For the first 10 years of the SEC East’s existence, Florida usually won. When it didn’t, Tennessee did. Then Mark Richt arrived at Georgia — and, not incidentally, Ron Zook took over in Gainesville — and the Bulldogs won the division three times in four seasons. Then the Gators, under new and better management, won three times in four years. And then, in 2010, something strange happened: The East was taken by none of the above.
South Carolina finally broke through, and two weeks into the 2011 season the Gamecocks were poised to consolidate that gain. They’d beaten Georgia in Athens. The Gamecocks had four of the more talented players — Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery, Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney — in the nation’s most talented league. But Carolina lost at home to Auburn and booted wayfaring quarterback Stephen Garcia from the squad for good and lost Lattimore to a knee injury and then lost at Arkansas. Georgia won the East for the first time since 2005, and today the Bulldogs stand where South Carolina did a year ago.
Georgia is a good young team coming off a lousy ending. Just as South Carolina did in 2010, the Bulldogs were routed in the SEC title game and contrived to lose their bowl. The 2011 Gamecocks, by way of contrast, finished by thrashing Clemson, which would win the ACC, and then Nebraska to wind up 11-2 to Georgia’s 10-4. And the Bulldogs must go to Columbia next season.
In sum, the SEC East remains in heavy flux. South Carolina has cause to believe it was the division’s best team, but was undone by luck and scheduling. Georgia can point to its 10 wins and its 15 returning starters as proof that its rise was no trick of the light. And then there are the others.
Various recruiting rankings indicate that Florida, which had to win its bowl to finish above .500, is poised to sign the top class among SEC East programs. Tennessee finished 5-7 and won only one conference game and could well be seeking a new coach soon. In Year 2 under James Franklin, Vanderbilt figures to do more than simply scare some of the big boys. About all Kentucky accomplished in Year 2 under Joker Phillips was to beat Tennessee for the first time since 1984. And this fall Big 12 expatriate Missouri, flouting geography, opens play as a member of the SEC East.
Most projections for 2012 show Georgia and South Carolina in the preseason top 10, and whichever one takes the East this year — it’s hard to envision anyone else rising past both — can lay claim to being the class of the SEC’s lesser division. (SEC West zealots may consider this the equivalent of being the world’s strongest weakling, but you can’t win the conference unless you play in Atlanta on the first Saturday in December, can you?)
Once again, all schedules aren’t created equal. Georgia, which managed not to play any of the West’s Big Three in the 2011 regular season, will miss them again. South Carolina has to play LSU in Baton Rouge and Arkansas in Columbia, which means the Gamecocks could again beat Georgia and still lose the East.
In a division laden with uncertainty, signing day can have an outsize impact. The Gamecocks won the East in 2010 because Lattimore chose them over Auburn. Georgia won in 2011 largely because freshmen Isaiah Crowell and Malcolm Mitchell became playmakers. This year the Bulldogs have gained commitments from running backs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, making the matter of Crowell’s durability less significant. South Carolina’s top commitment is receiver Shaq Roland, who should slide into the spot vacated by Jeffery.
Looking toward autumn, it’s a close call between the two, but the pick here is Georgia. The Bulldogs have the kinder schedule and figure to have more good players returning, and South Carolina’s best player will be coming off knee surgery. That said, seizing control of a division — even if it is only the SEC East, as opposed to the West — requires a level of consistent excellence above and beyond what was required to break through once.
South Carolina knows this all too well. The Gamecocks were a better team in 2011 than in 2010 but didn’t play for the conference title. They missed their chance to stamp themselves as the post-Urban Meyer power in the SEC East. Now it’s Georgia turn to try.
By Mark Bradley