5 storylines that will define the final month in the SEC East
It’s been an interesting 2 months of football in the SEC East.
A season ago, the East bested the West in cross-divisional games for the 1st time since 2009. With a dominant Georgia, ascendant Florida and consistent bowl teams at Missouri, South Carolina and Kentucky, the East appeared to be headed for a renaissance. At SEC Media Days in July, the East was projected to be one of the most competitive divisions in college football.
The division hasn’t disappointed, though there have been some twists and turns along the way.
The top of the division has held up its end of the bargain as one of the most competitive in the country.
The East features 2 top 10 teams — No. 7 Florida and No. 10 Georgia — though for now, not in the order we expected in Hoover this July. Three SEC East teams have been ranked this season, though Missouri’s stay was short, thanks to its mind-numbing loss to Vanderbilt last weekend.
The rest of the division … well … it’s as messy as a kids shirt after Sunday chili dogs at The Varsity.
Will Muschamp’s South Carolina squad is better than its 3-4 record, as its win over then No. 3 Georgia in Athens demonstrates. But the Gamecocks have been slowed by injuries and the nation’s toughest schedule.
Tennessee hit Rocky Bottom in a home opener loss to Georgia State; the Vols are 2-5 and have made more news for how Jeremy Pruitt reacts to the failures of players he coaches than for winning football games.
Not to be outdone by their in-state brethren in a race to the football bottom, Vanderbilt is also 2-5, though Derek Mason did offer this marvelous soliloquy on grinding after his team anchored down and upset then-No. 22 Missouri last weekend.
Do you think Derek Mason is fired up? pic.twitter.com/JBmVv19nMz
— Brandon Zimmerman (@BZSEC) October 19, 2019
Finally, there’s Kentucky, where basketball season can’t come soon enough thanks to a rash of quarterback injuries that have left the Wildcats playing heroic defense but having little hope on offense, where they are lining up All-SEC wide receiver Lynn Bowden under center.
Put it all together and the SEC East has been anything but boring through 2 months and is set up for an exciting finish.
Here are 5 storylines that will define the SEC East in the season’s final 6 weeks.
The Largest … World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in a decade
For the 1st time since 2008, the Cocktail Party will feature 2 top 10 teams when the Gators and Bulldogs square off in Jacksonville on Nov. 2.
The winner has the inside track to be the East’s representative in Atlanta; the loser is likely out of the New Year’s 6 due to the 3-headed monster of Alabama, LSU and Auburn in the SEC West.
The game is dripping with the types of storylines college football fans, writers and especially editors dream about.
With a healthy Lawrence Cager, can Georgia’s passing game get off the schneid?
Will Florida get its bookend All-SEC defensive ends, Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, back to play the Dawgs? And how healthy will they be? Pity them trying to contain the edge against D’Andre Swift and that massive Georgia offensive line without them.
Will Georgia — which ranks 96th in sack rate and 89th in defensive havoc rate — be able to generate pressure against Kyle Trask?
As for Trask, he’s been one of the best stories in college football this season, admirably filling in for injured starter Feleipe Franks and leading the Gators to a 7-1 start that has included 4th-quarter comeback victories over Kentucky and South Carolina. If he finds a way to win the Georgia game, his place in Gators lore and legend will be secure.
Don’t forget about mystifying Missouri
Has there been a stranger team in college football in 2019 than Barry Odom’s Missouri squad?
Missouri opened the year with a stunning loss at Wyoming in a game its athletic director never should have scheduled.
A road game at altitude, thousands of miles from your home campus, against a quality program outside the Power 5? That was malpractice and Barry Odom’s team laid a red zone egg (3 red zone turnovers) and lost.
The Tigers then steamrolled everyone they played for the next month and half until last weekend, when they went to Nashville and inexplicably lost to the worst Vanderbilt team of the Mason tenure.
I want to believe in Barry Odom. He’s an outstanding defensive mind and when the Tigers play well, they look as good or better than some of the best teams coached by Gary Pinkel, Odom’s mentor. But the truth is it’s impossible to defend Missouri’s 2 losses this season.
Nonetheless, Missouri remains very much in the hunt in the SEC East — pending the outcome of its probation appeal with the NCAA that could keep it out of Atlanta even if it was to win the division on the field. A decision is expected soon. The ban has to be reversed for the Tigers to be eligible for the SEC Championship Game and a bowl.
The Tigers are the 3rd team in a Florida-Georgia-Missouri round-robin that will decide the division, and Missouri gets a crack at the Gators, a team they’ve beaten of late, at Faurot Field. With Kelly Bryant at quarterback and a defense that ranks in the top 10 nationally, the Tigers will have their say as to who rules the East.
The end of the Fromm Era?
Looking at NFL Mock Draft boards, it’s more than reasonable to believe Jake Fromm is playing the final games of his storied Georgia career over the next 2 months. How does he finish?
It’s no secret that Georgia’s passing game has struggled over the past month. The injury to Lawrence Cager has deprived Georgia of its top target and freshman George Pickens, a massive talent, has been unable to pick up all of the slack himself.
It was always going to be difficult for Fromm at times this season given Georgia had to replace its top 5 receiving targets. But the Bulldogs’ struggles, especially over the past 2 weeks, are real and are coming against defenses (South Carolina and Kentucky) that had been very pedestrian.
Will it get worse before it gets better, especially with elite defenses like Florida and Auburn waiting in the wings?
Georgia fans booed Fromm’s offense against Kentucky and I admired D’Andre Swift’s comments that Georgia “will do what it has to in order to win games” and “if people don’t like it, they can decide not to come.”
But with all due respect to Swift, to win big games, Georgia needs the great Jake Fromm — the guy who out-dueled Baker Mayfield at the Rose Bowl, lit up the Gators last season in Jacksonville and stood toe to toe with Tua and Jalen Hurts in Atlanta — if they are to accomplish their usually lofty goals.
This could be it for Fromm in Athens. He’s already an all-time Georgia great. The last month will determine the scale of his legend.
Battle for cross-divisional bragging rights
Can the East win the head-to-head with the West for a 2nd consecutive season?
It will be tough. At present, the East is 4-6 in cross-divisional games. Here are the matchups remaining:
- Georgia at Auburn (Nov. 16)
- South Carolina at Texas A&M (Nov. 16)
- Georgia vs. Texas A&M (Nov. 23)
- Missouri at Arkansas (Nov. 30)
If the East finishes 3-1 in those contests, which seems realistic, they will at least draw even with the West, which speaks to the improved football in the East division in the latter part of this decade.
Battle for bowl eligibility
Last year, the SEC East put an incredible 6 of its 7 programs in bowl games, with only struggling Tennessee left out.
This season, 4 bowl teams would be a chore and, depending on what the NCAA decides about Mizzou, only 3 East teams may go bowling.
Vanderbilt, despite the grinding, will almost certainly fall short, with dates against South Carolina and Florida remaining.
It would take a miracle for Jeremy Pruitt’s team to be bowl eligible. The Vols have shown something the past 2 weeks, but 4-8 still seems the most likely number for Pruitt’s program in Year 2.
Will Muschamp’s program has a shot, but the schedule could be prohibitive. Tennessee this weekend is a must-win, as is Vanderbilt the following week. After those 2 games, the Gamecocks would need 1 more win.
A tricky home date against a ranked Appalachian State squad that might be the best team in the Group of 5 might be the most likely victory, and that will be extremely challenging. Lose any of those 3 games, and Muschamp would need to beat Texas A&M in College Station or Clemson (good luck) to get bowl eligible.
Maybe now Muschamp can see why only giving Bryan Edwards 1 touch in the North Carolina game mattered?
That leaves Kentucky.
The way Mark Stoops’ team is competing despite having its best wide receiver lined up at quarterback makes this one of Stoops’ best coaching jobs, in my opinion. It was compelling stuff to watch his defense grind out stop after stop against Georgia last weekend, knowing they had little chance to score.
The schedule isn’t terrible.
Four of their final 5 games are at home with only Vanderbilt on the road. A matchup with an angry Mizzou next weekend is likely a loss, but even if that occurs, they would just need 3 wins over Tennessee, Vanderbilt, UT Martin and Lousiville to go bowling. It won’t be easy, but if you are still betting against Stoops and that program, you haven’t been paying enough attention.