The SEC has ruled the college football landscape for six straight seasons. But at a closer look, it’s the SEC West — not the East — that’s produced the bulk of the champions, as four of the last five have come from the West.
The SEC is once again the conference that’s the cream of the crop, with six teams in the preseason Top 25, but four of those are from the West. The two from the East are Georgia and South Carolina, but can they actually slow down Alabama or LSU?
First off, they’ll have to win the East to play in the SEC Championship and have that shot. As it looks on paper, the East is a race just between these two.
Georgia is the favorite as listed by Bovada at 5-4, while South Carolina is next best at 11-4. Florida, Tennessee and conference newcomer Missouri are listed at 7-2, 12-1 and 14-1, respectively. Vanderbilt is a relative long shot at 20-1, while Kentucky rounds out the division at 50-1.
Since Urban Meyer left Florida, the Gators have fallen off. It doesn’t look like it will get much better in 2012 as their quarterback situation is still weak. Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel filled in for the injured John Brantley last season, but the tandem combined for just two touchdowns and six interceptions. However, quarterback play is not the only concern for a Gators squad that finished just 7-6 last season — its season since 1987 — and was outscored 72-22 in the fourth quarters of conference games. They still have plenty of elite talent, but they clearly have some rebuilding to do before they get back into the running for the SEC East.
The Tennessee Volunteers appear set to field their best team in the Derek Dooley era, but that might not be saying much. They have more returning starters than any other team in the conference, including quarterback Tyler Bray, who at points last season looked like the best arm in the SEC. He should be working with one of the best receiving corps in the nation, which should lead the Vols to be very competitive and even spring a few upsets.
The concern at Rocky Top is the defense and running game. For the Vols to become an elite team in the conference, those two areas will have to step up in a big way.
Georgia is the frontrunner in the SEC East and it’s easy to see why. They won the East last season riding a strong defense. That unit returns nine starters and should be one of the best in the country. On offense, Georgia is led by star quarterback Aaron Murray, who is the best quarterback in either division of the SEC. The Bulldogs will need to find a running game after dismissing Isaiah Crowell, but if they find someone to depend on, this is the team with the best shot of unseating the SEC West powers.
South Carolina is also in the conversation as Steve Spurrier has built up the program in a fine way. The team is coming off a school-record 11-win season and the Head Ball Coach appears to have regained his swagger.
Even though they have to replace three high-round NFL picks — cornerback Stephon Gilmore, linebacker Melvin Ingram and receiver Alshon Jeffery — the return of running back Marcus Lattimore and improving quarterback Connor Shaw has fans in Columbia very excited. Last year’s defense was special and it could be again as ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor could be the best one-two punch in the nation.
If Shaw takes a big step forward, the defense remains solid and the running game is reliable, the Gamecocks will be right there with Georgia to the end. The good news for South Carolina is that it gets to play Georgia at home, as the Bulldogs visit Columbia on Oct. 6 in a contest that could decide everything.
While the SEC East has some quality teams, each of them still seem to be a step behind both LSU and Alabama. That’s not to say that South Carolina or Georgia isn’t capable of winning the SEC, but it seems like they’ll need to catch a break or two for that to happen.