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Who is really the hope in the East?

10/4/2011

If the past two weeks of the college football season are any indication, the SEC West is king, and the rest of us are just trying to keep up.

Esteemed ESPN colleague Pat Forde made that statement loud and clear Saturday after Alabama crushed Florida inside the Swamp.

Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and even Auburn all have our attention. Alabama and LSU are clearly the leaders of the West, and even the country, but those other two aren't going to just roll over and watch the Tide and those Tigers decide the West without a fight.

Still, we've got our eggs in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Baton Rouge, La., and all of them will be transported to the winning school's campus after the Nov. 5 mega showdown. The winner of that game controls that side of the division and instantly becomes the favorite to win not just the SEC but the national championship.

So we've already sealed the SEC's fate. Nov. 5 is basically a quarterfinal for the national championship. Case closed. Nothing left to see in the SEC after that weekend.

But there has to be some sort of Eastern hope, right? Even with as top-heavy as the West is, someone on the other side of the conference (I know it's hard to believe there are two divisions in the league this season) has to have the ability to win the SEC title game, right?

Well, as of right now, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone willing to bet the farm on an East team winning in Atlanta at the end of the season.

Heading into the sixth week of the season, we have four realistic contenders in the East -- Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. Florida and South Carolina are both 0-1 against the West, with both losses coming at home.

Georgia gets away with not playing Alabama, LSU or Arkansas this season, while Tennessee is yet to run its West gauntlet.

So what are the realistic chances for each of these teams? Well, let's check each school out:

FLORIDA

  • What's left: The Gators still have to go on the road to LSU (gulp) and Auburn before heading to Jacksonville, Fla., for the Georgia game. SEC play ends with a game at South Carolina.

  • Strengths: Outside of the Alabama game, Florida had one of the most exciting running games led by Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. Florida's defense is also much more aggressive this year and the front seven is a major reason for that.

  • Weaknesses: Well, Alabama proved that this team needs a bigger back. Demps and Rainey are great athletes, but bigger, faster front sevens will eat them up. Now, senior starting quarterback John Brantley is injured for who knows how long, meaning true freshman Jeff Driskel will run the offense. That's right, a true freshman quarterback in the SEC.

  • Chances: Before Brantley went down, Florida didn't seem like a bad choice in the East. The offense was drastically better than last year's and the defense was starting to look much better. But winning in Atlanta? Probably not this year. Last Saturday proved that this Florida team just isn't ready for the likes of Alabama or LSU. Throw in a frosh quarterback and Atlanta might be out of reach all together.

GEORGIA

  • What's left: After trips to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Jacksonville, Georgia' only other test is a home game against Auburn.

  • Strengths: Aaron Murray remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league and freshman running back Isaiah Crowell has really come into his own in the past few weeks. Defensively, we're starting to see this unit play to its potential.

  • Weaknesses: The offensive line is a still an injury away from falling apart and another receiving threat has to help out Malcolm Mitchell and Orson Charles. There are still a lot of frustrating mistakes made on the offensive side of the ball.

  • Chances: After that 0-2 start, people were ready to get in on the bidding war for Mark Richt's home. Now, the Bulldogs are a win away from possibly being the favorite in the East. Also, the remaining schedule is the easiest in the league. None of the top three teams in the West remain and South Carolina is out of the way. Georgia is 0-1 in the Georgia Dome this season and that was against a team not of the same caliber as Alabama or LSU.

SOUTH CAROLINA

  • What's left: The Gamecocks have to spend three weeks on the road, including a game at Arkansas before finishing the SEC season at home against Florida.

  • Strengths: The defense has finally started to play like we thought it would. That defensive line is ferocious and the secondary hasn't given up the big play through the air in the past two weeks. Running back Marcus Lattimore is South Carolina's best player and he has the luxury of a very talented line.

  • Weaknesses: Quarterback. Quarterback. Quarterback. Fortunately for the Gamecocks, Stephen Garcia is out and Connor Shaw is in. However, Shaw hasn't looked great and you have to wonder how good he can be after sitting behind Garcia for so long. Also, no one is really helping Lattimore out. Alshon Jeffery is garnering double-teams and the secondary receivers haven't carried their weight.

  • Chances: The team that entered as the East favorite has fallen out of favor with everyone. The offense is sputtering along and you have to wonder about the mental makeup of this team. There is too much talent for this team to be where it is. If Shaw can lead this team, the Gamecocks could charge back, but this team just isn't as threatening anymore.

TENNESSEE

  • What's left: Tennessee's next four SEC games are against Georgia, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas. Good luck.

  • Strengths: The passing game has been extremely fun to watch. Tyler Bray has had the arm strength to carry this offense so far. Justin Hunter is gone, but Da'Rick Rogers will step right into his role as Bray's top target. The defense is young, but it's making improvements.

  • Weaknesses: The running game has to improve. If you can't run the ball in the SEC you're sunk, and Tennessee can't do that consistently. Also, Hunter being gone will become a problem against better defenses. Someone has to step up alongside Rogers for this passing game to continue its run in the SEC. This defense might be improving, but I'm not sure its stout enough to stop a power running game.

  • Chances: Tennessee has been overlooked until now. That's mainly because of other team's shortcomings, but if Tennessee beats Georgia the Vols will be riding high. That state of euphoria could be quickly demolished with the tough SEC stretch waiting. Extremely difficult is an understatement when describing the rest of Tennessee's season.

So after looking at each team a little more, we still haven't found a definitive favorite in the East, meaning we don't really know who could upset the West. Maybe this will be a fruitless journey. Maybe we should just realize how strong the West is and how different the talent levels are right now.

But, hey, stranger things have happened ...