The SEC East has been the dominant division in this league since the format began in 1992. As we prepare for SEC Championship Game XIX, the East holds an 11-7 advantage in the title game; though we're unlikely to again see the sort of dominance that produced six straight wins for Florida and Tennessee from 1993-98, it's really only been in the last few years that the West could even be considered an equal. LSU and Auburn had memorable teams in 2003 and 2004, but the division as a whole couldn't keep up with the Florida-Georgia-Tennessee triumvirate every year.
Things really changed in 2007, still probably the most insane year in recent SEC and major college football history: LSU won the SEC and the BCS with two losses, while Georgia finished second but couldn't win their own division. But the Dawgs fell from grace as the preseason #1 the following year, and so did the Vols. Perhaps masked by two years of Florida/Alabama dominance was the fact that the fall of UGA and UT (14 losses for UGA in the last three years, 19 for UT) caused the balance of power to shift. And after a couple of years of parity, the West took over in 2010.
Six SEC teams are ranked in this week's AP poll; the first four are West teams: Auburn (2), Arkansas (8), LSU (11), and Alabama (17) are all ranked above South Carolina (18), with Mississippi State (22) trailing just behind. Depending on what happens in the bowl games, the SEC West could finish the year with four teams ranked in the Top 15. That's never happened in the East, because Carolina nor Kentucky were never that good, and it's been three years since the East had three teams in the 2007 final Top 15 (Georgia 2, Tennessee 12, Florida 13).
Though this is as down as the East has ever been, South Carolina didn't win it for the first time because they were lucky - the Gamecocks truly are the best team in this division, and have more talent on offense than they've ever had during their time in this conference. But consider this: had the Vols kept 11 men on the field at LSU and not turned the ball over four times in Columbia, Tennessee would've won the SEC East.
As down as the Vols are, we were reasonably close to winning the division this year. Since it's unlikely that the division goes from the toilet to the penthouse in one year, the race should again be wide open in 2011. Our friends at Roll Bama Roll looked at the 2011 SEC West earlier this week - here's a quick glance at the East competition next year, which should again offer opportunity for all comers...
(Obvious points: it's December 3, so this is all wild, wild speculation in massive generalities. It's also too soon for NFL defections, though we've pointed out a couple of obvious moves in that direction. So this is not gospel, just a first and very rough draft.)
Florida (7-5, 4-4)
Starters Returning: 7 Offense, 5 Defense
SEC West Rotation: vs Alabama, at Auburn
Brutal schedule alert: Florida will spend October at home with Alabama, at Auburn, at LSU, then a bye week before the Cocktail Party. That's one of several reasons the Gators won't be the overwhelming favorites to win the East. Three of the four offensive starters that will depart are on the offensive line, and the fourth is Carl Moore, who is second on the team in receiving this year. The Gators always spread the ball around, but their inability to find a real go-to guy since Percy Harvin left is one of several reasons their offense has struggled. The Gators are 10th in the SEC in total offense this year, and right now there's no real reason to believe it will automatically get better with Addazio still in charge.
3/4 of the defensive line and 2/3 of the linebackers will graduate. So will safety Ahmad Black, and corner Janoris Jenkins could join him by going pro early. It's Florida, so they'll have talent to replace all of these guys, but there are more question marks on both sides of the ball with the Gators than ever.
Georgia (6-6, 3-5)
Starters Returning: 8 Offense, 8 Defense
SEC West Rotation: at Ole Miss, vs Mississippi State
Really, we're talking 7 returning starters on both sides if A.J. Green and Justin Houston turn pro. But when you also consider the schedule, which gives UGA a huge advantage (to their credit, they play Boise State in Atlanta to open the season, but that won't hurt them here obviously), they look like the favorite. The only question on offense is who catches the ball once Green and Kris Dunham are gone; Tavarres King and Orson Charles should answer that. Aaron Murray could be the best quarterback in the conference, and Washaun Ealey and Caleb King will both still be around.
If Houston goes pro they'll lose three starting linebackers, but should be solid everywhere else on defense - their secondary is as young as ours is. The Dawgs lost a lot of close games, but still had the fourth best defense in the league. They're not far from where they want to be.
Kentucky (6-6, 2-6)
Starters Returning: 6 Offense, 10 Defense
SEC West Rotation: at LSU, vs Ole Miss
If there's a team that's kicking themselves over not taking advantage of a down year in the East, it's this one. Kentucky will graduate Mike Hartline, Derrick Locke, Chris Matthews, and if Randall Cobb goes pro, there goes their offense. The defense gets everybody back, but defense was never the strength of this football team. I'm not suggesting that UK can't compete for a sixth straight year of bowl eligibility, but their window probably won't be as open as it was this year.
South Carolina (9-3, 5-3)
Starters Returning: 8 Offense, 7 Defense
SEC West Rotation: vs Auburn, at Mississippi State
The best news for Carolina is that Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery can't go pro yet. Stephen Garcia will still be around as well, meaning Spurrier can get the band back together and make another run. If there are no NFL defections, they'll lose only a pair of offensive linemen - their top five pass catchers this year are either freshmen or sophomores. This team still has room to grow.
That's especially true on defense, where the Gamecocks were 10th in the league against the pass (fun fact: Auburn is 12th). The whole secondary should be back, for better or for worse. I think Georgia will end up being the favorite because their name recognition will still be better than Carolina's, but this was, is, and will be a good football team in Columbia: they lost to a pair of BCS teams, and in a game where Lattimore got hurt, and put a beating on Alabama. They're not going away.
Tennessee (6-6, 3-5)
Starters Returning: 6 Offense, 6 Defense
SEC West Rotation: vs LSU, at Arkansas
We've mentioned this before, but the number of returning starters is deceptive. On offense, the Vols will have vastly experienced players to fill in the gaps left at wide receiver and offensive guard. On defense, it'll be the same story on the defensive line, with some questions to be answered at linebacker.
But no one got more out of freshmen in 2010 than the Vols did, and no one closed the season stronger in this division. There's a lot about this team, and specifically about Tyler Bray, that we just won't know until we see him go against a good pass defense (if it's North Carolina in the Music City Bowl, the Heels are 41st nationally against the pass, so it would at least be a step up). The Vols should, at the very least, be more competitive next year. However, if Cam Newton is no longer around, the Vols may be facing the three best teams in the West next year, while Georgia faces the three worst. The schedule always evens itself out over time...but next year, it's not particularly kind to the Vols. Still, Tennessee will be picked no better than fourth in this division on paper, so there's still plenty of room to improve and plenty of room to surprise. UT's success will depend in part on how good Tyler Bray actually is against Florida and Georgia...can't wait to find out.
Vanderbilt (2-10, 1-7)
Returning Starters: 11 Offense, 8 Defense
SEC West Rotation: at Alabama, vs Arkansas
11 starters back on offense! Look out!