Saturday, October 20, 2018
Florida Gators

Why the SEC East no longer looks like the SEC Least

When the Gators removed their list of SEC East championships from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium over the offseason, the official reason was that no other Florida team showed off its division titles.

There might as well have been another factor, too: Winning the SEC Least hasn't been worth celebrating.

Not anymore. The East's slump appears to be over.

One advanced metrics tool, the Sagarin ratings, ranks the East as the nation's No. 3 division, behind only the SEC West and Big Ten East. In another set of advanced metrics, S&P+, four East teams sit in the top 25: Georgia (third), Florida (14th), Missouri (23rd) and Kentucky (24th). If that holds, it'll be the first time since 2007 that four current East teams finished that high.

The rest of the division is better, too. Its worst team (according to S&P+) is No. 75 Vanderbilt. Compare that to last year, when the East had only one top-30 team (Georgia) and four that were 80th or worse.

On-field results back up the data. The East is 18-3 in games outside the division. Its 3-1 record against the West includes the Gators' back-to-back wins over LSU and Mississippi State. It has a shot at two more cross-division victories Saturday when the Bulldogs face LSU and South Carolina hosts Texas A&M.

"I don't know if the East is stronger than the West or the West is stronger than the East," said Gators coach Dan Mullen, who spent the nine previous seasons in the West at Mississippi State. "I just think the league as a whole has a tremendous amount of depth to it with a lot of good football teams."

The East is finally starting to add to that depth thanks in part to its coaching decisions.

Georgia's Kirby Smart was Nick Saban's longtime lieutenant at Alabama and has constructed the closest thing to 'Bama outside of Tuscaloosa. Mullen transformed Mississippi State from a doormat into a respectable program and seems to be on his way to returning the Gators to national prominence.

In the first five years after Kentucky hired him from Florida State, Mark Stoops went 26-36 and lost both bowl games. The Wildcats stuck with him, allowing him to continue to build the program his way. Now Kentucky has a realistic shot at its first 10-win season in 41 years.

"They made a commitment to Stoops, and that's important," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. "Anytime you make a commitment to a coach and a program, you can move it."

Especially if that commitment comes with more funding.

In 2003, current SEC East programs averaged $8.8 million in football-related expenses, according to figures submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. That's $1.4 million less than the Power Five average.

By 2016, East programs averaged $32.6 million in football-related expenses. That's $3.8 million more than the Power Five average.

The $45 million football-only complex Kentucky opened two years ago will soon be outdated in its own division. South Carolina and Missouri plan to open their facilities before the start of next season, and the Gators hope to break ground on their $65 million complex by early 2020.

"I just believe you're starting to see the investments in these programs…" Mason said. "When you do that, you can push your program in the direction it needs to go to be competitive."

There are also smaller, less expensive reasons for the East's rebound.

Georgia, Kentucky and Florida all have top-20 defenses. Every team but Kentucky returned its starting quarterback. Georgia's Jake Fromm is fourth nationally in passer rating (192.46), and UF's Feleipe Franks has a rating (139.31) that's 26 points higher than last year. Missouri's Drew Lock is one of the top quarterback prospects in the nation.

RELATED: The SEC reigns (again) thanks to college football's best quarterback collection

"I don't know how many quarterbacks are better than him in the country," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose No. 1 Crimson Tide will try to slow Lock down Saturday.

The final reason the East's renaissance is that success is cyclical.

UF, Tennessee and Georgia have all won national titles since 1980, and Mizzou finished in the top 20 of the final AP poll five times from 2007-14. Given the tradition, resources and recruiting grounds of those teams, prolonged mediocrity was unlikely.

All it took was the right coaches, finances and players to click for the SEC East to resume playing like an SEC Beast.

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.  

Comments
Ryan Finley and the NFL draft, Ohio State on upset watch and more college football nuggets

Ryan Finley and the NFL draft, Ohio State on upset watch and more college football nuggets

Eye on the NFL draftWith a 6-foot-4, 212-pound frame plus a top-10 completion percentage, North Carolina State QB Ryan Finley is an interesting pro prospect. Clemson's defense is loaded with even bigger talents, including DE Clelin Ferrell and DT Dex...
Published: 10/19/18
Heisman watch: Two AAC players crack the top five

Heisman watch: Two AAC players crack the top five

5. Memphis RB Darrell Henderson: The nation's leading rusher (1,133 yards) ran for 199 on UCF in a one-point loss.4. Houston DL Ed Oliver: His 1.9 tackles for a loss per game lead all interior linemen nationally.3. Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins: The B...
Published: 10/19/18
Florida Gators midseason review: Is a NY6 bowl game in reach?

Florida Gators midseason review: Is a NY6 bowl game in reach?

After Florida's historic Week 2 loss to Kentucky, expectations plummeted for Dan Mullen's first season as the Gators' coach.A month later, No. 11 UF (6-1) is tied for first in the SEC East and a serious contender to make a run at a New Year's Six bow...
Published: 10/18/18
Georgiaís Kirby Smart not surprised by Florida Gatorsí quick turnaround

Georgiaís Kirby Smart not surprised by Florida Gatorsí quick turnaround

The Gators have completely transformed themselves from where they were a year ago against Georgia.Their 42-7 loss to the Bulldogs didn't even seem as close as the final score indicated. A day later, Jim McElwain was out as the head coach.No. 11 Flori...
Published: 10/17/18
Matt Bakerís AP Top 25: Miami out, Florida Gators up and UCF in top 10

Matt Bakerís AP Top 25: Miami out, Florida Gators up and UCF in top 10

Four teams in the top eight of my AP Top 25 lost Saturday. So did four teams from 16-25. Just another college football weekend.Georgia's shocking 20-point loss at LSU sent the Bulldogs down from third to No. 9 on my ballot. UGA, for me, is in the 5-1...
Published: 10/14/18
Why the SEC East no longer looks like the SEC Least

Why the SEC East no longer looks like the SEC Least

When the Gators removed their list of SEC East championships from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium over the offseason, the official reason was that no other Florida team showed off its division titles.There might as well have been another factor, too: Winnin...
Published: 10/12/18
Florida Gatorsí defensive swarm, Miami cashing in on turnovers and more state nuggets

Florida Gatorsí defensive swarm, Miami cashing in on turnovers and more state nuggets

Florida's flying DThe Gators' swarming defense has been the biggest reason for its Year 1 turnaround under coach Dan Mullen. Four players — LB Vosean Joseph, DL Jachai Polite, DE Jabari Zuniga and DB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson — have a...
Published: 10/12/18
College football Week 7 viewing guide

College football Week 7 viewing guide

Lamest time window: Noon. Go outside and enjoy the (slightly) cooler weather before the games get interesting in the afternoon.Noon: Vanderbilt usually plays the No. 14 Gators tough. Will that continue in Nashville?2:30: Pitt dashed Miami's playoff h...
Published: 10/12/18
College basketballís secrets are spilling at trial. When is footballís reckoning?

College basketballís secrets are spilling at trial. When is footballís reckoning?

The dark underbelly of college basketball is being exposed in a New York federal courthouse.That's where Brian Bowen Sr. — the father of former blue-chip basketball prospect Brian Bowen — was on the witness stand Tuesday, tellin...
Published: 10/10/18
Jim McElwain had a fast start, too. But Dan Mullenís Florida Gators might be built to last

Jim McElwain had a fast start, too. But Dan Mullenís Florida Gators might be built to last

GAINESVILLE — As No. 14 Florida enters the second half of coach Dan Mullen's first season, the Gators have surpassed their early expectations.They already have a statement win over a top-five team (LSU). They're alive in the SEC East, entr...
Published: 10/08/18