Lost in all the conversation about the powerful SEC West is recognition of how far its brethren in the SEC East have fallen. Fans from Florida to South Carolina to Tennessee probably do not want to hear this, but the division they compete in has become ACC football, which is to say not very good.
“Our side, I guess, is not too interesting right now,” Steve Spurrier said earlier this week by recognizing both the power of the SEC West and the weakness of the SEC East.
There is no denying that the SEC West is the strongest division in college football with four teams among the top six in the inaugural College Football Playoff poll. Just as startling is Georgia being the only representative from the SEC East, with a No. 11 ranking in the CFP poll and No. 9 in the weekly Associated Press poll.
The discrepancy in power between the divisions is most apparent in head-to-head competition. The West has won nine of 10 games against the East, and the average score in those wins is 40-20.
Not long ago, East division teams were the ones running up big numbers against West clubs. From the beginning of divisional play for the 1992 season and over the next two decades, the SEC East was considered the best division in the country. That was attributable, in great part, to having at least two of the terrific trio of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee competing for national championships nearly every season.
So, what has happened since?
It is pretty simple. The Florida and Tennessee programs have fallen on hard times, and Georgia has had a few down seasons. While programs such as South Carolina (one division crown) and Missouri (one division crown) have supplanted Florida and Tennessee, neither has challenged for a national championship. Kentucky and Vanderbilt never have been a factor.
As recently as 2012, the East produced three top-10 teams in the final Associated Press poll. Georgia, winner of the division, was No. 4, USC No. 7 and Florida No. 10. But that season appears to be an aberration.
The last time the East power three of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee all finished in the final top 10 was 2007. Other than 2012, the division has become mediocre. The poorest showing was 2010, when USC won the division and was the highest-ranked East Division team at No. 22.
This season, Georgia is likely to remain the only ranked team from the East Division.
Using the 2007 season as the turning point for the division, it is worth examining what has happened to the power three programs since.
Florida was riding high under coach Urban Meyer and in 2008 captured its second national championship in three seasons. That success continued in 2009, when the Gators went unbeaten in the regular season, lost to eventual national champion Alabama in the SEC Championship game, and finished as the nation’s No. 3-ranked team.
Then it fell apart for the Gators, and they have not recovered. Meyer resigned after an 8-5 record in 2010 and was replaced by Will Muschamp. In his fourth season, Muschamp’s teams have not won a division title, have gone 7-11 over the past two seasons, and his job is, reportedly, on the line.
Georgia is in position to win its third East Division title in the past four seasons. But Mark Richt’s program also has suffered through an 8-5 record in 2009, 6-7 mark in 2010 and 8-5 slate in 2013.
Tennessee shared the division championship with Georgia in 2007, but when the Vols slipped to 5-7 the following season, they fired long-time coach Phillip Fulmer. Of the big three programs, Tennessee’s fall from grace has been the most dramatic.
Lane Kiffin stepped in for one season, and that was the only winning one (7-6 record) over the past six. Derek Dooley could not direct the Vols out of the doldrums. Now Butch Jones is in his second season.
Since Fulmer’s departure, Tennessee is 31-39 overall and 11-33 in the SEC.
It used to be that when Florida, Georgia or Tennessee came to Columbia, no hype was necessary. The chance was there for USC to gain a measure of success against one of the top programs in the country.
Now, with Tennessee visiting Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, Spurrier was compelled this week to tout the game to his fans.
“All right,” Spurrier said to conclude his Tuesday meeting with the media, “need the fans to come scream and yell like you always do and, hopefully, bring some enthusiasm to our guys.”
Welcome to ACC football.