As the SEC celebrates 25 years of its championship game this fall, Tennessee looks for its sixth Eastern Division title and its first since 2007. The Vols made it to Atlanta five times from 1997-2007; Georgia has represented the East five times since 2002. The Gators have led the way with 11 division titles. South Carolina made its only trip in 2010; Kentucky and Vanderbilt have never been.
When Missouri joined the league in 2012, many expected their largest contribution to the league to come on the hardwood. Instead the Tigers won the East in 2013 and 2014. But thanks to massive turnover in Columbia, Mizzou might be the East’s least stable program right now. We know all too well how hard it is to build a winner in this conference when you’re dealing with, to borrow a Butch Jones phrase, sudden change in coaching and administration.
With the SEC West again being trumpeted as the better division, the cry for better football in the East continues. Tennessee’s absence from the Top 25 from 2008-14 certainly hurt the division. But with the Vols, Dawgs, and Gators always at the front of the line, a common cry for a fourth option in the East continues even with Tennessee on its way back.
Only twice in 24 years has the SEC East had four teams finish the season ranked in the AP Top 25. The idea that having four good teams in the division means you can’t have a great team was false in both of those years: 2001 saw the Gators and Vols trade weeks at number two in the BCS in December (with South Carolina finishing 13th and Georgia 22nd), and 2012 saw Georgia one play away from making the BCS title game (with South Carolina 8th, Florida 9th, and Vanderbilt finishing 23rd).
But just getting three teams to finish ranked has been a challenge more often than not. Nine other seasons the East has put three teams in the final poll; seven of those times it’s been the UT/UF/UGA trifecta. That means 13 times in 24 years the East has produced only one or two teams in the final poll (solo finishers include 2002 Georgia, 2009 Florida, and 2010 South Carolina). And since Tennessee’s disappearance from the polls following 2007, the East has produced 3+ teams in the final poll just twice in 2012 and 2013.
The SEC West has put four teams in the final poll four times, but three of them have come this decade (2010, 2013, 2014). Here again we see your division doesn’t have to get cannibalistic to put a ton of teams in the poll. It simply needs its top teams to win their out-of-conference games, and win cross-divisional games (something the Vols still haven’t done since 2010).
While Tennessee was on their way out and then gone we’ve seen all four of the other teams have their moments. Kentucky won at least seven games from 2006-2009. South Carolina won the East in 2010 then won 11 games the next three seasons. James Franklin took Vanderbilt to consecutive 9-4 ranked finishes in 2012 and 2013. And then Missouri won the division in 2013 and 2014. But none of the four were able to sustain success for more than four years.
We expect the Vols to be back in the sustained success business. Georgia and Florida hope to do the same with first and second year coaches. Who will be the next team from the East to rise? And will any of them be able to create a consistent winner?