Through two months of the season, the SEC East is as big a wreck as it has ever been.
The average S&P+ rank for the seven teams in the division is currently 58.7. That’s actually slightly ahead of 2015’s average rank of 60.4 at season’s end. However, the division had two teams in the top 25 last year with No. 18 Florida and No. 22 Tennessee.
Right now, the Gators are at No. 9 and no one else appears until Tennessee at No. 32. Georgia, the third traditional power in the division, has plummeted to No. 70. The average rank is slightly higher than a season ago because Kentucky and Missouri are now mediocre instead of dreadful, but that’s little solace.
UF is the only team to secure bowl eligibility at this point, and the Gators might not have too many more compatriots in the postseason. Tennessee should lock up its sixth win against FCS Tennessee Tech this week, adding a second team. Strange to say, Kentucky is the best bet for a third team. The Wildcats already have five wins, and if nothing else, they should defeat Austin Peay on November 19. That makes three.
Georgia is no lock to go to a bowl. The Bulldogs have just four wins, and they’ll get a fifth against Louisiana-Lafayette on November 19. They’re not guaranteed to win at Kentucky this weekend, however, and they won’t be favored against Auburn. Drop those two, and they’ll have to beat Georgia Tech to get the magic sixth win. Even though the Yellow Jackets are not one of the country’s more formidable teams, Kirby Smart has struggled with the triple option in the past. A 5-7 record is on the table.
South Carolina probably needs to beat Missouri this coming weekend to get to a bowl. They’ll knock off Western Carolina on the SEC season’s penultimate week, but they also play at Florida and against Clemson. The latter two likely will be losses, so they won’t get to a bowl without knocking off Mizzou.
As for two-win Missouri, it’ll have to win out to get to the postseason. With South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Arkansas to go, I can’t say that any game is a guaranteed loss. I also can’t guarantee any is a win either. The Tigers probably won’t make the postseason.
Neither will, in all likelihood, Vanderbilt. The Commodores still have Auburn, Mizzou, Ole Miss, and Tennessee to go, and they’ll have to win two of those to hit bowl eligibility. I don’t see any potential wins in there other than Missouri.
We’ll know a lot more once the coming weekend’s games are done, but victories by Kentucky and Missouri will put the East on a path to having only three bowl teams. For a division in a conference with tons of money to spend and abundant talent within its footprint, that would be pathetic. Even if the East maxes out its plausible bids and gets all of UK, Georgia, and South Carolina into bowls, it’s likely that two or three of them would only get there thanks to having a win over an FCS team.
How did we get here?
Georgia let longtime head coach Mark Richt go, and it replaced him with rookie head coach Kirby Smart, who has been going through some first-year growing pains. The transition on the staff hasn’t helped player development. Though the Bulldog defense is still quite good—which makes sense, going from one Saban disciple (former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt) to another (Smart)—the offensive line is bad, there are no playmaking receivers, and there’s a true freshman starting at quarterback. A lot of that is on the previous regime, but the new regime hasn’t found a way to make up for it.
Kentucky lost all of Rich Brooks’s momentum with the disastrous Joker Phillips era, and Mark Stoops has been rebuilding for four years. He set himself back in 2015 with his hire of offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who proved to be a bad fit on the staff. It has taken some time, but this year’s Wildcats are showing real improvement. It’s just that there’s only so much improvement that can happen in one season, and UK’s old baseline was that of an awful team.
After jumping to the SEC, Gary Pinkel transitioned Missouri’s recruiting from being Texas-centric to focusing on Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. That strategy backfired, leading to weak and attrition-wracked 2013 and 2014 classes. Pinkel already started walking that strategy back before he retired, securing commitments from Texas players for the 2016 class after signing none in 2015. Barry Odom has continued it with three more Texas commits this year. However with little good experience thanks to those subpar 2013 and 2014 classes, key dismissals before the season, and injuries, Mizzou’s not going to get much better this year.
Steve Spurrier, in his characteristic bluntness, says he should have retired earlier than he did. His hanging on too long set South Carolina back. The Gamecocks tried to make a splash by going after Tom Herman and Rich Rodriguez, but they had to settle for Will Muschamp, who is not an immediate turnaround artist, to say the least.
This year was supposed to be the year that Tennessee finally put things together, and the Vols did for a while. At least, they did in the second half of games. As injuries have mounted, the team has faded. Tennessee has felt like less than the sum of its parts for a couple of years now, and it’s no different in 2016.
No disrespect to Derek Mason, but Vanderbilt is what Vanderbilt tends to be. The glory years of James Franklin were good in Nashville, although the program’s signature win in that time was over an injury-decimated 8-5 Georgia team in 2013. The Commodores might hit five wins this year, and that’s pretty good for post-1960 Vandy.
The future of the division is far from clear. Florida seems to be in good hands with Jim McElwain, although he’ll have a big defensive coordinator hire coming up in the next year or two once Geoff Collins becomes a head coach somewhere.
As for everyone else?
Georgia and Missouri have first-time head coaches, so there’s no telling whether this year is indicative of their futures. UK is better, but it’s also possible that it’ll go to a bowl without having defeated a single bowl-eligible team. South Carolina’s head coach failed at a previous stop with more resources and recruiting advantages than he’ll ever have in Columbia. Tennessee will have a chance to be better as long as Butch Jones keeps bringing in high level talent, but it remains to be seen whether his coaching can match his recruiting. It may turn out that Vanderbilt is at its ceiling right now if Mason continues to be unable to develop a decent offense.
The SEC is probably hoping that this year turns out to be the nadir of the East. It might be, but it also might not be if the Smart, Odom, and Muschamp hires don’t work out and Stoops, Jones, and Mason can’t improve from where they’re at now.
The days of the 1990s, when the East was the tougher half of the SEC, seem like ancient history, and they may not come back for a long time.