Is this the year we'll see the SEC East finally surpass the SEC West?
Dare I say, this might finally be the year. That is, the year the SEC East finally surpasses the SEC West.
I know, I know, I know.
You’ve heard that before only to watch that premise get thrown away at the hands of a blowout loss in the SEC Championship. That’s the place where the West won 10 of the past 11 years, and go figure that the 1 year in which an East team did win the division (2017 Georgia), it lost to a West team (Alabama) in the College Football Playoff National Championship. A division with 1 conference title since the Tim Tebow era has been, as you already know, woefully short on almost a yearly basis. Only 2 of those 10 losses were by single digits.
Besides the 1 SEC winner from the East, the numbers from 2009-19 are, um, not great for the East against the West:
- 59-107 (.355)
- 2 East teams with winning records vs. West (Georgia at 16-9 and Mizzou at 9-7)
- But 5 of those Mizzou wins came vs. Arkansas
- Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vandy haven’t won 1/3 of West games
- East had winning record vs. West in only 1 of those 11 seasons (a 9-5 mark in 2018)
During that stretch, 3 West programs won multiple SEC Championships (Alabama, Auburn and LSU). Better yet, 3 West programs played in multiple national championships, and all of them took home at least 1 title.
So why then, with that lopsided history in mind, would this be the year that the power shifts?
Well, it’s not as simple as “Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa aren’t there anymore.” Those guys didn’t contribute to the 8 consecutive West wins from 2009-16. They did, however, play at an elite level for teams that were historically dominant each of the past 2 seasons (don’t forget how good Alabama was up until the 2018 title game). It’s not that their teams are expected to fall off the face of the earth. It’s that their teams aren’t expected to be heads and shoulders above the contenders from the East.
Earlier this offseason, I wrote about why this was going to be as intriguing as a preseason discussion about SEC title contenders as any in recent memory. It’s Alabama and LSU from the West, and it’s Florida and Georgia from the East. Sure, there could be some who get cute and put Texas A&M in that discussion (I’m in wait-and-see mode for a program with 1 top-15 finish in the 21st century). But for the most part, those 4 teams were expected to have the vast majority of the preseason buzz to win the SEC in 2020.
It’s too bad we didn’t have an SEC Media Days because we would have gotten some insight as to just how narrow the debate was between those 4 teams.
While I believe the Alabama-LSU disparity would have been greater than the Florida-Georgia disparity, let’s think about this for the Crimson Tide. Alabama just lost its best quarterback ever. It also just lost multiple regular-season games for the first time in 9 years, though I’d argue injuries played a significant part in that. At the very least, Alabama is mortal. The whole “no losses to an East team since 2010” thing is still there, but Alabama missed the conference title game 4 times during that stretch because of an intra-division loss.
This year, Georgia has the best chance to finally end Alabama’s dominance against the East. Could a team loaded with 5-star players in the front 7 with a bunch of production returning from the No. 1 defense in America do something that no East team has done in a decade? I’d certainly say those odds look better now than they have at most points during this run of West dominance.
Speaking of Georgia, the Dawgs are obviously facing plenty of unknowns on the offensive side of the ball with new coordinator Todd Monken and new quarterback Jamie Newman/JT Daniels. But they are obviously coming off their 3rd consecutive New Year’s 6 Bowl berth. Florida, on the other hand, is coming off of its 2nd New Year’s 6 Bowl berth.
When was the last time that the East entered a season with multiple teams riding a streak of consecutive New Year’s 6/BCS Bowl berths? Um, that’s a trick question. This is the 1st time that’s happened.
Let me repeat that because I fear you glossed over that important note. This is the 1st time in the BCS/Playoff era that the East has multiple teams riding streaks of consecutive New Year’s 6/BCS Bowl berths.
To me, that’s more relevant than some preseason ranking. But then again, even the preseason rankings could be on the East’s side this year. Since the West’s dominance began in 2009, there have been 7 instances (2011-17) in which the East had exactly 3 teams ranked in the AP Top 25 to start the year. All signs point to the SEC having at least 3 East teams start in the AP Top 25 (Florida, Georgia and Tennessee) though Kentucky is the possible wild card that could give the East a 4th ranked team. For what it’s worth, Phil Steele has Kentucky at No. 21 in his preseason rankings.
There’s at least a chance that for the first time since the stretch began, the East has 4 top-25 teams to start the year. Even if it doesn’t, Florida and Georgia appear to be locks to start in the top 10. How many times did the East start with multiple top-10 teams during that stretch from 2011-17 when it had 3 ranked teams to start the year? Twice. It was 2012 and 2013.
In other words, it has been at least 7 years since the SEC has been set up with this many potential contenders. Granted, in 2012 the East representative (Georgia) ran into an Alabama team in the midst of its 3rd title in 4 years, and it was a red-zone conversion away from taking down the playing for a national title against Notre Dame. And in 2013, well, the East representative (Mizzou) was overmatched against an Auburn team with 9 lives. It probably wouldn’t have stood much of a chance against Alabama had the Kick-6 not happened, either.
This could be another year like that wild 2013 season. Or it could be different for once.
Perhaps a new decade will bring a changing of the guard. Maybe instead of the Alabama-LSU game or the Iron Bowl essentially deciding the SEC, it’ll be Florida-Georgia or Georgia-Tennessee.
The East finally has 4 coaches who elevated the floors of their respective programs. That would match the West. That’s the key to all of this. That was always the only way the power was ever going to shift. The inability for Florida and Tennessee to find the right coach throughout most of the 2010s was at the root of this. Now, Jeremy Pruitt and Dan Mullen can be at the beginning of a new streak.
And really, you could point to positives in each of the past 3 seasons for the East. In 2017, Georgia won the SEC. In 2018, the East had a winning record vs. the West (9-5). In 2019, the East went 7-7 vs. the West and it finished with multiple top-6 teams for the first time since 2013. If you combined 2018 and 2019, the East actually went 16-12 vs. the West and had just as many top-15 finishers (5).
Of course, this is all about getting the last laugh. Even including that 2017 season with Georgia winning the SEC but falling to Alabama in the title game, it’s been since Tebow’s junior season that the East truly got the last laugh on the West.
Dare I say, the pieces are in place for the chuckles to shift. Finally.