Division of labor

Will a one-sided SEC still dominate the playoff era?

Originally Published: October 29, 2013
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

TigersKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMissouri announced its East arrival with a win Between the Hedges. But can it hang on?

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STROLLING OFF THE field after a midseason scrimmage, Steve Spurrier points to a sign honoring South Carolina's 2010 SEC East title, its only one since the conference split into divisions in 1992.

"You know how long I've been around this league?" says the 21-year SEC vet, his tone that of a verbal wink. "I go back to when the East ran this whole deal. That was a while ago, wasn't it? We're getting closer, though."

That may be what the Head Ball Coach thinks, but it ain't what the numbers say. The East last won an SEC title in 2008, when Urban Meyer, Tim Tebow and Spurrier's old team, Florida, beat Alabama and went on to win the BCS championship. Since then, the conference's once-dominant division has become the little brother the West pushes around the yard after school. Through Week 9, the East had gone 106-32 (.768) in nonconference play over the past four-plus years, but it had a downright embarrassing 26-55 (.321) record against the West in that span. This December will mark the 22nd edition of the sport-changing SEC title game, which the East won 11 times in the first 17 years. But the West has won the past four -- and the past four BCS titles.

"I guess if there's some solace to be found, it's that everyone else loses to the SEC West too," says Georgia coach Mark Richt. "But it's still no fun." Among the six original East teams (Missouri didn't join until last year), the Dawgs have by far the best interdivision record since 2009, going 8-6 (.571), including losses in the last two SEC title games. Two years ago, they suffered a humiliating 42-10 beatdown to LSU. In 2012 they came within a few yards of defeating second-ranked Alabama. "These things run in cycles," Richt says. "And anyone who is paying attention knows there's been ground gained recently."

Of course, Richt spoke those words when his team was in the AP top 10, coming off a 44-41 win over Les Miles' West stalwart, LSU, on Sept. 28. But by the end of October, UGa had been battered by its own, pushed to the brink against a rebuilding Tennessee team before losing to Missouri at home and (gulp) Vanderbilt.

"Part of the problem is that we've asked Georgia to shoulder too much of a load," says Vandy coach James Franklin. "What makes the West so strong is how it looks top to bottom."

And how does the East look? Well, Mizzou was, perhaps unfairly, dismissed as a Big 12 castoff, lost amid the instant success of Texas A&M. But in just their second season, the Tigers are still the favorites to win the division, even after a double-OT upset against South Carolina on Oct. 26. If they do, it will mark only the second time that Florida, Georgia or Tennessee hasn't done so. As for once-lowly Vandy, the Commodores are on pace to earn a fourth bowl bid in six years, after three in the previous 118. Add in the Vols' recent momentum and the recruiting revolution at Kentucky (five 2014 ESPN 300 commits) and Richt may be right: There are the makings of an East revival.

But does the tide of parity truly raise all boats, or does everyone sink to the middle? Just look to the West. If not for back-to-back late-season upsets in other leagues last fall, Bama doesn't play in the BCS title game after being upset by the Aggies. On Oct. 19 this season, unranked Ole Miss halted LSU's run at a West crown, and Auburn did the same to A&M.

Ultimately, both divisions are cannibalizing themselves, which could end up closing the door on the SEC's dominance as college football enters the four-team playoff era. Then it will be up to a committee, not computers, to decide whether a one- or two-loss SEC team is more worthy than a one-loss, or even unbeaten, team from a weaker conference.

"One of the biggest wait-and-see elements is whether or not the committee will stick to its guns about schedule strength," says ESPN's BCS expert Brad Edwards. "You could make a strong case that it was more difficult for Georgia to go 11-2 or A&M and South Carolina to go 10-2 last season than it was for Ohio State to go undefeated. Now, will the committee leave out an undefeated team from a major conference for a one- or two-loss SEC team? I doubt it."

For now, the East is taking its chances.

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Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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