SEC Media Days beckons, and with it an expectation the Vols will be picked to win the SEC East for the first time since 2005. That's been no blessing recently in a division notoriously difficult to get a read on in July.
This fall will be the 25th season of divisions in the SEC, but after Steve Spurrier's initial streak at Florida the preseason East consensus has been far from reliable. In researching this piece we used the preseason AP polls instead of the SEC Media Days projections; the AP poll is better at showing the perceived distance between each team coming into the year.
Here's the preseason poll data for the five SEC East teams to make it to Atlanta. Eventual champions are in bold, and years the highest ranked preseason team didn't win the division are also in bold.
In five of the last six years and seven of the last nine, the East's highest ranked preseason team did not win the division. Thrice in the last six years an unranked team has won the SEC East.
This chaos aligns with Tennessee's fall from grace. The Vols have only been the division's highest ranked preseason team four times, but Tennessee was the division's only team to be ranked in every preseason AP poll from 1992-2008.
Not only has the highest ranked preseason team struggled to cash in recently, the Vols have never done it. Those aforementioned four times came in 1996, 1999, 2002, and 2005. Other than Peyton Manning's senior year when the Vols were ranked fifth, Tennessee's division titles have come with the Vols ranked between 8-15 in the preseason AP poll, which is exactly where we expect to find them this season.
The rest of the division projects to be further back. The view on Georgia is remarkably similar on the shelves: 17th in Athlon, 18th in Lindy's, 19th in The Sporting News, 23rd in Phil Steele. Meanwhile the Gators are only ranked in Athlon (21st), making them likely for also receiving votes. If Florida doesn't get in this will be only the eighth time just two SEC East teams are ranked in the preseason poll and only the fourth time since the Vols/Gators run in the mid-90's. Tennessee's road will never be considered easy as long as Alabama is on the schedule and the Gators own such a lengthy streak, but from this perspective it could be one of the easier years to win the division on paper.
Tennessee's representation in Birmingham will spend the week saying preseason accolades don't matter, and they're right. It's the final polls that tell the real story, and they also speak to the state of the division over the last few years. Part of the reason the picks have been wrong this decade is the division has really failed to produce many truly great teams and thus obvious choices since Tim Tebow left the building. 2012 Georgia was a play away from the BCS title game, the only team from the SEC East the preseason pundits got right this decade. 2013 Missouri wasn't far behind, but we were all wrong about them. Otherwise the division has produced champions forgettable to most outside their own fan base this decade: 9-5 South Carolina, 10-4 Georgia, 11-3 Missouri, 10-4 Florida.
Winning this thing with any record would be an accomplishment for a Tennessee program that hasn't done so since 2007. But the Vols will be carrying heavier preseason weight than most of the recent champions; if Tennessee can make it to #8 in the preseason AP poll they'll be just the
fourth fifth SEC East team to get that high this decade. The expectation for Team 120 is not just to survive the division, but to thrive. We've been wrong about many of the preseason favorites recently. But these Vols will also project to be better than most of them.
They'll get these questions next week. Eight more weeks until we start getting the answers.