Since January I have been telling myself to stick with a 10-2 prediction for Team 120. 10-2 would be clear improvement, the best regular season since 2004. I'm not ready to believe Tennessee is better than Alabama, and I'm not ready enough to believe the Vols can be consistent enough to avoid all other pitfalls. 10-2 is reasonable.
And since January I have believed Tennessee isn't just capable of winning the SEC East, but should be the favorite to do so. The Vols have already gone toe-to-toe with Georgia the last four years and should have beaten Florida the last two, and now finally the talent advantage has shifted back in Tennessee's direction. Playoff talk may be premature. Winning the East is reasonable.
So this is the prediction many of us have been telling ourselves and others: 10-2, win the East. It's not greedy, it's not homeriffic. It's reasonable.
Except, it's really not.
Unless your particular brand of 10-2 includes the Vols losing to Virginia Tech, Appalachian State, or Ohio (sorry, Cookeville), you're picking the Vols to lose a pair of SEC games. That means you're picking 10-2 (6-2). And 6-2 tends to stay home the first Saturday of December.
Since the total insanity of 2007 when both Tennessee and LSU made it to Atlanta at 6-2, only one team has made the SEC Championship Game with a conference record other than 8-0 or 7-1 (2010 South Carolina, the only East champion to ever go 5-3). That means 15 of the last 16 teams to play in the SEC Championship Game have been 7-1 or 8-0 in conference play. And that means no one has gotten to Atlanta at 6-2 since league expansion in 2012.
It's a little more balanced overall if you go all the way back to the beginning of divisional play, but mostly because of the SEC West. Say what you will about the West's current run as the alpha, but in the first 11 years of divisional play the SEC West representative was 6-2 or 5-3 (or 5-2-1 with Antonio Langham's asterisk) eight times. The East may have been down the last few years, but the teams we've been sending to Atlanta have been better than what was usually showing up there from the West for the first decade-plus of the SEC Championship Game.
Meanwhile, 6-2 or 5-3 has only been good enough to win the SEC East five times in 24 years:
- 1992 Florida (6-2) thanks to Tennessee losing three straight games by a combined nine points.
- 2003 Georgia (6-2), the highest-ranked BCS team breaking a three-way tie at 6-2 between the Dawgs, Vols, and Gators.
- 2005 Georgia (6-2) in Urban Meyer's first year at Florida and Randy Sanders' last at Tennessee, though the Dawgs did roll over LSU in Atlanta.
- 2007 Tennessee (6-2) because it was 2007.
- 2010 South Carolina (5-3) - Florida was 4-4, everyone else was below .500. Woof.
Other than those on probation, teams going 7-1 in conference play have only failed to make it to Atlanta seven times in 24 years (48 opportunities with both divisions):
- 1995 & 1996 Tennessee because we couldn't beat Florida
- 2003 Ole Miss, more Manning heartbreak as Eli lost to 7-1 LSU
- 2005 Auburn, lost in overtime to 7-1 LSU
- 2011 Alabama, who got over it by beating 8-0 LSU in the BCS title game
- 2012 Florida thanks to six turnovers in the Cocktail Party
- 2013 Alabama, Kick Sixed
So if you're 7-1, historically there's an 85% chance you're going to Atlanta. And 7-1 with your only loss to a team from the other division means you're definitely going to Atlanta.
Maybe the East gets crazy this year. Maybe the Vols lose to Alabama and Texas A&M but run the table in their own division and only need a little help. But 2015 was a fresh reminder for Tennessee, a 4th-and-14 away from winning the East, not to leave anything up to chance. You want to get to Atlanta, you make sure you stay in control of your own destiny. And you get to Atlanta at 7-1 or 8-0? You'll be playing for a lot more than just the SEC title.