First and 10: Laugh all you want, but the SEC East is the best division in college football
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Let me take you back to a time not long ago when a coach and his vision changed the dynamic and direction of the divisions in the SEC.
And how it’s happening again.
When Nick Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, it ignited a chain of events that forced the West Division to get better and end the dominance of Florida, Tennessee and Georgia in the East.
Ole Miss hired Houston Nutt away from Arkansas after the 2007 season and played in back-to-back major bowls. Arkansas hired Bobby Petrino away from the NFL and eventually played in back-to-back major bowls.
At the end of the 2007 season, Auburn ran off a coach (Tommy Tuberville) who lost for the first time in 7 years to Alabama and hired another (Gene Chizik) who struggled to win at Iowa State — before landing a unicorn (Cam Newton) and winning a national title.
Mississippi State hired Dan Mullen, the hottest assistant in the game, away from Florida.
All of this happened in 3 years. Three measly years.
Now it’s happening again.
How fitting that in what could be the last year of divisional play in the SEC, the East Division has finally become a factor again — thanks to Georgia and coach Kirby Smart.
When Smart arrived at Georgia in 2016, it took 2 seasons (like Saban) to play for a national title. Since Georgia’s loss to Alabama in the 2017 Playoff championship game:
— Florida fired 2 coaches, one who led the Gators to 3 New Year’s 6 games in 4 seasons.
— Florida hired a Group of 5 coach (Billy Napier), who had ties to Saban, and paid him more than $7 million a season.
— Tennessee fired 2 coaches, ratted itself out to the NCAA to get rid of one (Jeremy Pruitt) and completely reshuffled its athletic department for the better.
— Kentucky coach Mark Stoops veered from his successful defense-first philosophy, hired two NFL assistants as offensive coordinators (Liam Coen, Rich Scangarello) and signed a true throwing quarterback (Will Levis) from the transfer portal.
— South Carolina fired a coach (Will Muschamp) who could recruit but couldn’t develop a quarterback and hired a career assistant (Shane Beamer) who can recruit and finally found a quarterback (Spencer Rattler) in the transfer portal.
— Missouri and Vanderbilt both fired coaches who had pockets of success for young coaches who can recruit.
“It’s pretty easy to see the bar,” Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “To win the division and get to the (SEC) championship game, you might have to be the best team in the country.”
2. Offense is everything
Like everything else in college football of late, change means more offense.
Florida fired Jim McElwain because his offenses were horrific and hired Mullen, whose offenses weren’t — until they were in his last season.
The Gators then hired Napier, whose offense at Louisiana set school records. He ran the offense, he coached the quarterbacks, he called the plays — and he’ll do the same at Florida.
Tennessee got tired of watching caveman ball with Pruitt. It hired Josh Heupel and the Blur Ball offense he orchestrated at UCF that averaged nearly 40 points a season over 3 years. In one season at Tennessee, Heupel’s offense set numerous school records — and the Vols are a trendy pick to do more damage this fall.
Beamer won 7 games at South Carolina despite an offense that was 104th in the nation in scoring and 110th in total offense. It took one offseason for him to completely reshuffle the offense through the transfer portal, adding immediate help at quarterback (Rattler), tailback (Christian Beal-Smith), wide receiver (Corey Rucker, Antwane Wells) and tight end (Austin Stogner).
Missouri fired loyal (and successful) alum Barry Odom for Drinkwitz, whose career trajectory went from offensive coordinator at NC State, to head coach at Appalachian State to head coach at Missouri — in less than 2 years.
His offenses those 2 years prior to accepting the Missouri job: NC State (34 ppg.), App State (39 ppg.). Significant improvement on offense this season will save his job.
Kentucky, the kings of crawl ball under Stoops, changed to a hybrid college/NFL offense that moved more through the quarterback. Expect UK to throw even more this season with Levis, who had 16 TDs over the last 8 games of 2021.
The goal is to find the greatest possible way to stress a defense. More times than not, it comes down to 1 position.
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3. The East is back, the Epilogue
If the quarterback means everything in football (and it most certainly does), the East will be the best division in the SEC for the first time in nearly 15 years.
Outside of Alabama Heisman winner Bryce Young, the East quarterbacks are as good — and potentially better — than the West.
The top 4 quarterbacks in the West: Bryce Young (Alabama), Will Rogers (Mississippi State), KJ Jefferson (Arkansas), Max Johnson (Texas A&M).
The top 4 quarterbacks in the East: Will Levis (Kentucky), Hendon Hooker (Tennessee), Rattler (South Carolina), Stetson Bennett III (Georgia).
The remaining 3 quarterbacks in the East are all high-ceiling dual-threat players: Anthony Richardson (Florida), Tyler Macon (Missouri) and Mike Wright (Vanderbilt).
“If you’re talking about pro potential, it’s not really close,” an NFL scout said of the SEC quarterbacks. “You’ve got 3 guys that, potentially, can start (in the NFL) with Levis, Rattler and Richardson. Then there’s Hooker, another guy who can move (up draft boards) this year. The better you are at that position, the better your team. All 3 of those teams — Tennessee, Kentucky and South Carolina — are going to surprise the hell out of people because of quarterback play.”
4. The unique double
Bryce Young will begin this season in a rare spot: a returning Heisman Trophy winner.
A rare spot, that is, with a very predictable future.
Since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin won back-to-back Heismans in 1974-75, there have been 8 players with an opportunity to win the award a second consecutive season.
All 8 failed.
The closest anyone came to winning it again was Oklahoma running back Billy Sims, who won the award in 1978 and was runner-up to USC tailback Charles White in 1979.
- 1990: Ty Detmer (BYU); 1991: 3rd (Desmond Howard, Michigan).
- 2004: Matt Leinart (USC); 2005: 3rd (Reggie Bush, USC, now vacated).
- 2007: Tim Tebow (Florida); 2008: 3rd (Sam Bradford, Oklahoma).
- 2009: Mark Ingram (Alabama); 2010: finished outside top 10 (Cam Newton, Auburn).
- 2012: Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M); 2013: 5th (Jameis Winston, FSU).
- 2013: Jameis Winston (FSU); 2014: 6th (Marcus Mariota, Oregon).
- 2016: Lamar Jackson (Louisville); 2017: 3rd (Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma).
Young’s biggest competition this season is likely from Ohio State QB CJ Stroud, who could keep Griffin’s record intact and in the Ohio State family by winning the award.
The bigger obstacle might protection from a shaky Alabama offensive line, and a completely revamped wide receiver corps that includes 2 key transfers (Jermaine Burton, Tyler Harrell).
Of the 8 who failed, only 1 had a legitimate gripe at winning the award: Tebow.
Though he finished 3rd in the voting, he had more 1st- and 3rd-place votes than Bradford and runner-up Colt McCoy of Texas. He was well behind both Bradford and McCoy in 2nd-place votes.
The argument can easily be made that a majority of voters thought Tebow was the best player in the nation in 2008. But the discrepancy in 3rd-place votes — Tebow had 320, McCoy 230, Bradford 196 — forged a conspiracy that voters purposely placed Tebow at No. 3 to avoid a repeat win for the most visible college athlete ever.
The media and fan carnival that surrounded Tebow for 3 seasons isn’t remotely close to what Young has endured in 1 season as starter. In fact, it’s the polar opposite.
Young is the most boring Heisman winner (in a good way) in decades — and that might be the exact thing that helps him pull it off.
5. The Weekly Five
The 5 best East vs. West games in 2022:
1. Alabama at Tennessee, Oct. 15: The Vols will get one big upset this season. Why not here, in a wild environment.
2. Florida at Texas A&M, Nov. 5: Gators’ 3rd trip to College Station since 2012 could be a statement game for Napier.
3. Georgia at Mississippi State, Nov. 12: A dangerous, sleepy spot for Georgia after back-to-back games against rivals Florida and Tennessee.
4. South Carolina at Arkansas, Sept. 10: After a season-opening tuneup against Georgia State, it gets serious in Week 2 for Rattler in the SEC.
5. LSU at Florida, Oct. 15: A big spot in a bitter rivalry for a coach (Napier) both schools wanted.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Georgia TE Darnell Washington.
“He might be the most intriguing guy on the board. He looks like (Rob) Gronk(owski), and runs like him, too. If you’re that big and run high 4.5s to low 4.6, the first question is why has he not gotten on the field more? He was banged up, he had a better guy in front of him; I get it. At some point, that becomes want. How badly do you want to play, and can you get in the best shape of your career and earn more playing time this season?
“He has top-15 talent, there’s no question about that. We’re going to find out this year if he really loves football. The length, the athleticism, the hands, the reach; he’s a matchup nightmare.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: Win total odds for the 2022 regular season — and the line buster:
1. Georgia: 10.5. Does the fiery focus remain after winning it all in 2021?
2. Alabama: 11.5. Who plays offensive tackle? The offensive line can’t give up 41 sacks again.
3. Texas A&M: 8.5. QB Max Johnson takes a huge step in Year 3, his first season with Aggies coach/QB guru Jimbo Fisher.
4. Kentucky: 8.5. Winning at Florida in Week 2 is everything. Win, and starting 7-0 isn’t out of reach. Lose, and doubt enters the picture.
5. Arkansas: 7.5: A 3-game (in 4 weeks) road stretch of Mississippi State, BYU, Auburn.
6. LSU: 7.5. Find a quarterback from 3 solid options and hit the over. Play all 3 because no one makes it work and the under is a lock.
7. Mississippi State: 6.5. It’s QB Will Rogers’ 3rd season in Mike Leach’s offense. I’m crushing this over.
8. Tennessee: 7.5: The offense will be better than any outside of Alabama. The defense is a giant question.
9. South Carolina: 6.5. Rattler has the talent and the motivation, and he is playing for NFL money. Take that trifecta and hit the over.
10. Ole Miss: 7.5. I’m sold on Kiffin, but I’m not sold (yet) on either quarterback. Hello, under.
11. Florida: 6.5. Richardson playing at his ceiling is good for 8 or 9 wins despite a roster full of turnover. But can he stay healthy?
12. Auburn: 5.5. With that defense and smart play at quarterback, can begin a manageable first-month schedule 4-0. There are 2 more wins the rest of the way.
13. Missouri: 5.5. Three-game stretch at Auburn, Georgia, at Florida before the second week of October will dictate the season. Lose all 3, and there’s no avoiding the under.
14. Vanderbilt: 2.5. Need 2 wins in 3 nonconference games (Hawaii, Elon, Northern Illinois) and the over is reachable.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Why wouldn’t the SEC add Clemson, Miami and Florida State and North Carolina, and lock up the South? You’ve then cornered the hottest recruiting area, from Texas to North Carolina. No one would touch that conference. — Gary Porter, Memphis.
Expansion is value-based, and all 4 of those brands bring significant value to the SEC in multiple sports. All 4, however, aren’t available until 2036 due to their media grant of rights deal with the ACC.
I wrote last week that the SEC is sticking at 16 because it feels good about where it’s positioned, and because the SEC presidents want the FBS structure moving forward. That said, everything could change if Notre Dame leaves for the Big Ten — and the Big Ten moves to 20 teams.
Notre Dame alone to the Big Ten won’t change the dynamic of the SEC’s future. While the Irish are certainly a big brand addition, the SEC presidents believe in both the brand and product on the field of the current 16 teams.
This isn’t about Florida allowing FSU and Miami into the league, or South Carolina allowing Clemson. The power to do so ends if the Big Ten moves to 20 teams.
Notre Dame’s desire to go to market as an independent and assess its value (its current NBC contract is through 2025) could keep everything as it currently stands — for the immediate and long-term future of the sport.
25. The 25 reasons Mississippi State QB Will Rogers should be at SEC Media Days: After breaking nearly every freshman passing record in school history, Rogers broke 25 school records in 2021.
Among the highlights: breaking Day Prescott’s records for single-season total offense (4,638 yards), passing yards (4,739) and passing touchdowns (36). Also set a record with 10 consecutive games with at least 300 yards passing, red-zone touchdown passes (26) and completion percentage (73.9).
10. Quote to note
Alabama coach Nick Saban on 8- or 9-game SEC schedule: “I’ve always been for more conference games and improving the schedule. Eliminate the games that fans, players and supporters are not interested in. The 9-game format is a start in that direction.”