KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The teams that were picked in a preseason media poll to finish first and second in the SEC East will collide Saturday at Neyland Stadium. But with Georgia coming off a four-touchdown loss and Tennessee 0-2 in league play, the division race may be shaping up differently than forecast.
Five weeks into the season, only one SEC East team is undefeated in conference games, and that one — Florida — was predicted to finish fifth in the division. The resurgent Gators last week gained the most impressive victory by an East team this season, a four-touchdown rout of Ole Miss. A week earlier, Tennessee lost to the Gators by one point on the road.
Saturday’s schedule could provide more insight into the Eastern Division race, not only via the Georgia-Tennessee game but also via Florida’s game at two-time defending division champion Missouri.
Or maybe this is just part of a long, shifting, unpredictable slog to the SEC Championship game for an eventual East winner.
“I feel like the guys understand how important these next SEC games are, coming up in this next month,” Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “That’s why we were able to put the loss (to Alabama) behind us in the manner we did.
“Now we just really want to keep control of our own destiny.”
By that, he meant if Georgia (4-1, 2-1 SEC) wins the rest of its league games it will take the East, notwithstanding last week’s ugly loss to Western Division foe Alabama.
“I think we all understand that,” wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “You can’t let the previous week affect you in the week to come. That’s when I think a season goes downhill.”
Saturday starts a stretch of four consecutive games against Eastern Division opponents for Georgia, the preseason media poll’s overwhelming favorite to win the division. The trip to Tennessee is followed by games against Missouri in Athens on Oct. 17, Florida in Jacksonville on Oct. 31 and Kentucky in Athens on Nov. 7.
Tailback Nick Chubb suggested the Bulldogs can use last week’s loss as fuel for this stretch.
“We can’t lose another one,” Chubb said. “We still have goals we made at the beginning of the season, so we’re going to fight for our life now. I think that’ll give us an extra boost, just knowing we can’t lose another one … and get to where we want to go.”
The biggest change in the SEC East picture is the reemergence of Florida, which got just one of 225 votes to win the division in the preseason poll. Yet, the Gators are 5-0 (3-0 SEC) under new coach Jim McElwain.
Last week’s results — Alabama’s 38-10 victory over Georgia coupled with Florida’s 38-10 victory over Ole Miss, which two weeks earlier won at Alabama — may have recast the Gators as the East favorite, at least for the moment.
The Gators soared 14 spots to No. 11 in the Associated Press national poll — the third largest one-week climb in poll history — after a dominant defense and redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier led them past then-No. 3 Ole Miss. The Gators, unranked in preseason, are now the highest ranked SEC East team.
“Here’s what’s going to be next: ‘Are these guys for real?’ And blah, blah, blah and all that kind of stuff,” McElwain told reporters in Florida. “I get it. I’ve been there. And we’ll find out.”
The Gators will try to validate their stature Saturday night at Missouri, but the lesson of the past two seasons is that the Tigers shouldn’t be discounted in the East.
Georgia will seek to get back on track against a Tennessee team (2-3, 0-2) that ranks near the top of the SEC in rushing offense and punt/kickoff returns, but near the bottom in rushing defense and rock bottom in total defense.
The Vols are 14-16 overall and 5-13 against SEC competition under coach Butch Jones, but their three losses this season have been by a combined 12 points to now-No. 10 Oklahoma (in double overtime), Florida and Arkansas. The Vols surrendered leads of 13 or more points in each of the losses.
“I speak the truth. The truth of the matter is we are a good football team,” Jones said in a news conference this week. “We’ve lost to three very, very good opponents. … I want our players to understand that we are a good football team and it’s a long football season ahead of us.”
SEC EAST AT A GLANCE
Team / SEC / Overall / Saturday
Florida / 3-0 / 5-0 / at Missouri
Georgia / 2-1 / 4-1 / at Tennessee
Kentucky / 2-1 / 4-1 / Off
Missouri / 1-1 / 4-1 / vs. Florida
Vanderbilt / 0-2 / 2-3 / Off
Tennessee / 0-2 / 2-3 / vs. Georgia
South Carolina / 0-3 / 2-3 / at LSU