The past three winners of the SEC East were picked, in chronological order, to finish sixth, fourth and fifth by the horde at the league’s midsummer Media Days. The 2013 division champ lost its No. 1 quarterback for half a season to injury. The 2014 champ won its final three conference games by a one-score margin. The 2015 champ lost its quarterback for the duration to a positive PED test.
The 2014 East champ finished 95th among the 125 FBS teams in total offense. The 2015 champ ranks 104th among 127 FBS programs in total offense. The last truly excellent team to win the East was Georgia in 2012, and we can quibble about that. (The Bulldogs did lose to South Carolina 35-7.) But Georgia fought to the deflected finish in the SEC championship, which is something we haven’t seen lately.
The 2010 East champ (South Carolina) lost the SEC title game by 39 points; the 2011 East champ (Georgia) lost by 32 after leading by 10; the 2013 East champ (Missouri) lost by 17; the 2014 East champ (Missouri again) lost by 29. The 2015 East champ (Florida) is a 17 ½-point underdog to Alabama.
Moral of our story: If you’re Georgia and you’ve just changed coaches, you have no reason to believe you can’t be playing in the Georgia Dome come Dec. 3, 2016. Florida just proved it can be done with a new coach who inherited – Jim McElwain’s description here – “insufficient” talent. Missouri proved in 2013 that a team could win this division in its second SEC season after going 5-7 in Year 1. The past three East winners have proved that preseason evaluations don’t mean squat.
If you can just play defense and not trip over your shoelaces, you have a real chance in the SEC East, which the venerable numbers-cruncher Jeff Sagarin ranked as the weakest division — yes, weaker than the ACC Coastal — among Power Five conferences this season. Georgia coulda/shoulda won the East five years running, but the Bulldogs contrived to lose to Missouri and Vanderbilt in 2013; to a Florida team in 2014 that would fire Will Muschamp two weeks later, and this year to Tennessee in a game they led 24-3 and to Florida on a day when the third-stringer Faton Bauta took every snap at quarterback.
Speaking Friday at the Dome, McElwain didn’t pretend his Gators were anything approaching a finished product. Calling this “a season of discovery,” he said: “I can see how far we have to go and how much we have to build.”
Florida under a competent coach – which Muschamp wasn’t, and neither was Ron Zook – is always a force. The same goes for Georgia. Tennessee is getting there, but the rest of the division is in shambles. Missouri just lost Gary Pinkel, who did more with less, and South Carolina is still trying to replace Steve Spurrier. Kentucky and Vanderbilt remain non-starters. If a team other than Florida, Georgia or Tennessee represents the division here next year, it will be a massive shock.
Asked about Georgia’s presumptive new head coach, McElwain – who worked alongside Kirby Smart at Alabama – said: “I’m surprised it’s taken him this long. He’s going to be an outstanding head coach.”
Asked about Smart, Alabama’s Nick Saban – stop the presses! – appeared close to tears. “He’s as good an assistant and as loyal an assistant as we’ve ever had,” he said, and certainly something had the famous sourball in an especially dour mood.
By way of contrast, McElwain was chipper bordering on giddy, and why not? Friday was the one-year anniversary of his hiring, and already he’d taken the Gators where they hadn’t been since 2009. They won’t beat Alabama – it will be a miracle if they score 10 points — but they’re already ahead of the game. “Let’s not take this lightly,” McElwain said. “The Florida Gators are in Atlanta; I’m OK with that.”
Florida is here. Georgia, yet again, is not. But that’s subject to change. There’s always room to move in the SEC East, provided you don’t make the considered decision to deploy Faton Bauta in your biggest game. And the Bulldogs can’t do that again. Bauta announced Friday he’s transferring.