SEC Football Q&A: Who Will Win the SEC East?

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Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs

This time last week, Florida seemed like it was destined to repeat as SEC East champion.

After all, the Gators traveled to Fayetteville, Arkansas, last weekend as road favorites and had control of their own destiny in the SEC East.

But after a 31-10 shellacking at the hands of the Razorbacks, that quest to repeat might be easier said than done.

Who will win the SEC East? That question and more are answered in this week’s edition of SEC Q&A.

I still think it’s Tennessee which, admittedly, was hard to write after the rash of injuries on Rocky Top, three straight conference losses in October and recent transfer of star running back Jalen Hurd.

But the Vols found a spark in running back John Kelly, who has rushed for 198 yards and a touchdown over the last two games. What’s more, they should get fellow running back Alvin Kamara and star cornerback Cam Sutton back from injuries soon.

The Vols (6-3, 2-3 SEC) have home games versus Kentucky and Missouri over the next two weeks before closing out the regular season on the road against intrastate rival Vanderbilt. They should be favored in all three of those games, and I’d be shocked if they don’t hold serve based on the injured players who could return and the more cohesive offense they showed in the 55-0 win over Tennessee Tech last week.

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Tennessee head coach Butch Jones

If that happens, then all head coach Butch Jones’ crew needs to win the division is Florida (6-2, 4-2 SEC) to lose one of its final two conference games (vs. South Carolina, at LSU).

That seems likely, considering they’ll be without star linebacker Jarrad Davis, starting quarterback Luke Del Rio, linebacker Alex Anzalone and center Cam Dillard this week, according to Andrew Spivey of Gator Country, and could be without wide receivers Chris Thompson and Tyrie Cleveland as well. 

The Gators opened as 16-point favorites over the Gamecocks at Odds Shark, but that line has dropped tremendously since the injury news broke. Senior Austin Appleby and freshmen Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks—both of whom are redshirting—will compete for first-team reps at quarterback this week.

“We’ll go with all three guys [in practice],” Gators head coach Jim McElwain said, according to Scott Carter of FloridaGators.com. “We’ll see as the week goes on where and how we’ll play those guys. It’s an opportunity for a lot of guys because of these injuries, and also an opportunity for some of the guys at their other positions to really step up.”

If South Carolina isn’t going to be challenging enough with a banged-up roster, Florida will likely have a similar issue next week at LSU—a game that was postponed and moved to Baton Rouge from Gainesville due to Hurricane Matthew.

Tennessee will win out (which will include a win over Kentucky), Florida will drop one of its next two and the Vols will play in Atlanta for the first time since 2007 due to the head-to-head tiebreaker they hold over the Gators.

No.

No, no, no, no and no.

In two years at the helm, McElwain has won a division title, contended for another and made the Florida program relevant for the first time since Will Muschamp took it to the Sugar Bowl following the 2012 season. It’s not his fault that his only option at quarterback for the second half of the season last year was Treon Harris, and his team is riddled with injuries while trying to repeat as division champs this year.

The offensive line is still young, he has two talented and young quarterbacks to choose from in 2017 in Franks and Trask if Del Rio isn’t the guy, and it’s not like the SEC East is a week-to-week grind like the West is.

If there’s no clear progress next year on offense and the defense takes a step back after several stars who were recruited by Muschamp move on, then, yes, we can start talking about just how much of a fit McElwain is for the job.

But even then, it should be far from a sure thing. It should simply be the start of the conversation.

With time, McElwain should be fine at Florida.

Time hasn’t run out yet. 

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Florida head coach Jim McElwain

Maybe I’m in the minority, but I don’t think it hurt his chances of keeping the job at all. Of course, had LSU won, his chances to keep it would have skyrocketed. 

Ed Orgeron warned LSU fans of this exact thing when he took over for Les Miles at the end of September.

“We do have a lot of ideas, but you can’t change the system in one week,” Orgeron said prior to his first game as the interim head coach. “The guys are doing the best that they can, tweaking things where we think we can be better. Eventually, we’ll get to the system that we want. You’ll see a couple of things different, but we have to keep the same terminology and keep the same system because that’s what our men know.”

The only time to make major changes is during the bye week, which came prior to the Alabama game this year. Sure, the Florida game was postponed, but not until Thursday. So LSU was essentially going through normal game-week prep that entire week. 

Is Alabama the team you want to toss out new ideas against? Not really.

LSU will have other conversations with candidates. Perhaps with Houston’s Tom Herman, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and/or Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

But it’ll also have one with Orgeron. How he sells his vision of the program once he has full control and can pick and choose from available assistants on the market matters much more than one game—albeit a rivalry game—against Alabama.

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LSU head coach Ed Orgeron

I doubt it.

That’s not to say that one wouldn’t be worthy. After all, the goal of the selection committee is to pick the four best teams, not the four best conference champions.

But a late loss that knocks out a West contender in Atlanta would not only signify that the West champ isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, but it would give the East—and the eventual conference champion in this hypothetical question—a bullet point on its resume that is incredibly valuable to the committee: a conference championship.

That’s the first factor listed on the selection committee’s protocol, which leaves any contender that doesn’t have a conference championship to boast with an uphill climb in the eyes of the playoff.

I’m a firm believer that, unless there are no other legitimate options, the playoff is for the four best conference champions (or Notre Dame), not the four best teams in the country. Even the mighty SEC would have a hard time overcoming that obstacle, especially if one of its best teams suffers a late loss to a team from the rather mediocre SEC East. 

         

All statistics via cfbstats unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information is courtesy of Scout. Odds provided by Odds Shark.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @BarrettSallee.