Posted: 9:00 a.m. Monday, July 29, 2013
Three teams are likely to be battling for the East crown. All three have their plusses and minuses.
Florida is the consensus third runner, and it's easy to understand why. The Gators are coming off of a surprise 12-2 season, one which ensures the team is in the race this year. However it loses a ton off of the defense, including a rough stripe up the middle with Sharrif Floyd, Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins, Matt Elam, and Josh Evans all gone. That defense is what propelled the team to that great record last year, as the offense was mostly tasked with not screwing things up. When it did screw things up, the team lost. The offense will be without workhorse Mike Gillislee, and it's even shorter on passing targets than ever with Jordan Reed gone. Florida has had enough good recruiting of late to warrant a spot at the table, but its not the frontrunner for a reason.
South Carolina clocks in second, and it should be strong. Jadeveon Clowney headlines the team, of course, but fellow returners Connor Shaw, Kelcy Quarles, Victor Hampton, and Bruce Ellington give the team strong players at a lot of positions. This team lost some important players too, though, in Devin Taylor, Ace Sanders, Shaq Wilson, Devonte Holloman, and D.J. Swearinger. Oh yeah, and that Marcus Lattimore guy is off in the NFL too. The defensive coordinator spot turned over too, with Ellis Johnson off to Auburn, but no one really talks about it because Steve Spurrier promoted Lorenzo Ward from within to run the same scheme. The story here is about what it always is these days: it's up to the front line players to make this thing work. If the team has to dip too far into its reserves, it's not going to work.
Georgia is the clear favorite at the moment. The leader in yards per play in the SEC play in 2012 returns nearly everyone important, like Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Michael Bennett, Malcolm Mitchell, and a lot of the line. This team has by far the fewest questions on offense of these three. It might have the most questions on defense, though. If you aren't a Georgia fan, then everyone you might be able to name from last year's unit is gone: Jarvis Jones, John Jenkins, Bacarri Rambo, Alec Ogletree, Sanders Commings, and Shawn Williams are all no longer in Athens. For a defense that never quite felt as dominant as it should have (except when Jones did his one-man wrecking crew routine), the high turnover is a big concern.
Which one will it be? That's a good question. An even better question is this: will it matter?
Once upon a time, the East was the dominant division of the league. It won seven of the first ten SEC Championship Games, including six straight from 1993 to 1998. Things evened out a bit for a while, but the West has dominated of late. The East, after all, has only contributed two of the five national titles in the conference's current streak, and it hasn't won the game in Atlanta since 2008. Georgia at least kept things close and had a shot to win it last year; the previous three games were all blowouts of varying degrees.
The division title will always mean something, because just about anyone can beat anyone else on a given day. However, the division's teams managed only 56 votes to win the league out of 243 total at SEC Media Days. The SEC media has a pretty poor track record in picking champions, as Nick Saban helpfully pointed out, but someone is going to have to take down the West representative in the title game to return even a semblance of balance to the conference.
This year's race for the East is not just about which team will get a ticket to Atlanta. It's also about what that team will do with it there.