SEC East: More or less wide open in 2015?
SEC fans slowly are turning their attention to basketball season (OK, Kentucky fans, you’ve been there for a while).
Which got us thinking: the SEC East has something in common with the whacky,
64-team 68-team tournament that takes place in March. With all respect to coach Gary Pinkel and the Missouri program, did anyone outside of Columbia, Mo., predict the Tigers would win the division once, much less twice?
The crazy, whacky East has been up for grabs for a few years now.
- Missouri won the SEC East in 2013 after getting picked to finish sixth in the conference’s preseason poll.
- The Tigers repeated the feat in 2014 after getting picked fourth in the same preseason poll.
- South Carolina, the pick to win the SEC East in ’14, finished fifth ahead of just Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
- Speaking of Vandy, the Commodores finished ahead of Tennessee and Florida in ’13 after beating both teams.
- Georgia, the early 2015 favorite, has won the SEC East just twice in the last seven years as a classic underachiever.
- Just two SEC East teams won at least eight games in 2014, yet the division went 5-0 in bowl games.
Can the SEC East possibly remain as difficult to predict in 2015? Will a team not even picked in the top three preseason be able to win the division for a third consecutive year?
As the rest of the Big Ten East surely will find out in the next five years, one sure way to make a division more predictable is to put strong coaches at traditionally powerful programs. As Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan now all boast strong recruiters and proven winners, the division should be less wide open. With the exception of Michigan State, does any other team have a chance to win a division title as long as Urban Meyer, James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh are running things?
An extended downslide by traditional powers Tennessee and Florida precipitated the most recent SEC East free-for-all. Whether or not the division remains wide open in 2015 depends in large part on how soon the Vols and Gators return to dominance. (Georgia, which also belongs in that category, should remain at or near the top of the East.)
Tennessee delivered its first winning season since 2009, closing strong behind quarterback Josh Dobbs, an injury replacement for Justin Worley. Coach Butch Jones has done a great job in recruiting and has restored expectations in Knoxville. Now comes the hardest step — turning that young talent into a championship team, or at least a certifiable Top 25. Jones and the Vols are poised for the latter next fall, and it shouldn’t be a shock if they win the division.
Florida just emerged from the disappointing Will Muschamp era, luring Jim McElwain from Colorado State after navigating the largest coaching buyout in FBS history. The Gators’ offensive talent dwindled under Muschamp, and the talent that did make it to Gainesville didn’t seem to develop. Florida didn’t fall quite as far or as long at UT, but it would be a surprise if McElwain can return the program to its usual status as an SEC and national contender inside of two years.
The 2013 Missouri team was a legitimate Top 5 nationally, but it’s hard to imagine the ’14 Tigers winning the division with a top-end Tennessee and Florida.
Kentucky flashed early in ’14, but reminded us that the program has a ceiling, even as Mark Stoops has done a relatively good recruiting job. Vanderbilt seems unlikely to return to Franklin-era competitiveness any time soon. South Carolina’s time winning 11 games per season appears to be over, as Steve Spurrier’s career could soon end.
In other words, the SEC East’s traditional losers seem to be settling into that role in 2015. The usual powerhouses may be one season away from full strength, but the Vols and Gators are moving in the right direction.
Just like the last two seasons, Mizzou may be the biggest wild card in the SEC East in 2015. But at least on paper, the rest of the division seems destined for something pretty close to median years.
If a team wants to shock the rest of the division and head to the championship game in Atlanta, now’s the time, because it won’t get any easier in 2016.
Of course, if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that preseason expectations count for nothing once the season kicks off.