East continues to lag behind West, but Georgia still a legit division champ
Once Georgia beat South Carolina on Saturday and then Ole Miss upset Kentucky, the Bulldogs wrapped up the East.
We still have three weeks left in the regular season, yet UGA can go ahead and start making its travel arrangements for the SEC Championship Game in December. Second-year coach Kirby Smart has done a terrific job in Athens.
For the first time since 2012, the team picked at Media Days in July to win the league’s lesser division — it was the Dawgs then, too — has actually lived up to expectations. In 2013-14, Missouri upset the balance of power shortly after joining the SEC from the Big 12. In 2015-16, Florida played the disrespect card into back-to-back titles.
Nevertheless, Georgia will have detractors out there for the same exact reason that the Tigers and Gators did previously.
To put it mildly, the East remains miles behind the West in terms of top-to-bottom relevance. Alabama may still be king of the mighty West, but Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State and, to a lesser extent, Texas A&M have all been solid at times in 2017.
Those four teams are a combined 6-1 against the East, with the only loss being Mississippi State’s 31-3 humbling at Georgia. If the Bulldogs want to remain perfect — not just in terms of wins and losses, but in the eyes of the College Football Playoff selection committee — then they must go to Auburn in Week 11 and knock off their cross-division rival.
If you remove UGA from the equation, then the other six programs from the East are just 11-24 when facing conference competition.
Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt are a combined 1-9 against the West. The one victory was the Gamecocks taking care of Arkansas at home 48-22. The Razorbacks, by the way, are the division’s bottom-feeders.
Even Ole Miss, which is going absolutely nowhere — certainly not with the NCAA ready to hand down further sanctions at any moment — and self-imposed a bowl ban, is 2-0 vs. the East. The Rebels simply ripped Vanderbilt at home in Week 7 and then, as mentioned above, pulled out a W on the road at Kentucky in the final minute two days ago.
All told, the West holds a 9-2 edge over the East in crossover clashes. The gap between the two divisions is wider than ever.
The Dawgs have done everything in their power to remove any such guilt by association. Not a single opponent from either side of the league has stayed within two touchdowns of them. Smart and Co. have been dominant from start to finish.
Back in Week 2, we had our doubts after a narrow one-point escape over Notre Dame. After all, the Fighting Irish were a complete mess in 2016 — they posted an embarrassing 4-8 mark — and weren’t supposed to do much this year, either. However, it turns out that the Golden Domers are for real. They’re now 8-1 and No. 3 in the latest AP Poll.
An argument can be made that Georgia’s early-season triumph in South Bend is one of the most impressive for any club this season.
A year ago, the Bulldogs were subjected to the typical peaks and valleys associated with a first-year coach playing a true freshman quarterback. Smart (above) made some mistakes, plus Jacob Eason only flashed his 5-star skills here and there.
As a result, UGA let lowly Nicholls State hang around for four quarters between the hedges before finally walking away victorious. Vanderbilt managed to top the Dawgs at Sanford Stadium, and then Georgia Tech did the same — that rivalry isn’t called “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate,” for nothing — to close out the regular season.
Forget what you witnessed this past season, though. Smart has taken the myriad lessons he learned from Nick Saban and now has Georgia playing like Alabama.
Ironically, Smart is still going to battle with a true freshman QB. But this year, it’s 4-star signee Jake Fromm, not Eason. Fromm took over for an injured Eason in the opener and has the highest passer efficiency rating in the SEC.
On the other side of the ball, the Bulldogs sure resemble the Crimson Tide. They surrender just 254.1 total yards and 11.7 points per game — both are second in the conference by a narrow margin to, naturally, ‘Bama. They’re almost as good when it comes to defending the run and even give up fewer yards per game defending the pass.
Additionally, it’s not like Alabama has played a murderous schedule to this point. Actually, it’s been a bit on the weak side.
While the Crimson Tide deserve a tip of the cap for taking on Florida State at a neutral site to kick off the campaign, the Seminoles have fallen apart. ‘Bama has faced Vanderbilt and Tennessee from the East. Both are winless in league play.
Very few people are questioning the Tide, and rightfully so. Saban has won four rings in a decade’s time — don’t forget the one at LSU in 2003, as well — and been in contention for several others, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt. This is Year 4 for the College Football Playoff, and Saban will likely be invited a fourth straight time.
Alabama has left few questions on the field, winning its nine games by an average score of 41-10. Only Texas A&M kept it close.
The same can be said for UGA. Even if the Dawgs haven’t necessarily annihilated everyone in their path, an average score of 37-12 doesn’t leave room for many nail-biters. Against SEC schools, that advantage balloons to 39-10.
If Georgia runs the table and meets a similarly unbeaten Crimson Tide squad, then it would be the most highly anticipated championship game for this conference in years. Those Missouri and Florida teams the last four seasons? They were dismantled — three times by ‘Bama, once by Auburn — by an aggregate total of 184-86.
The East can’t keep up with the West, but that doesn’t automatically mean the Bulldogs can’t keep up with the Tide.