everyone’s feet in this division.
The bright red line drawn between upper class and underclass in the SEC East is not hard to see. Ever since Spurrier awakened the sleeping giant in Gainesville, the Florida Gators joined Georgia and Tennessee as Cadillac programs. They live on one side of the tracks.
The other four programs in the division live on the other.
Yes, South Carolina recently won at least 11 games — including a bowl — in three straight seasons. Yes, Missouri won back-to-back East crowns with 7-1 SEC records. Yes, Vanderbilt has made a lot of bowl games — relative to its dreary and more distant history — over the past 10 years. Yes, Kentucky won at Louisville and engineered a very impressive turnaround last season. Yet, in a bigger context, these programs are — and have been — part of the have-nots in college football.
However, beyond those brief periods of success, the Gamecock-Tiger-Commodore-Wildcat quartet has very rarely eclipsed the eight-win regular season threshold.
Missouri did play for a spot in the 2008 BCS National Championship Game against Ohio State — that’s the exception which proves the rule. The cruel reality for these four schools is that in the past 47 years, they have combined to make zero appearances in BCS (now New Year’s Six) games. If Missouri’s success in the 1960s under coach Dan Devine is removed from the equation, the last time Kentucky, South Carolina or Vanderbilt made a BCS/NY6 bowl was in 1952, when UK defeated TCU in the Cotton Bowl.
Kentucky’s coach in that 1951 season and 1952 Cotton Classic? Paul W. Bryant — the Bear.
South Carolina — wronged by the BCS — should have played in a BCS game during its 2011-2013 surge, but the fact remains that the Gamecocks have never played in one of college football’s signature bowl games. Vanderbilt — whose men’s basketball team gave Northwestern its first NCAA Tournament win a few months ago — is, like Northwestern, trying to do something significant for the first time. The next BCS or NY6 game for the Dores will be their first.
Of these four teams, South Carolina might have an outside chance at making trouble in the SEC East race. Jake Bentley could transform the Gamecocks if he gets enough help from his offensive line and his coaches. Realistically, though, the underclass of the East is playing for an eight-win season. That would rate as a noticeable improvement for each program, lending support to the idea that the future holds promise.
Let’s return to Florida and Georgia to knit these two strands together.
If Jim McElwain can’t jolt Florida out of its decent-but-not-great pattern — the best in a mediocre division but nowhere close to handling the big boys — and Kirby Smart can’t maximize the veteran skill-position talent on his roster (or at least come close enough to win a bread crumb of respect), UF and UGA will be questioned throughout the offseason. They will both forfeit momentum and optimism in ways which could lead to stagnant recruiting and thwarted attempts at player development in the years ahead.
If 2017 spins sideways in Gainesville and Athens, the foremost point of emphasis would not be the increased fortunes of the underclass, barring a transcendent season from one of the two Columbias, Nashville, or Lexington. The main takeaway from such a development would be the increased fragility of the East. With Jones on the hot seat in Knoxville and other East coaches not exactly safe, the coming offseason could give athletic directors the idea that the right coaching hire could become a catapult to unexpected gridiron glories in the 2020s.
The SEC East has a lot to prove, but whether or not it raises the bar in 2017, it certainly isn’t boring.
Florida and Georgia fans would like a boring year… except for their square dance in Jacksonville.