The SEC East Is Headed for Chaos Again. Who's in the Best Position to Survive It?

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Thursday September 14th, 2017

The most telling manifestation of how kooky the SEC East got last season is a tiebreaker that could have, but did not, transpire. Preseason favorite Tennessee stepped into the division’s driver’s seat with back-to-back wins over Florida and Georgia to open its conference slate, but as injuries mounted for the Volunteers, they squandered the opportunity with a three-game losing skid. That opened the door for several other squads, and by early November, the East was so unsettled that there was a possibility of six teams finishing with 4–4 records.

Florida disappointed chaos enthusiasts the world over by beating LSU 16–10 in mid-November after stuffing stud tailback Derrius Guice on a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. That game was originally scheduled to be played in Gainesville in early October, but it was moved to Baton Rouge and pushed back six weeks due to Hurricane Matthew after a messy airing of grievances. (And as if the loss wasn’t devastating enough in itself for the Tigers, they’ll face the Gators on the road the next two years.)

When the smoke cleared, Florida had a 6–2 record and a meeting with Alabama in the conference championship game. What happened next was predictable: The top team in the Power 5’s second-worst division, according to Jeff Sagarin’s ratings, got rolled by the top team in the Power 5’s best division. The 54–16 pummeling felt symbolic for a division that had spent the previous two months-plus repeatedly stooping to lower levels of futility: Every trace of the 2016 East needed to be incinerated and never spoken of again.

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But in the land where It Just Means More, that’s not an option, not even when the East’s elite still pales in comparison to the next incarnation of the Crimson Tide death machine. After South Carolina beat Missouri 31–13 last week in the first intra-conference SEC game of 2016, things start heating up in the East on Saturday, when Florida takes on Tennessee in the SEC’s marquee 3:30 p.m. ET CBS slot at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium—a rematch of the bout that saw the Volunteers snap an 11-game losing streak to the Gators in Knoxville last year.

It’s hard to make sense of either Florida or Tennessee right now. While the Gators face-planted in their season-opening 33–17 loss to Michigan at AT&T Stadium, they had 10 players suspended for that matchup, including No. 1 wide receiver Antonio Callaway and top running back Jordan Scarlett. The Volunteers won their opener over Georgia Tech in double overtime, but they were outgained by nearly 300 yards, and the Yellow Jackets play an unorthodox scheme unseen across the SEC.

That both Florida and Tennessee look capable of making a run at the East crown speaks to the chaos potential bound up in a group of seven squads with no clear-cut favorite. Media members tabbed Georgia as the frontrunner in the preseason, but the Gators, Bulldogs and Volunteers all fall between Nos. 16 and 25 in Football Outsiders’ latest S&P + rankings, while South Carolina is 2–0, with a solid non-conference win over NC State to its credit, and ranks ahead of Florida and Tennessee in ESPN’s Football Power Index.

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“I’m going to think it’s going to be nip and tuck,” Houston Nutt, a CBS Sports Network analyst with more than a decade of head coaching experience in the SEC, says of the division race, mentioning the Gamecocks and Vanderbilt, also 2–0, as two teams that have surprised him so far. “I think the winner that could get to Atlanta could easily have two losses.”

Here are two ways to read the lack of separation between East squads: 1) The division is mediocre, plain and simple, and whoever wins it will get smashed by Alabama the league title tilt; 2) There are going to be a ton of really fun games between evenly matched teams. Whichever interpretation you gravitate towards, this is a good time to hit the reset button. The impressions, both positive and negative, made by East outfits through the first two weeks of the season occasion a thorough examination of the division landscape.

SI.com is power ranking the East’s top five teams according to where they stand today and where they could stand in early December. On-field résumé to date was the dominant criterion in sorting this list, but a projection of future performance was also a major consideration.

Jake Bentley and South Carolina have been one of the season's early surprises.
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

1. Georgia

The Bulldogs’ 20–19 win at Notre Dame on Saturday should age well. Though an early assessment of the season’s best non-conference victories would place Georgia’s one-point decision over a squad that went 4–8 the previous season well short of, say, Oklahoma’s rousing triumph at Ohio State, the Fighting Irish’s power ratings painted a rosier portrait than their virally-memed win-loss record in 2016, and they already look improved defensively under new coordinator Mike Elko.

The Bulldogs aren’t just improved on that side of the ball; they’re a smothering unit under the charge of a Saban acolyte that’s stocked with highly touted recruits and brought back 85% of its production from a year ago, according to SBNation. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s charges are athletic, aggressive, opportunistic and, as Notre Dame left tackle Mike McGlinchey learned on senior Davin Bellamy’s game-sealing sack of quarterback Brandon Wimbush late in the fourth quarter on Saturday, really fast.

Georgia’s QB situation bears monitoring after Jake Fromm did just enough to nudge the Bulldogs across the finish line in South Bend, but they now have two workable options to hand the ball off to ace rushing tandem Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and mix in the occasional deep throw. Whether it’s a true freshman from the Peach State (Fromm) or a sophomore from the West Coast (Jacob Eason) under center, Georgia can count on its defense bludgeoning the opposition into submission.

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2. South Carolina

The Gamecocks own the best pair of wins of any East team. In Week 1, they bent but didn’t break on a 14-play NC State drive in the waning seconds of regulation that ended with Wolfpack quarterback Ryan Finley throwing an incomplete pass on fourth-and-goal. And on Saturday, they limited a Missouri offense that hung 72 points on its admittedly putrid Week 1 opponent, Missouri State, to just 13 points.

Sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley should be front and center in any conversation about the SEC’s crop of promising young signal-callers, and defensive coordinators across the conference are already dreading the prospect of trying to come up with ways to shut down wide receiver Deebo Samuel, both on offense and special teams (Pro tip: Just don’t kick the ball to him). Senior Skai Moore’s return after he sat out last season with a neck injury gives the Gamecocks a difference-maker at linebacker; T.J. Brunson is giving off sophomore leap vibes and leads the team with 22 total tackles; and South Carolina is already getting early returns on its success in the recruiting-tug-of war to get freshman defensive back and Grayson (Ga.) High product Jamyest Williams to stick to his commitment rather than flip to Georgia.

3. Florida

A non-conference loss to a Big Ten power in a game with double-digit players ruled out for disciplinary reasons isn’t a crushing blow in the scheme of things. The Gators can get up off the mat from their Michigan meltdown by stomping Tennessee in Gainesville on Saturday, and in the process make a revenge-exacting statement about their place in the East pecking order. Florida and Georgia are similar in a couple of obvious ways: Both of them are managing quarterback competitions, and both of them should field top-flight defenses this season.

Yet whereas the Bulldogs have shown signs of life offensively with Fromm at the controls and can turn to Chubb or Michel if Fromm or sophomore Jacob Eason aren’t getting the job done through the air, the Gators were running in quicksand with the ball in their hands against Michigan, and their best hope at quarterback might well be handing the keys back to veteran Luke Del Rio, whose 118.6 efficiency rating over six games last season would have ranked 12th among qualifying SEC signal-callers. Then again, the Volunteers’ defense was so ineffectual against Georgia Tech that maybe Florida can use Saturday’s game as an offensive springboard for the rest of conference play, although the Gators will be without Callaway, Scarlett and seven other players who are still suspended.

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4. Tennessee

We could look back on Tennessee’s 42–41 Week 1 win over Georgia Tech as one of the strangest results of the season. Try to wrap your head around how the Volunteers won with these numbers: Tennessee gained 18 first downs to the Yellow Jackets’ 33, held the ball for 18 minutes and 33 seconds to their 41 minutes and 27 seconds, ran 59 plays to their 96 and gained 369 yards to their 655. Tip of the cap to Butch Jones not only for getting a W despite taking a statistical beating, but also for doing the SEC a favor by silencing noted conference troll Paul Johnson.

The Volunteers turned around and posted another 42 points in their Week 2 win over Indiana State, but their next challenge is on a completely different level: Hitting something close to that number against Florida’s rugged defense on Saturday. With junior running back John Kelly and sophomore wide receiver Marquez Callaway, Tennessee does have enough skill-player juice to strain most SEC defenses. (Although possibly losing converted quarterback Jauan Jennings for the season with a wrist injury would sting.) And while no one on this roster can recreate Joshua Dobbs’s rushing production at quarterback, junior Quinten Dormady could be the serviceable distributor the Volunteers need to maximize this offense’s potential. Tennessee’s standing on the other side of the ball is harder to figure out, since the only FBS team it has faced, Georgia Tech, uses a system (the flexbone triple-option) the Volunteers won’t see during their league slate.

5. Vanderbilt

When Vanderbilt hired Derek Mason as its head coach prior to the 2014 season, the most optimistic forecasts had the Commodores sustaining the success of the James Franklin era by rolling out nasty defenses schemed year after year to punish opponents the same way Mason’s did when he coordinated that side of the ball at Stanford. That hasn’t happened yet: The Commodores rose from 103rd on D in Mason’s first season to 15th in 2015 to 47th in 2016, according to Brian Fremeau’s points per drive statistic. Two weeks of evidence points to Vanderbilt tracking toward its 2015 form. Though it got lost in the excitement over a glut of high-profile matchups across the country, the Commodores notched one of the more impressive road wins of Week 1, a 28–6 decision over a Middle Tennessee squad powered by Conference USA’s best quarterback-wide receiver tandem, Brent Stockstill and Richie James.

Entering Saturday’s home meeting with Kansas State, Vanderbilt’s 20 tackles for loss are tied with Auburn for the most in the SEC, and only Mississippi State has yielded fewer yards per play (2.7) than the Commodores (2.9). Vanderbilt will gladly take a 2–0 start after going 1–5 combined over the first two weeks of the previous three seasons, and analytics reflect just as well on their performance as the win-loss column does: The Commodores moved up 17 spots in S&P+ after Week 2.

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