In the SEC, East playing catch-up
There's no getting around it, no sugarcoating it, no pretending it didn't happen. A year ago, the six teams of the SEC East played as though they were a traveling exhibit on loan from the Southern Conference.
Those six teams, which shall remain anonymous, won a total of three games against the SEC West. That's a record of 3-16 if, unlike the SEC East, you're scoring at all.
That's after a decade in which the West barely led the East, 97-93. When the West zigged, the East zagged. In 2010, the East just sagged.
The 2010 East champion, No. 22 South Carolina, finished the season ranked behind five teams in the SEC West: No. 1 Auburn, No. 8 LSU, No. 10 Alabama, No. 12 Arkansas and No. 15 Mississippi State. If, as the old joke goes, the Alabama state motto is "Thank God for Mississippi," the SEC East motto is "Thank God for Ole Miss."
Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier, who won seven SEC East titles at Florida from 1992 to 2001, is under no delusions about how well his team played last season. South Carolina finished 9-5.
"We have a ways to go," Spurrier said at SEC media days. "When we tell our players we were seventh in defense and offense [in the SEC], that means we're mediocre. That's what we were. We've got a ways to go to really be a good team."
Georgia coach Mark Richt has the semidubious distinction of coaching the last SEC champion that failed to win the national championship. In 2005, the Dawgs went 10-3 and finished 10th. Asked whether he could explain the widening gap between the divisions, Richt said, "We just haven't beaten those guys. They played better."
Richt then violated the coaching code and laughed at the obviousness of his nonanswer.
Richt prefaced his analysis by acknowledging, "I don't know if people believe it as much as I believe it." Then he suggested that the gap is not as wide as it looks.
"There are so many close ballgames, so many games that are decided in the fourth quarter, the last series, whatever it might be," he said. "The teams that win those games are the ones that believe they are the best teams. They're the ones that gain the most momentum. There are reasons why the Western Division was winning those games. They've done a great job. But is there really that big of a discrepancy? I don't know."
Of course, many, many games aren't decided until the fourth quarter. Teams that lose games in the fourth quarter often lack depth, experience, maturity or any or all of the above. It may be as simple as that, that the SEC East teams got caught on the wrong end of the roster cycle.
But if you look for a reason that the SEC teams are deeper, more experienced or more mature, you also stray into a discussion of the coaching staffs that recruit and prepare the teams.
Three SEC West head coaches have won national championships in the past four years -- Les Miles of LSU, Nick Saban of Alabama and Gene Chizik of Auburn. Two of the other three -- Houston Nutt of Ole Miss and Bobby Petrino of Arkansas -- are veterans with long records of success. And Dan Mullen of Mississippi State, having won 14 games in his first two seasons, has proved he knows what he's doing.
By contrast, after Richt and Spurrier, the SEC East coaches are unknown and unproven. A year ago, Derek Dooley became the third Tennessee head coach in as many seasons. This season, that distinction -- third head coach in three years -- goes to James Franklin of Vanderbilt. Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, in Year 2, has earned only an incomplete. And Will Muschamp takes over at Florida this season for Urban Meyer, whose program ran into rough waters last season after five incredibly successful years.
The SEC West coaches are a model of stability and achievement. The SEC East coaches, after Spurrier and Richt, are not. Dooley believes that last season merely marked the outer range of the pendulum's arm.
"I don't have a theory other than to say I've been watching SEC football all of my life, as you guys know," said Dooley, the son of former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, "and everything goes in cycles. It always does. Programs have their great runs. Programs have their bumps along the way. I don't think that's ever going to change."
Richt diplomatically suggested that the difference between the divisions over the course of the season really doesn't matter. The West could lose only one conference game this season and still fall short of the league championship.
"Somebody is going to be the Eastern Division champ and is just going to play one team on one given Saturday," he said. "So anything can happen."
For the teams in the East, if anything can happen, that would be an improvement.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.