When the SEC split into two divisions in 1992, Steve Spurrier immediately made winning the Eastern the top goal for his Florida squads. It has remained the top goal in Gainesville as well as Athens, Knoxville, and now Columbia. All four of those programs have legitimate shots to get at Atlanta. Which team goes, and how far the other ones get, will go far in determining the immediate future of those programs.
Georgia is one year removed from there being serious questions about Mark Richt's ability to manage the program. Georgia, after a nightmare start, righted the ship and won the East. Anything less than a repeat trip to Atlanta must be considered a failure (outside of an injury rash) for Mark Richt. Georgia has a sweet heart schedule, a proven quarterback, and a strong defense (when they are all available).
Yet, questions still remain in Athens regarding the focus and discipline of Richt's squad. A failure to win the East will only reignite the concerns of 2010. A repeat trip to Atlanta will put Georgia unquestionably at the top of the East. Read on...
South Carolina broke through in 2010 to punch the program's first ticket to the SEC CG. 2011 saw 11 wins. Not winning the East will certainly sting, but short of a six or seven win season, a nine win effort is still a solid sign of progress for a program that has struggled for any kind of consistent success. A trip to Atlanta is a sure sign that Spurrier has elevated the Gamecock program to consistent contender status in the SEC. A trip to Atlanta nets Carolina perhaps not a permanent seat at the bog boy table, but certainly a nice lease with an option to buy.
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The real dog fight comes between the Vols and the Gators. This rivalry is still fairly young (the 2 teams played irregularly prior to playing every year since 1990) though for the better part of 15 years, the SEC East was decided by when these two teams tussled the third weekend in September. Florida and Tennessee are both headed by former Nick Saban disciples who are implementing "the process". There is room in the East for three top teams, but not four. It is this writer's opinion that only one of Dooley and Muschamp will be successful at their current school. One of these coaches will advance at the expense of the other.
Tennessee is coming of a miserable 1-7 2011 campaign in conference. Tennessee returns a quarterback that has legitimate NFL talent and a big time receiver. Tennessee's other big time receiver recently got booted and no doubt hurts the Vols from a talent and psyche perspective. An offensive line that had less than 10 combined starts during Dooley's rookie season, has matured into a unit with over 90 combined starts. An SEC East title would be huge for Dooley, though it is not expected in Knoxville like it is in Athens or Columbia. However, it will difficult for Dooley to survive another losing conference record.
Florida has considered a division title it's personal birth right. Spurrier won seven and Urban Meyer won three. Even Ron Zook tied for an East title, but lost the tie breaker (which sums up Ron Zook's time at Florida in one sentence). Will Muschamp will have the defense to compete for the East, but the offense is a question mark. Muschamp's wagon is hitched to true sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel. Word in Gainesville is that Muschamp will get at least three years to clean up Meyer's mess. Muschamp's ultimate success, or at least ticket to a contract extension lies in whether or not Brent Pease can get one of those players to produce. If he can't, Florida is looking at another three years of mediocrity dead in the eye.
2012 should be a fun year in the East and there is little doubt that the future of the division will be decided this year.
Bryant Roberts is a life long SEC fan, has 2 autographed pictures of Steve Spurrier, is addicted to BBQ, and a graduate of Presbyterian College. Follow him on twitter here.
Get more great South Carolina sports analysis over at Leftover Hot Dog.