How long will it take for an SEC East team to break up the Florida-Georgia party at the top?
Don’t hold your breath.
In general, it’s just not particularly healthy. Do it for too long and you can get light-headed and pass out.
Also, don’t hold your breath waiting for an SEC East winner not named Florida or Georgia. That, too, seems unhealthy. And I fear you’ll pass out.
We could be in the middle of a decade-long run in which the Cocktail Party decides the SEC East. The good news for non-Florida/Georgia fans in the SEC East is that run is retroactive to 2015. We’re 6 years into this streak, which has Florida and Georgia all squared up at 3-3.
You’d have to go back to 2014 Mizzou to find a non-Florida/Georgia representative in Atlanta. Ah, simpler times, those were. That was back when getting through Florida meant getting through Will Muschamp and getting through Georgia meant 2 regular-season losses were a given with Mark Richt (he did that 12 of his final 13 seasons in Athens).
Granted, Kirby Smart did lose 2 regular-season games this past season. Shoot, so did Dan Mullen. The problem for everyone else in the East? Against East competition that didn’t include each other, Florida and Georgia were a combined 9-0 and not one of them kept it within single digits. Dating to the start of 2018 when Mullen started in Gainesville, Florida and Georgia have a combined East record of 26-3. Again, that’s excluding games played against each other. Two of those losses came in Mullen’s first year after taking over a 4-win team.
The last time an East team swept Florida and Georgia in the same season was 2016 Tennessee … which then followed up that momentum by immediately losing 3 consecutive games (the Vols went 2-12 in their next 14 SEC games). That was also Year 1 of Smart, and Mullen was still at Mississippi State.
Times have changed. Smart has drastically elevated Georgia’s floor by cranking out nothing but top-7 finishes. Mullen has drastically elevated Florida’s floor by cranking out nothing but New Year’s 6 bowls.
Meanwhile, the rest of the SEC East has yet to earn a New Year’s 6 bowl berth since Mizzou earned a Cotton Bowl trip in 2013 (Arkansas is the lone SEC West squad that hasn’t been to a New Year’s 6 bowl in the Playoff era). That obviously predates the start of this Florida-Georgia run to Atlanta in 2015. Kentucky had its best season in 40 years in 2018, and it still got left out of a New Year’s 6 bowl.
The path to winning the East now includes having Playoff life late into November.
That 2018 Kentucky team, to its credit, ended its 31-game losing streak to Florida (in Mullen’s first game vs. FBS competition at Florida) and hosted what was essentially an SEC East Championship vs. Georgia that year. That also was Kentucky’s first winning SEC season since 1977.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE ‘CAUSE KASH DANIEL SAID SO!
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 9, 2018
But even with that historical barrier, is it possible that Kentucky is the best chance to break up the Florida-Georgia party? That depends. Year 1 of this new offense with Liam Coen will be telling. Kentucky elevated its floor tremendously with the way it developed that ground game, but there was always a ceiling. The offensive 180 was made with the goal of elevating the program’s ceiling.
This year’s group has some All-SEC offensive skill players in Chris Rodriguez and Wan’Dale Robinson, but will it take the division by storm from the jump? With such an unproven situation at quarterback, I probably wouldn’t bet on that happening in 2021.
What can change that is if Kentucky can consistently become a top-20 team in the 247sports talent composite rankings. Last year’s ranking of No. 26 was its best to date. If this offensive identity can become a bit more established and that combines with Mark Stoops’ staff continuing to develop NFL talent at an underrated level, then we can start talking about Kentucky as a real threat to win the division instead of just being a real threat to finish second.
It feels like we’re still at least 2-3 years from that.
The same could be said for a program like Mizzou, which surpassed expectations in Year 1 by going 5-5. Eli Drinkwitz deserves a ton of credit for pulling off that feat after the worst possible offseason for a new coach to take over.
Perhaps there’d be more conversation about Mizzou sneaking into one of those top 2 spots if that Year 1 included a better showing against Florida or Georgia. That wasn’t the case, though. The Tigers were outscored 90-31. Also, away from Faurot Field, Mizzou was 1-3 with the lone road win coming against a South Carolina squad that had just fired Muschamp midseason.
But why can’t Mizzou get back to 2013-14 levels? Two things can be true at the same time. Mizzou deserved all the credit in the world for ripping off consecutive East titles in Year 2 and Year 3 in the SEC. But it’s also worth noting that it built those rosters recruiting against the Big 12, and Florida and Georgia weren’t close to their current level.
The early returns from Drinkwitz on the recruiting trail have been solid. In his first full cycle, he signed Mizzou’s top-rated class since 2015. When you factor in the head start he has on the 2022 class with 4 4-star signees, it’s clear that Drinkwitz is an upgrade from Barry Odom as a recruiter of talent. Being a developer of talent is a different story. And developing talent that can take down yearly top-10 teams isn’t a given, even for someone who has won everywhere he’s been like Drinkwitz.
If someone is going to break up the Florida-Georgia party at the top, one would have to think it’s going to be an “I don’t care who they are” type of chip-on-the-shoulder coach, which Drinkwitz and Stoops are.
Shane Beamer fits that mold, as well. The difference is that Beamer has a rebuilding job ahead. Sure, he inherited some talent , especially on the defensive line, but let’s be real: South Carolina went 2-8 and ranks No. 125 of 127 FBS teams in percentage of returning production:
UPDATED 2021 CFB RETURNING PRODUCTION
Now that I’ve got all G5 rosters updated, we’ve got new teams at No. 1-2. 12 of the top 13 are G5 teams; that’ll change a smidge once I’ve updated P5 rosters, but this is going to be a fascinating year. pic.twitter.com/SSRVMnX1Jf
— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) April 28, 2021
The good news? Like, besides the fact that Muschamp is no longer tasked with managing South Carolina’s quarterback room? Beamer’s program just got a massive new $50 million facility, which is just a touch different than a program like Vandy, which hasn’t had a major facilities upgrade since 1981 (!) and is finally set to change that. Consider 2020 a bit of a washed year on that front without the ability for recruits to take official visits. If we’re talking about potential game-changers for these non-Florida/Georgia programs, that’s not a bad place to start.
And let’s be honest with first-year coaches like Beamer and Josh Heupel. Neither South Carolina nor Tennessee are 2-3 years from getting to that level in the way that Kentucky or Mizzou could. Tennessee hasn’t beaten a top-10 team in 15 years and South Carolina played 80 of its last 81 games as an unranked team dating to 2014.
That year, the Gamecocks actually swept Florida and Georgia. From 2015-20, South Carolina went 2-10 against those teams. The Georgia win in 2019 was easily one of the most baffling of any team in the Playoff era and the 2017 win was in Florida’s lost season after Jim McElwain was fired.
That’s the problem. Breaking into that group for the rest of the East requires some sort of instability from Florida or Georgia. Maybe both. It might not be enough to say “well if Mullen’s relationship with Florida goes sour, SEC East team X is going to win the division.” It might be enough to say “well if Kirby can’t win the big one, he’ll get fired and the division will be up for grabs.”
In the 21st century, we haven’t seen a team so far above the East for 4 years like Georgia has been. At least not with a coach who stayed for multiple years after that run (see Meyer, Urban). Compare these 4-year windows to some of the other great East runs:
- 2002-05 Georgia vs. East: 16-4
- 2006-09 Florida vs. East: 19-1
- 2010-13 South Carolina vs. East: 18-4
- 2017-20 Georgia vs. East: 22-2
Notice those runs don’t overlap with each other. You know, like Florida and Georgia’s are right now.
The thing that was notable between 2006-09 Florida and 2010-13 South Carolina’s East runs was that things went downhill in a hurry for both programs, and 2 legendary coaches left less than 2 years removed from those runs. Richt was around much longer obviously, but from 2007-15, how many top-3 classes did he sign? Zero. From 2017-20, Smart signed nothing but top-3 classes (that streak ended in 2021 when his class ranked a measly No. 4).
The only other comparable run of talent and East dominance was Meyer’s stretch from 2006-10 when he signed classes ranked No. 2, No. 1, No. 5, No. 7 and No. 1. It took a stunning collapse from the Meyer regime to open the door for someone like South Carolina.
The current SEC would take a similar, but unlikely collapse from Smart in order for that door to open. You could argue that if things went south for Mullen at Florida, Georgia might actually get stronger from it with an even bigger recruiting advantage.
The talent gap is great, which is why whoever breaks into that group needs a massive improvement. That even includes Tennessee, which recruited better than any non-Florida/Georgia East team during this 2015-20 stretch, but with all the former blue-chippers the Vols lost in the coaching change, it’s going to take a bit to get back to that level.
So what’s a fair answer? When will a non-Florida/Georgia team represent the East in Atlanta?
The 2023 season is the absolute earliest year I’d target, and even that feels soon. Conservatively, I’d say 2024. I think we could still be looking at a one-off type of year. Maybe Kentucky or Mizzou can put together a 6-2 season vs. the SEC, and it includes a win vs. either Florida or Georgia to claim the tiebreaker. Even that would likely need to take an offensive explosion from one of those teams.
My guess is that we’re in the midst of a decade-long run reminiscent of 1992-2001 when Florida and Tennessee claimed all 10 East titles. It’s been 20 years since we’ve seen anything like this in the East.
And by the look of it, this current streak could leave everyone else in the East gasping for air.