There was a time when the SEC was the best conference in college football. It was a time when that fact could not be seriously debated, except by partisans of other conferences and people playing devil’s advocate. There are those who still believe the SEC is the best conference in college football. They may be right; it’s a reasonable point for debate. What can no longer be debated is the SEC East is no longer elite.
This weekend Florida, the SEC East champion, defeated Florida Atlantic in overtime. Georgia similarly needed overtime to beat Georgia Southern. South Carolina missed a two point conversion and was unable to force overtime against the Citadel. The Gamecocks lost. It was supposed to be Cupcake Saturday. The conference was taking flak for the strength of its schedule. It should have been taking flak for the strength of its teams.
The Entire SEC East is Down
The SEC East has been in decline for a few years. Vanderbilt has had so many bad losses that they don’t merit mentioning. Kentucky was supposed to be resurgent under Mark Stoops. They’ve recruited better, but that hasn’t translated into better play on the field, apart from two wins over South Carolina. The Wildcats are two seasons removed from losing to Western Kentucky, and they haven’t beaten an SEC West team since 2009.
Tennessee, similarly, has increased its recruiting emphasis. They have also beaten South Carolina and done little else. Unlike many of the other East teams, the Volunteers have avoided embarrassing losses, but they haven’t been anything like the teams who used to lead the conference.
South Carolina has gone from disappointing to bad to shockingly bad. The loss to the Citadel was a new low in recent memory. Last season the Gamecocks were #9 before stumbling to a 6-6 regular season. This year an early loss to Kentucky presaged the type of season Columbia was about to have.
Missouri joined the conference and had a losing record. If that was evidence of how hard is was to compete in the SEC, the Tigers’ back to back East championships are evidence of how far the conference has fallen. One of the championship seasons saw Missouri win the East in the same year they lost to 4-8 Indiana. This year Missouri has beaten South Carolina and lost to literally everyone else in the conference.
Florida and Georgia are supposed to be the flagship programs. Georgia has been steady but unspectacular. They’re averaging right at 10 wins a year, but can’t seem to break through with a championship. If anyone is pulling their weight, it’s the Bulldogs. Florida has a new coach and seems to be on the rebound, but the same optimism was prevalent in Knoxville, Columbia, Nashville and Lexington in recent years.
SEC East defenders will tell you this is just temporary. They will often tell you that the East is really not that far behind the West. If those teams were in another conference, they’d have a much better record. Certainly last year’s 4-11 record against the West means they are partially right. The SEC East does fare well out of conference as well. Thus far this season, East teams are 20-4. Last season East teams finished 25-8. For a division that is down, those are respectable records.
However, what happened this past weekend in Gainesville, Athens and Columbia cannot be completely encapsulated in the 2-1 record. Those games were ugly, and the teams playing in them were not elite. There was a time when all three of those games would be blowouts, laughers by halftime. That’s not true anymore. The SEC East simply isn’t that great.
This season’s 20-4 OOC record is about to take a nose dive as well. Most of those wins are against weaker competition from overmatched conferences. This week’s games and the bowls will provide much tougher tests. If the SEC East teams can find ways to win those games, we can reevaluate, but they aren’t. The sterling winning percentage will plummet.
The East has the blessing and the curse of playing in the same conference with the West. It is a blessing because they get lumped in together when it comes time to look at conferences as a whole. It is a curse because unless the East is the best division in football, they are going to look weak in comparison. However, the East is not suffering from being comparatively weak compared to the West. It is suffering from not being that good.
Being worse than the SEC West is no tragedy. It’s true of nearly every division in college football. Just how much worse is the question. Is the SEC East just a little worse than the West? They’d like to think so. Or, is it more accurate to say they are a lot worse, more like an ACC division? Last weekend implies the latter.
The SEC East hasn’t been able to pull itself up. New coaches at Tennessee and Kentucky were supposed to do the job. Legends at South Carolina, Missouri and Georgia haven’t been able to win at a high level. It may be cyclical, but the longer they East stays down the longer you have to ask how long is this cycle?