As the calendar turns to May, is the conversation on the SEC East trending more toward a favorite or once again toward parity?
Athlon’s updated Top 25 has Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee ranked 14th, 16th, and 17th respectively. Others may not be as high on the Vols but have the Dawgs and Gators in close proximity. And the rest of the pack isn’t separated by much: last year five of the seven teams in the east were 4-4 or 3-5 in the SEC.
So you’ll hear arguments for a favorite, but whether it’s Florida or Georgia they’re unlikely to find themselves ranked in the preseason Top 10 like Tennessee was last year. And you’re just as likely to hear arguments for another dogfight in the SEC East: anyone can beat anyone, every single Saturday.
How long has the SEC East been this way, and can Tennessee rise above it under Butch Jones? Where will the Vols find themselves in the SEC East pecking order in five years?
Parity wasn’t always king in this division. The first 18 years of divisional play had established front-runners over multiple seasons in the SEC East:
- 1992-96: Florida - The Gators won the first five division titles, the 1996 national championship, and came to the title game ranked no lower than 12th every year. At Georgia, Ray Goff gave way to Jim Donnan.
- 1997-2001: Tennessee - The Vols won three of the next five, the 1998 BCS title, and came to Atlanta ranked in the top three each time. Tennessee also earned a BCS at-large bid in 1999. At Georgia, Jim Donnan gave way to Mark Richt.
- 2002-05: Georgia - The Bulldogs won three of the next four in their first appearances in the title game, ranked in the top five in 2002 and after winning the three-team tie in 2003. At Florida, Steve Spurrier gave way to Ron Zook, then Urban Meyer.
- 2006-09: Florida - Meyer wasted little time, winning BCS titles in 2006 and 2008 while taking the SEC East three times in these four years and getting to Atlanta ranked no lower than fourth. At Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer gave way to Lane Kiffin.
Each of these periods includes the same team winning the division at least three times over a five year period. And each of them includes a coaching change at one of the other two schools.
But starting with South Carolina’s surprise win in 2010, the pattern of dominance in the SEC East was disrupted. And in the last seven years, four different teams have won the division and none of them more than twice.
You can make the argument for mini-runs since Georgia, Missouri, and Florida all won back-to-back the last six years. But while the 2012 Dawgs and 2013 Tigers were top five teams, everyone else to represent the SEC East since 2010 has been ranked between 12-19. To put that in perspective, here’s the average ranking of the East representatives the week of the SEC title game
- Florida 1992-96: 6.6
- Tennessee 1997, 1998, 2001: 2.0
- Georgia 2002, 2003, 2005: 7.3
- Florida 2006, 2008, 2009: 2.3
- All Teams 1992-2009: 6.1
- All Teams 2010-2016: 14.3
Add in the fact that the East hasn’t won in Atlanta since Florida in 2008 after going 11-6 up to that point, and you’ve got an entire division that feels like it’s been stuck in neutral for the entire decade.
Will that change for anyone in the next five years, and could Tennessee be that team?
The Vols, of course, haven’t been to the title game since 2007 and haven’t won 10 games in a season since then either. Butch Jones has positioned Tennessee to compete for Atlanta again for sure; plenty of UT fans would argue the Vols should have won the East the last two years. And the Vols have flirted with something more than the Top 15 the last two years as well.
As we’ve argued before, the relevant question for Butch isn’t if he can be Fulmer then or Saban now. It’s can he be better than McElwain, Smart, Muschamp, Stoops, Mason, and Odom. And can he do it regularly enough for the Vols to rise above the rest of the East more than once every few years.
Looking five years down the road, recruiting tells a significant part of the story. Kirby Smart signed an incredible class in February and Jones struggled to match the blue chip ratio he excelled at earlier in Knoxville. But looking ahead, the Vols’ eight 2018 commitments outrank Florida’s six so far, and Georgia has only on three-star commitment and a two-star kicker. It’s May 1 and there are a million miles to go. But Butch Jones and a retooled coaching staff which includes guys like Brady Hoke with significant recruiting prowess could give Tennessee an opportunity to bring in the talent necessary to rise above the rest of the East. Some would argue Jones already did it once with the group of six players just taken in the NFL Draft.
With Tennessee in turmoil for much of the decade and Richt on his way out at Georgia, no team has been able to take control of the SEC East. Unless the Gators win their third straight this fall with a Top 10-ish team, we’ll have to wait a few years to see if that will change. Keeping Tennessee in the conversation at the top of the division is one of the biggest vital signs for Butch Jones.